[Writing soundtrack: Unknown Mortal Orchestra)
I look around me some days and become acutely aware that I am surrounded by books. Great piles of the things. Hard backs, paper backs; some dog eared and tatty others pristine and unread. Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels by the ton, glossy coffee table tomes (I don’t even own a bloody coffee table). They’re every where; next to my bed, under my bed, in the kitchen, by the sofa, piled up in the corner of the living room; don’t even get me started on the box room. There’s a pristine copy of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace sat up there which has been taunting me to read it for years.
I cannot remember a time when it wasn’t this way. From as young as I can remember I feasted on comics. I wanted to be one of the Bash St kids, take Gnasher for a walk. I was stealing my mums old horror paperbacks from the age of 12; parents I really don’t recommend this. While mates were running about climbing trees and building dens, I would slope off and bury my head in a Stephen King or a James Herbert.
Now, I wouldn’t say I was well read by any means. I don’t think I’ve read anything which could really be considered literary fiction since I did my A level English. I was a right pretentious little arse back then as well. Getting to class early and going off syllabus reading Ullyses and Nausea, and not really understanding either. But I eventually got over myself and just started reading for the love of reading and losing myself in someone else world for a few hours.
I have an equal passion for non-fiction as well; the joy of learning something new. I think I have a small forests worth of biographies & autobiographies littering the place, mostly by and about musicians if I’m being honest. But bits of history gripped me in my middle years. I can remember at some point in the mid-nineties realising I new nothing about the recent Balkan conflicts, feeling quite guilty about that I proceeded to read every single published work on the subject. Seriously, I could work for the UN. I still find inspiration to this day in the books of journalism which lie lopsided on shelves; Hunter S Thompson, Tom Wolfe, the usual suspects. plus sundry others.
My tastes in fiction are pretty middle brow. Not trash by any means, but not destined for Nobel prizes either. Writers like Iain Banks, Douglas Coupland, Brett Easton Ellis & Rupert Thomson are my go to comfort reading. Sharp, clever, well observed writing with fascinating characters, intriguing plots and just a touch of the weird; a sense that they are writing about an alternative universe, not dissimilar to ours but subtly altered.
If i was forced at gunpoint to name my favourite writer I would instinctively say Iain Banks (no M, don’t really do sci-fi). I was in my early twenties when someone thrust a scruffy paperback of The Wasp Factory into my hand and was told ‘you really have to read this’. The opening line was a killer,“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me”. I was drawn in immediately. It was weird and claustrophobic, terrifying and revolting, and ultimately utterly tragic. As Bill Hicks would say, I think I’ve found my brand.
I have since read everything he has ever written, but the one which I have re-read the most is The Crow Road. I have always been a sucker for a good opening line. I always loved the start of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold“. You kind of know where things are going after an opening like that. But The Crow Road has a belter, “It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach“. I know, good isn’t it; I defy you not to continue reading after a start like that. A subtle tale of family secrets and growing up, it grips from the first page because of it’s rich and warmly drawn characters. Clearly a man who loves women, he writes them so well, I fell hopelessly in love with the character of Ash. There’s no crush like a literary crush. Yes, definitely my favourite book and if you have never read it, I implore you to put that right. You won’t regret it.
Hearing of Iain Bank’s premature death earlier this year came as a crushing blow for many reasons. Firstly, he always seemed like one of the good guys. Passionate about his writing, but passionate about life in general and vocally scathing of cowardly modern politics. But mostly because it genuinely felt like losing a friend; someone who had always been there with words to sooth and enflame, excite and humour. You could always rest easy knowing that if things got bad, there would be a new book along soon. His final novel, The Quarry, was published last month. I have decided not to read it, not just yet anyway. I want to retain the feeling of there always being another book to read. So to Iain Banks, and all the other dead novelists, and to all of those who’ve thought of writing a book but didn’t have the time or the confidence; I salute you.
Finally, a selection of reads, in no particular order plucked from my head at random. If you read any, let me know what you think…
~ The Crow Road – Iain Banks (obvs)
~ Dreams of Leaving – Rupert Thomson
~ All Families Are Psychotic – Douglas Coupland
~ American Psycho – Brett Easton Ellis
~ The Devil’s Paintbrush – Jake Arnott
~ 84 – David Peace
~ Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe
~ Carter Versus The Devil – Glenn David Gold
~ Harlot’s Ghost – Norman Mailer
~ The Secret History – Donna Tartt
~ The House of Sleep – Jonathon Coe
~ Crooked Little Vein – Warren Ellis
~ The Good Man Jesus & The Scoundrel Christ – Philip Pullman
~ The Amazing Adventures of Kavilier & Clay – Michael Chabon
~ Our Band Could Be Your Life – Michael Azzerad
~ All The Presidents Men – Woodward/Bernstein
~ Head on / Re-posessed – Julian Cope
~ Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs – John Lydon
~ In Harm’s Way – Martin Bell
~ My War Gone by, I miss It so – Anthony Lloyd
~ Fear and Loathing on the campaign Trail ’72 – Hunter S Thompson
~ Psychotic Reactions & Carburretor Dung – Lester Bangs
~ Trusted Mole – Milos Stankovic
~ War Junkie – Jon Steele
~ Englands Dreaming – Jon Savage
~ Transmetropolitan – Warren Ellis
~ The Invisibles – Grant Morrison
~ From Hell – Alan Moore
~ Preacher – Garth Ennis
~ Sandman – Neil Gaiman
~ Morning Glories – Nick Spencer
~ Stickleback – Ian Edgington/D’israeli
~ Palestine – Joe Sacco
~ Y: The Last Man – Brian K Vaughn