The training for my 24 hour ride from Newcastle to London (20-21 August)… continues. I can’t say whether it’s going well, or going badly – but I’m going to err on the side of caution and suggest that perhaps I’m not quite as far advanced as I should be.
At last New Year’s Party I was chatting with a friend, Simon (the mud-covered chap below), and he told me that he intended to cycle from Newcastle to London in 24 hours to celebrate his birthday. If anyone could do it he could, but no – I wasn’t interested in his kind invitation to join him. I mean, I’d be delighted to do something like a 10K run with him or, perhaps, cycle the Devon coast to coast – but Newcastle to London? Seriously? Do I look like a bloody idiot? I know my limitations!
These minutes are dedicated to Illona. Why? It’s simple really. She’s had, apparently, a good month at work – and she insisted on buying drinks for me. It’s true. I wasn’t allowed to buy a single drink. I tried, but on each occasion she insisted that it was her turn. I’m easy to please – so these minutes are brought to you by Illona. I’m getting visions of those ads at the beginning of dramas on ITV. You know, Drunken Fart Breweries Ltd sponsors Inspector Morse. So if Illona is the sponsor this month, Sarah is the drama. Well, her book is the drama anyway. I, of course, am the director – and I’m rapidly losing the plot.
The first scene opens in a smoky pub in the City of London. It’s hidden down a snicket, and the doorstep is so worn down with age that it’s been covered with an iron grille so that the litigious punters don’t trip. Two upstairs bars are warmed by open fires, and the air is acrid with the coal that they burn, it’s cosy and the customers are glad to get in from the shivering cold – it’s beginning to snow, and by morning the city will be covered in a thick, pristine blanket. Children are excitedly running in the streets, shouting, playing and anticipating uncovering the frozen dead bodies of peasants as they make snowmen in the morning. The aged door of the pub creaks open protestingly admitting a flurry of snow. A tall man stands for a moment on the threshold, lit only by the guttering flames of the streetlights outside, and then strides inside. A buxom barmaid swoons as the hero (that’s me, by the way) steps up to the bar. The hero shrugs, turns, and peers myopically into the gloom. A woman stands in front of him – she looks familiar. “The name’s Harris”, he says. “Pascal Harris”.
“Indeed”, she says coolly. “We’ve met. I’m Illona, you dipstick”. He sweats slightly as several hundred cool points disappear up the chimney. She softens. “Shall we?” she says, and one after the other they disappear down the perilously steep steps into the cellar.
The cellar bars are cooler, but the air is clean and it doesn’t sting the back of the throat. The selection of beers is limited, but at least the ale is real and cheap. The cellars are a labyrinth of nooks and crannies, some are large and well lit and reveal raucous groups of revellers. Others are small, lit only by a single candle and conceal lovers hiding from their spouses. After several minutes of fruitless hunting they discover the Minotaur, who is terrifying a poor maiden. “I don’t know about you”, said Pascal, “but I’m bored with this story already. I’ve run out of ideas, and if I’m not careful I’ll just end up going for cheap laughs by abusing the assembled company. I know you said I just make the minutes up, but this is ridiculous. Let’s just cut to the chase.”
Some time later, the company has grown – and the atmosphere is electric with intellectual discourse. Sarah is discussing the book that she chose for us all to read. It’s Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, and she thought it was a lot better written than these minutes. She liked it a lot, but thinks that she may be in a minority. We’ll see. Please, all of you, be quiet and don’t try to anticipate what will happen next. She liked its twistedness, it was twisted like a sandwich bag. It didn’t just pander to the usual tricks of backwards writing, the regurgitating of food and the ingestion of excreta, it examined behavioural traits such as the girl giving flowers to the boy and the birds bringing breadcrumbs to the old lady. She enjoyed seeing the emptiness of people’s threats. Sarah couldn’t understand why the consciousness narrating the story had its timeline running in the opposite direction to that of the story itself. None of us could enlighten her. It was, for her, a quick read.
James looked at the blurb and thought “What a barrel of laughs that’ll be”, and first impressions did nothing to soften his initial opinion. As he read on though he came to be absorbed by the book, and even enjoy it – although he isn’t certain if ‘enjoy’ is the right word. He liked the powerlessness of the consciousness and its lack of understanding. It wasn’t easy, but it was intriguing, to read conversations backwards. At this point he also felt that it was his duty to point out that I can’t spell. He may very well be right – but I’m amazed by his telepathy since he couldn’t actually see my notes.
