Stuff I’ve Been Reading: August 2007

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: August 2007

Nick Hornby
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter


  • The Ha-Ha—Jennifer Dawson
  • Poppy Shakespeare—Clare Allan
  • Yo Blair!—Geoffrey Wheatcroft
  • Salmon Fishing in the Yemen—Paul Torday
  • The Myth of the Blitz—Angus Calder
  • This Book Will Save Your Life—A. M. Homes


  • Across the Great Divide: The Band and America—Barney Hoskyns
  • Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall—Anna Funder
  • Yo Blair!—Geoffrey Wheatcroft
  • The Ha-Ha—Jennifer Dawson
  • Coming Through Slaughter—Michael Ondaatje
  • Poppy Shakespeare—Clare Allan

On the face of it, the Stasi and the Band had very little in common. Closer examination, however, reveals the East German secret police force and the brilliant genre-fusing Canadian rock group to be surprisingly…. Oh, forget it. I don’t have to do that stuff in this column—or at least, if I do, nobody has ever told me. It goes without saying that the two wires that led me to the books by Barney Hoskyns and Anna Funder came from different sockets in the soul, and power completely different, you know, electrical/spiritual devices: Stasiland and Across the Great Divide are as different as a hair dryer and a Hoover. Yes. That’s it. I’m the first to admit it when my metaphors don’t work, but I’m pretty sure I pulled that one off. (I wish I’d hated them both. Then I could have said that one sucks, and the other blows. Regrettably, they were pretty good.)

The journey/length of cable that led me to the Hoskyns book began a couple of years ago, when I was just about to walk out of a music club. We’d gone to see the support act, but the headliners had this amazing young guitar player called James Walbourne, an unearthly cross between James Burton, Peter Green, and Richard Thompson; Walbourne’s fluid, tasteful, beautiful solos drop the jaw, stop the heart, and smack the gob, all at the same time. We still walked out of the club, because we really wanted a pizza, and pizza always beats art, but I was determined to track him down and make sure that I hadn’t been imagining it all. I’ve seen him a few times since—when he’s not playing with the Pernice Brothers or Son Volt or Tift Merritt, he’s been appearing with his own band in a pub not far from me—and he’s recently taken to playing a cover of the Band’s “Ain’t No More Cane,” a song off The Basement Tapes. So then I had a fit on the Band—I have pretty much listened to every single track on the box set that came out last year—and then I noticed that I had an unread 1993 biography on my shelves. Before long I was being taken from Stratford, Ontario, to the Mississippi Delta and on to Los Angeles.

In one crucial way, writing about the Band is difficult: Greil Marcus got there first, in his book Mystery Train, and Marcus’s essay is still the best piece of rock criticism I have ever read. (There are thirty-seven separate index entries for Greil Marcus in Across the Great Divide, and yet Hoskyns still feels it necessary to get sniffy about a couple of factual errors that Marcus made in his writings. You’d have hoped that Hoskyns could have been more forgiving, seeing as how his own book would have been a lot shorter without Marcus’s help.) And yet there’s something irresistible about the story too, because it’s the story of white rock and roll. Here’s Robbie Robertson, aged sixteen, getting on a train and heading down to the American South from Canada, to play R&B covers with Ronnie Hawkins’s Hawks; Robertson’s pilgrimage from white Sleepytown to the birthplace of the blues was the one that millions of teenage guitarists made, in their heads at least, at the beginning of the sixties. (It may even still go on. I would imagine that James Walbourne has made exactly the same trip, and maybe not even symbolically. He lives in Muswell Hill, North London, which is sort of like Canada.) And here’s Robbie Robertson, in his early thirties, bombed out of his head on cocaine, living with Martin Scorsese in a house on Mulholland Drive that had blackout covers on the windows so that the residents no longer knew or cared whether it was day or night. That, in a nutshell, is what happened to our music between the early sixties and the mid-seventies: the geographical shift, the decadence, and the obliviousness to the outside world. Thank heaven for punk. And Abba.

