Bang Your Gong

Bang Your Gong

I was haunting a local 2nd hand bookshop the other day for books in English – living in the wilds of the Netherlands means it isn’t always easy to find such delicacies – when I came across an old copy of the Missouri Review. I’ve never seen this before, and being a keen devourer of American literature of all sorts, I snapped it up.

Later, on the bus back home, I wolfed down a great interview by Kay Bonetti with Larry Brown (see: who wrote several novels including Big Bad Love. One of her questions was about where his love of books and reading came from. Given all obituaries recently written about the death of the book, I wondered how this question applies to us in the here and now of digital salvation. For example, one of the pleasures of reading for me is holding the book, as is the cover art – so texture and visual impact are important. And there’s nothing that can replace the experience of soft pages smacking you in the face when you drift into the land of the Zzzs late at night. If nothing else, a real book is going to hurt less than any hard-edged digital device. Those things will scar you!

The love of reading is a long root that twists down inside of my head and reaches back to my infancy when my mother taught me to read. This opened up a never-ending supply of brave new worlds and journeys to the centre of someone else’s imagination. Larry’s came from seeing his mother reading: my earliest mother-memory was turning one of our armchairs into a horse that was ridden to death during weekly episodes of the Lone Ranger. This was the start of a life-long love affair with all things Western which rolls on to this day like the ghost of a Wells Fargo stagecoach.

But what’s tour experience? What got you reading and keeps you there?

My love of the Western genre (or Cowboys and Indians as we used to call it as we tore around the neighbourhood killing our friends, falling dramatically to the floor, a smoking chrome gun slipping slowly from our dead young fingers…) expanded into comics of all sorts and so a fascination with anything foreign was born. (Actually, not so much foreign – and let’s face it, at that stage in life most of the English language was new to me, I’d never even heard real foreign languages like Spanish or French – so foreign here means American.)

This fascination really took off when I discovered school libraries: vast treasure troves of worlds tucked away on mountains of shelves. Pathways to worlds that existed now, and to ones that existed 100, 200 or a 1000 years ago! And there was biology and dinosaurs and strange multi-syllabic words such as Erithacus rubecula or Scolopax rusticola that underlined the coloured plates in books almost as big as the wildlife they contained. Who wouldn’t get addicted to such limitless possibilities? My brain grew fatter and fatter as it expanded to take in the universe of everything that did or could exist.

So books are information incubators that allow us to escape from somewhere or to somewhere. School dominates my reading history: either it was trying to force us to read things we didn’t want to, or – and possibly even worse – was that they wanted to dissect the poor bloody story right there on the teacher’s desk. They’d rip it apart and pull its guts out and hold them up so we could see how this beautiful fabrication of words and images, so carefully and delicately sculptured by its parent, was nothing more than a series of verbs and adverbs and nouns and pronouns and… oh god, that is so tedious! I wasn’t bothered then and I’m not bothered now by my inability to give a damn about learning all the names of the nuts and bolts of our language: I only care about the content and being carried away.

School also had a book sale and delivery system where you’d choose one (poor children) or two (not poor children) from a list, then save like crazy before your chosen gate to heaven appeared few weeks later. I loved this as it gave me some control over my life, it was something I could do without those who owned my soul knowing. It was a very secret and private pleasure, something I did for myself without their interference or say-so. Through that system I read a lot of books about the war (i.e., heroic deeds and escape stories – when you live in a children’s home escape is always on your mind, it is a thing whispered about quietly in cold dormitories in the dead of night. Though when you actually do leg it, and you find yourself sitting up a tree at half-past midnight keeping yourself warm and fed with nothing more than your school bag and a few apples, you very soon realise that neither success or glamour are guaranteed parts of the adventure.)

Eventually I shifted away from the heroic past towards more recent times: I was 14 or 15 when I read Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – a story that describes a single day in a political prisoner’s life in Soviet labour camp. This shock to the system certainly put my own position into perspective (and moved my mind and soul very firmly into the political arena). It brought the large, inhospitable and very grey monolith of the USSR to life in a brutal and unforgiving way. Reading Solzhenitsyn proved helpful later when dealing with middleclass socialists whose dreams were full of proletariat equality seasoned with linen trousers and silk blouses and the lure of a career in management.

From there it was but a short step to The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and another type of escapism. I’d have to admit that, while loving all these books, I’m not much of a fan of this sort of thing. I prefer my escapism to be about the possibilities that exist in the real world (and in space). My view on this has become more biased and polarised as I’ve encountered more and more New Age, pick-n-mix spiritual escapism bollocks. I mean, why spoil a perfectly good, if somewhat fantastic story, by pretending that it, or something very like it, might be real? And not only real, but if we could only replace capitalism with something like it, then gosh wouldn’t we all be bright and shiny? Wishful thinking on this scale is tedious and nowhere is this more apparent (in Europe at least) than in the beautiful, though ghastly, village of Glastonbury (twinned with Royston Vasey), in the UK. Yes, that’s the same town that hosts the world’s largest music festival.

To say that it’s full of weird people doesn’t give you any idea of just how far out it is. I once interviewed one of its inhabitants (as opposed to a local) who was simultaneously a 3000 year old monk, a witness to Jesus’s betrayal in Gethsemane and an alien abductee (multiple times, naturally). Apart from that he was perfectly normal. Another time I listened to some delusional fool buttonholing a bookshop cashier with a long and drug-inspired story about a witch leaving an invisible goblin in the road so that he couldn’t get home. In the end the cashier slipped out one of the genuine Lancelot swords they had on special offer and cut her own head off. It was the happiest she’d looked in hours.

Nowadays I also read to discover. I’m still fascinated by new worlds and ones I’ll never get to see, be they on this planet or the other side of Mars. What’s become more important is crawling through the creative process and seeing how it slots together. As my own fiction writing progresses I’m aware of my own inadequacies (especially as I want to live the dream and get published) so look to the masters to see if I can see their slights of dramatic hand, to get all archaeological on the twists and turns of their imaginations. For example, how does the great Cormac McCarthy get away with so little punctuation and using six ‘ands’ in one sentence? (Border Trilogy) How can he conjure up in my mind somewhere that I’ve never seen that it is so rich in detail and feeling and mood, that I feel like I’m on the horse riding down Mexico way?
And how about British writer Laurie Lee? His autobiographical Cider With Rosie is so thick with stories that it’s hard to believe he could remember so much. And if he did, then he’d have no room left in his brain for the equally detailed As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning would he? But when you read either of these writers, you’re not bogging down in the mulch of their verbal fermentations or tripping over the sticks of their words; no, you’re sliding along with the flow, transported. And it’s these sorts of skills that aspiring writers like me have to unearth.

Finally, one of the main advantages books (and radio plays) have over film is they allow you to picture the story in your own way, which will never be the same as anyone else’s. Your version is so full of subconscious detail that you can never describe it, even if you took notes. You are part of the process. It’s not being delivered to you like a celluloid pizza, dripping with other people’s ideas and preconceptions. No, the trip is entirely yours: reading is personal. Perhaps that’s why books, in whatever form, continue and will always be popular, they feed our minds, our imaginations, and our souls.