Illona, the book club sponsor, appreciated how cleverly the book was written. She didn’t enjoy it though, and she certainly didn’t appreciate having to read each paragraph twice in order to understand them. It may have been a short book, but if each paragraph needs a double reading it’ll still take a while to get through. She said that she wouldn’t have finished it if it hadn’t been a book club book. The dashing hero pointed out that she still didn’t have to read it if it was that bad. She could have given up, and perhaps made up a review. There is a precedent. Needless to say, she won’t be reading any more of Martin Amis’s books. She did like the cover though.
Talking of liking the cover and setting a precedent, Vic thought that the beginning was excellent. Actually, she thought that the middle was excellent too. It tailed off towards the end – the ending was only great. She wouldn’t read it – or, in fact, anything else – again though. Whilst we’re on the subject of merciless piss taking of a non-present member, Vic also read the drinks menu – and then chose to have coke, Spot Goes to the Dentist and Spot Gets Put Down. So a literary month then.
Sangeeta thought that it was an interesting idea, but she adds that the concept doesn’t work. It was boring, and the backward conversations irritated her. She appreciates that the book is original, but it’s also pointless and has more holes than Brighton pier. Supposed to be a masterpiece? Perhaps. But it’s weird and that doesn’t say much for Martin Amis’s other books, although she does suspect that Martin Amis may be quite clever. The character development was poor, and the pace of the story was too rapid. If it was shortlisted for a Booker, it must have been a very long shortlist – and the only positive thing she can think of saying is that she’s glad it didn’t win. She didn’t like the cover either.
Paul suspects that the pace was rapid to represent the life Tod led flashing before his eyes as he dies. Or as he’s born. It could be either in this case and I’m confused. You can have on-life haventa forewhen presooning returningwenta retrodead. Dr. Dan Streetmentioner should be able to help you out here. Paul felt that he was fortunate enough to have read it before, and he really enjoyed it then too. It was more confusing the first time when he didn’t know what it was about. It’s a very Martin Amis book – the clue is on the cover. Martin Amis can either be very good or very tortuous, but in this case Paul thinks he’s on form and far better than Kurt Vonnegut who wrote Timequake – which is ‘similar, but shit’. Paul claims that the timeline of the book is somewhat fractured. Occasionally it seems to get confused and start going forwards instead of continuing its relentless backwards march.
I thought that it was a brave book. It tackled the issue of Nazi experimentation in such a way as to make it look like a heroic deed. That is, in itself, quite a feat. It was a theme that, I felt, could have been explored in greater depth but such as it was it was explored well by Tod’s confused soul. I didn’t find it difficult to read and I was gripped from page one, I thought it was too short though. Having just returned from New York, I found it interesting to try and fit Tod’s experience as an immigrant with what I learned at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Thinking about it, I think that Martin Amis must have done some research there. At this point the piss was carelessly and heartlessly taken, it was suggested that I only praised the book so fulsomely because it was Sarah’s choice. I assured everyone that this wasn’t the case, and that Sarah seldom listens to a word I say. Sarah assured me at this point that I was talking shit, and that she hangs off every golden word that trips from my lips.
Claire was absent on account of illness. She wasn’t too good over the weekend and spent most of yesterday under the duvet feeling rather sorry for herself. She did read Time’s Arrow and thought it was complete rubbish. She isn’t a fan of Martin Amis anyway, having read a few of his other books and finding all of them appalling, Money was particularly bad (I think that even Paul agrees here). Martin Amis is obviously a very intelligent man, but she just doesn’t like his books – they’re awful from start to finish!
Sarah also read High Five by Janet Evanovich. It’s a regrettable, trashy, sub-chick-lit book about a bounty hunter that she got off an American when she was on holiday in China. The bounty hunter’s name is Stephanie Plum, and she gets to track down and fight a dwarf. She’s hampered by aim so bad that she manages to miss a door. She probably couldn’t find it on the map.
The most galling thing about High Five is that she swapped P.S. I Love You by Cecilia Ahern for it, which was sweet. She really enjoyed it and it reminded her of someone who died similarly. Five People You Meet In Heaven, by Mitch Albom, was a good idea but badly written. It’s about someone who dies, and before he’s allowed into heaven he has to meet five people who’ll teach him a little bit about his life. Sarah enjoyed it. Paul hated it.
Sarah hated Sophies World by Jostein Gaarder. I’m going to interject here and say that Sophies World is a fantastic beginners guide to philosophy, and I’ve read it three times. I’m sure I’ll read it again too. I’m in the minority though. Everyone else thought it was crap. Apparently, they expected a storybook – and it wasn’t story enough.
Watching the English by Kate Fox is dry, it’s like a dissertation by a professional stalker. Finally (phew), Frankie & Stankie by Barbara Trapido is very much recommended. But Sarah hasn’t finished reading it yet.