I may be the only person in the world who has just read Across the Great Divide after seeing James Walbourne play “Ain’t No More Cane.” I can’t imagine I’m the only person in the world who has read Stasiland after seeing The Lives of Others in my local cinema. I left that film wanting to know more about the chilling weirdness of life in the old GDR, and Anna Funder’s brilliant book is full of stories that not only leave you open-mouthed at the sheer lunatic ambition of the totalitarian experiment but break your heart as well, just as they should do.

Funder reviewed The Lives of Others in a recent issue of Sight and Sound, and argued persuasively that, while it was a great film on its own terms, it bore little resemblance to life as it was lived behind the Berlin Wall: the movie was too bloodless, and there never was and never could be such a thing as an heroic Stasi officer. Her book is personal and anecdotal: she tells the stories she has come across, some of which she discovers when she places an advertisement in a local newspaper in an attempt to contact former Stasi members. This approach is perfect, because you don’t need anything other than personal anecdote to tell a kind of truth about the Stasi, because they knew everybody—that was the point of them. So who wouldn’t have a story to tell?

I’d be doing you and the book a disservice if I recommended it to you simply as an outstanding work of contemporary history. I’m guessing that a fair few of you are writers, and one of the unexpected strengths of this book is the implausibility of the narratives Fun-der unearths—narratives that nevertheless, and contrary to all perceived wisdom, seem to resonate, and illuminate, and illustrate even greater truths. Frau Paul gives birth to a desperately sick baby just as the Wall is being built; one morning she wakes up to find that it has separated her from the only hospital that can help her son. Doctors smuggle him, without her permission, over the Wall. He lives in the hospital for the next five years.

Frau Paul is given only agonizingly sporadic permission to visit her child, and she and her husband decide, perhaps not unnaturally, that they will try to escape to West Berlin. Their plans are discovered; Frau Paul refuses to cut a deal that will endanger a young man in the West who has been helping her and others. She is sent to prison. Her son is nearly five years old when he is finally allowed home. (It’s interesting, incidentally, that the central characters in The Lives of Others are all childless. I suspect children tend to limit the range of moral choices.)

There are, it seems, stories like this on every street corner of the old East Germany, insane stories, stories that defy belief and yet unfold with a terrible logic, and Anna Funder’s weary credulity, and her unerring eye for the unimaginable varieties of irony to be found in a world like this, make her the perfect narrator. Believe it or not, there are some funny bits.

It was our prime minister’s tenth anniversary recently, and by the time you get to read this he’ll be gone anyway, so it seemed appropriate to give him a little bit of consideration. Not much—Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s polemic is only 120-odd pages long—but the time it took me to read it was precisely the sort of time I wanted to give him. The title refers to your president’s form of address during the disastrously revealing conversation Blair had with Bush during the G8 meeting in Russia last year, when an open mic revealed the true nature of their relationship to be something closer to the one between Jeeves and Bertie Wooster than that between two world leaders, although obviously Jeeves was less servile.

Wheatcroft overstates his case a little: however much you hate Blair, it’s hard to hear that his soppy Third Way contains undertones of the Third Reich. But when you see the crimes and misdemeanors piled up like this, it’s hard to see how we managed to avoid foreign invaders intent on regime change. It’s not just Iraq and the special relationship with the U.S., although it’s quite clear now that this is how Blair will be remembered. It’s the sucking up to the rich and powerful (Berlusconi, Cliff Richard), the freeloading, the pathetic little lies, the broken promises, the apparent absence of any sort of conviction, beyond the conviction of his own rectitude. This book introduced me to a very handy word, antinomian. (Oh, come on. Give me a break. I can’t know everything. Where would I put it? And think of all the other hundreds of words I’ve used in this column.) You are antinomian, apparently, when your own sense of self-righteousness allows you to do anything, however mean or vicious or morally bankrupt that thing might appear to be. It’s been a while, one suspects, since this word could be legitimately applied to a world leader; even Nixon and Kissinger may have slept uneasily for a couple of nights after they bombed Cambodia.