James read the autographed version of Viv Richard’s Autobiography. It’s very good, and (of course) it’s about everyone’s favourite member of The Young Ones. Possibly. You know, the punk. Oh, no. It isn’t about him after all. That was wishful thinking. It’s actually about one of the greatest cricketers ever to stride the earth.
James also read Vatican Cellars by André Gide. It’s ridiculously complicated, but a tremendous read. James first read it because he had to, he likes it even better now that he doesn’t have to. Finally, James is proud to announce that he knows what a ‘chav’ is, and that he understands ‘bling’. He accompanied this announcement with much waving of hands in an Ali G styley. Bo. He should know what a chav is, of course. He does live in Croydon.
Illona read Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. It’s very good, rather difficult to get into, but very good none the less. It’s a detective story which addresses class issues. It’s narrated by the butler, who probably also did it, so it’s good to see that he’s getting his alibi in. Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, is strange. The film version isn’t very good, and it has a priest in it who’s a git. Maybe. It might be that the book has a gitty priest in. It’s based in France. Sorry, I’m making a dogs breakfast of this. I’m confused. My notes are erratic, and my imagination isn’t up the task of pretending to understand what Chocolat is all about. Sangeeta says that it isn’t worth reading though, so I’ll go along with that.
Finally, Illona also read Cosmo. She wouldn’t tell us what the sex issue of the month was, but James reckons it’s orgasms. He also reckons that using a cheesegrater has a good effect.
Sangeeta finished reading Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler. Apparently the woman didn’t have an affair after all. Ooh. Like a soap opera, this, intit? It was the man who cheated. He was horrible and penny pinching, and the woman was downtrodden and died unhappy with her dreams shattered. If you can’t remember what was said about it last month, let me enlighten you.
It was moving, emotional and girly. Yet again, one of us has read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon. Once again, it’s received the thumbs up. Illona spotted a commuter reading it on the train, and was so overcome by excitement that she tried to spoil the ending for him. Angels & Demons by Dan Brown kept Sangeeta entertained. It’s similar to The DaVinci Code. Sarah points out that Deception Point, again by Dan Brown, is ‘shite’. Sangeeta begs to differ. Sangeeta also read Accountancy Age. Apparently accountants don’t have sex – but the position of the month is book keeper.
Paul read Lost Continent and Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson. He related an embarrassing mirror incident as well. Which was nice. The books were really good, and they made him laugh. The mirror incident was really silly and made us laugh. So all round, everyone was happy.
Five People You Meet In Heaven was, Paul opined, alright. It was quite a grudging alright though, so I suspect that he might not have enjoyed it all that much. He also read Lovely Bones by Alice Seybold, and he thought it was crap chick lit. He’s wrong. I enjoyed it – which much mean that it’s a) not crap and b) no chick lit either.
The Amber Spyglass by Philip ‘not fit to lick C.S. Lewises boots’ Pullman is the weakest of the trilogy. It’s still good though. Heavy going, but good. Lastly (thank God – I think I’m getting RSI here!), he read Canal Dreams by Iain Banks. He hates it. It’s shit. Worse even than A Song Of Stone. If that’s the case then it must be truly dire.
“Amateur Marriage is a book that Sangeeta has only just started. So far it’s about a woman who is very pretty and involved with a man. So far, so good – but she hasn’t got any further than that yet. Between them, Sarah and Sangeeta have hypothesized that story will continue as follows. The man and the woman marry, they have three children. The man turns out to be a wimp, so the woman has an affair with another woman. We’ll see next month how accurate their guesswork is. Sangeeta bought the book because it had a nice picture on the front. If I remember correctly, that was also Vic’s main criteria in book choice.”
I only read one book this month. But it was a whopper. I read The Ascent of Science by Brian Silver. It’s a serious excellent history about, well. Actually, it’s about science. You’d never guess. It’s also about philosophy, since that forms the basis for modern physics, alchemy (chemistry) and posh twats mincing about the countryside with an easel and a paintbrush (biology). I highly recommend it.
Claire also read Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi. It’s an absolutely amazing book about Nazi Germany as seen through the eyes of a young zwerg girl (auf Englisch man sagt ‘Dwarf’). It’s beautifully written but a bit slow at the beginning – it’s definitely a book to persevere with though as it improves drastically.
Strange Places, Questionable People by John Simpson is a good read but not as enjoyable as his more recent autobiographical stories.
Claire is currently reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, but she isn’t particularly enjoying it. She thinks she’ll finish it but it isn’t quite as amazing as it’s reputed to be. Despite her ‘no’ vote, she’s sure that the millions of people who continue to buy it will ensure it a place on the bestseller lists for months to come!
Next months book is Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle. It was Illona’s choice. We arranged to meet on December 13th – but Claire can’t manage that day. It would be nice to have a Christmas book club with a full house – can anyone manage Monday 20th December instead?