Here is the best definition of a good novel I have come across yet—indeed, I suspect that it might be the only definition of a good novel worth a damn. A good novel is one that sends you scurrying to the computer to look at pictures of prostitutes on the internet. And as Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter is the only novel I have ever read that has made me do this, I can confidently assert that Coming Through Slaughter is, ipso facto, the best novel I have ever read.

Regrettably, the pictures in question are by E. J. Bellocq, a central character in Coming Through Slaughter, which means that they have a great deal of redeeming cultural import (Susan Sontag wrote a brilliant introduction to a published collection of his work); when I read a novel that allows me to ransack the internet for prostitute pictures willy-nilly, this column will be awarding a prize worth more than any genius grant.

I had been having some trouble with the whole idea of fiction, trouble that seemed in some way connected with my recent landmark birthday; it seemed to me that a lot of novels were, to be blunt, made up, and could teach me little about the world. Life suddenly seemed so short that I needed facts, and I needed them fast. I picked up Coming Through Slaughter in the spirit of kill or cure, and I was cured—I have only read fiction since I finished it. It’s sort of ironic, then, that Ondaatje’s novel ended up introducing me to an important photographer anyway. (Oh, come on. Give me a break, I can’t know everyone. Where would I put them? And think of all the other…No, you’re right. You can only use this argument seven or eight hundred times before it begins to sound pathetic.)

Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje’s first novel, is an extraordinary, and extraordinarily beautiful, piece of mythmaking, a short, rich imagining of the life of Buddy Bolden, a New Orleans cornettist widely regarded as one of the founders of jazz. It seems to me as though anybody who has doubts about the value of fiction should read this book: it leaves you with the sort of ache that nonfiction can never provide, and provides an intensity and glow that, it seems to me, are the unique product of a singular imagination laying its gauze over the brilliant light of the world. Ondaatje writes about the music wonderfully well: you couldn’t ask for anyone better to describe the sound of the crack that must happen when one form is being bent too far out of shape in an attempt to form something else. And Bolden’s madness—he is supposed to have collapsed during a carnival procession—provides endless interesting corridors for Ondaatje to wander around in. I am still thinking about this novel, remembering the heat it threw off, weeks after finishing it.

I am a literal-minded and simple soul, so since then I have read nothing but novels about mentally ill people. If it worked once, I reasoned, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work every time, and I was right. I have now taken a broad enough sample, and I can reveal that nobody has ever written a bad novel about insanity.

This is strange, if you think about it. You’d think the subject would give all sorts of people disastrous scope to write indulgent, carefully fucked-up prose asking us to think about whether the insane are actually more sane than the rest of us. Both Jennifer Dawson’s The Ha-Ha and Clare Allan’s Poppy Shakespeare miraculously avoid this horrible cliché; to crudify both of these terrific books, the line they take is that people suffering from a mental illness are more mentally ill than people who are not suffering from a mental illness. This, given the general use the subject is put to in popular culture, is some-thing of a relief.

The Ha-Ha is a lost novel from 1961, recently championed by the English writer Susan Hill on her blog; Poppy Shakespeare was first published last year. Both are first novels, both are set in institutions, and both are narrated by young females attached to these institutions. The Ha-Ha is quieter, more conventional, partly because Jennifer Dawson’s heroine is an Oxford graduate who speaks in a careful, if necessarily neurotic, Oxford prose. Clare Allan’s N is a brilliant fictional creation whose subordinate clauses tumble over each other in an undisciplined, glorious rush of North London energy. I liked them both, but I loved Poppy Shakespeare. It’s not often you finish a first novel by a writer and you are seized by the need to read her second immediately. Of course, by the time her second comes out, I’ll have for-gotten all about the first. But today, the will is there.

Anyway, hurrah for fiction! Down with facts! Facts are for the dull, and the straight, and the old! You’ll never find out anything about the world through facts! I might, however, have a look at this Brian Clough biography I’ve just been sent. Football doesn’t count, does it?

More Reads

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: June/July 2007

Nick Hornby

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: May 2007

Nick Hornby

Sedaratives: John Hodgman

John Hodgman