Books, and more books

After the recent post ‘Literary Inspirations’, I received some positive comments and e-mails, and a few requests to add a similar post soon. I did say that it was not going to be a series, and I still believe that it will not. However, I have a few more books to write about, so here is another post on the subject. These are not necessarily books that gave me inspiration, or tips on technique; rather ones that I just enjoyed, for the reasons explained. I hope that you discover some that you might want to investigate, and as for whether or not you agree with my conclusions, that’s fine. After all, we are all different, that’s what makes life interesting.

London:The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd. Ackroyd is a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction, and has received numerous awards His historical writing is some of the best available, and this story of the city of my birth, and almost all of my life, is no exception. I bought this book in 2001, and soon discovered a lot about London that I didn’t know. It covers the history of the city in great detail, from the time of The Druids, to the end of the twentieth century. Despite its scope and size, it is always readable, containing sections on everything of interest and importance in the development of this great city. A must for Londoners, and one for the collection of anyone interested in historical writing, at a high level.

Rebel, by Bernard Cornwell. One of the most successful British authors of modern times, Cornwell specialises in the genre known as ‘Faction’. He takes fictional characters, and places them into real situations in history. The result is often surprisingly good, as the facts, and attention to detail, are always authentic. He can really make you imagine the squalor of the middle ages, or the terrors of nineteenth century warfare. This choice is part of a series about the American Civil War, something that obviously interests me. The main character is from the North, but has sympathies with the South, so travels to fight for the Confederacy. The books in this series follow a similar formula to Cornwell’s better-known Napoleonic War hero, Sharpe. There are dramatic sub-plots, a good guy, some evil characters, and some sort of love interest. But it is in the details where he succeeds, and the thrilling battle scenes, brought to life in his own way. They are not landmarks of Literature, just a very good read.

Cromwell, Our Chief Of Men, by Antonia Fraser. I tend not to read biographies very often. I have read some of course, and this was of special interest to me, as a lifelong fascination with Cromwell and The English Civil War still continues to this day. It is a door-stop of a book, more than 1,000 pages, so not intended to be a comfortable holiday read by any means. As the definitive history of this often maligned historical character, it has no equal. I say this, despite the fact that Lady Antonia Fraser, daughter of an Earl, is an aristocrat by birth, and her Royalist sympathies are allowed to surface frequently in this book. If you can overlook this, and I did, then you are still left with a fascinating and detailed account of the life of one of the great figures in English history.

Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. Originally written in 1726, I first read this book when I was about ten years old. I recall being captivated by the worlds of Lilliput and Brobdingnag, and the unreal adventures of the shipwrecked Lemuel. I imagined myself as the giant Gulliver, living in the world of the tiny Lilliputians, or being dwarfed by the huge inhabitants of Brobdingnag. My edition must have only contained these two parts of the five-part tale, as I have no memory of the other voyages in the series. Of course, I didn’t really understand as a child that it was intended as a satire on the politics of Swift’s time, or meant to lampoon the popular tales of travelling published during that part of the eighteenth century. I just thought that it was an unusual and exciting story. To a large extent, I still do.

Regeneration, by Pat Barker. Published in 1991, this is the first in a trilogy; followed by ‘The eye in the door’, then ‘The Ghost Road’, in two-year intervals. It is a powerful look at the effects of the First World War and its aftermath, from hospital treatments for shell-shock, through to attitudes to homosexuality at the time, ending with tragedy on the Western Front towards the end of the war. Although a work of fiction, it is populated with real characters, including the war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and politicians such as Churchill. Barker justly won many prizes and accolades for these books, and they are without doubt some of the most important English novels of the twentieth century.

Borstal Boy, by Brendan Behan. A Borstal was the name of an institution for the imprisonment and punishment of young offenders. Behan was sentenced to one for three years, and wrote this novel based on his experiences. I read it as a teenager, and I was impressed by the way he told of his time in there, his use of dialect, accents, and colloquialisms. It also very much impressed on me that I did not ever want to be detained in such a place. Conditions were harsh, and when the staff weren’t after you, you had to watch out for the other prisoners. Behan’s Republican ideas were softened after meeting his fellow working-class English detainees, and the book draws many conclusions about the similarity of class, rather than background.

The Journeyer, by Gary Jennings. This book is a long read, at almost 900 pages. It never seems weighty though, and I found it hard to put down. It spins a fictional tale based on the journeys of Marco Polo, from Venice, to the far east. There are some interesting characters who Marco meets on the way, or accompany him on his travels. It is also an historical treat, filling in the gaps from a period that I was not too familiar with. Although it was published in 1984, I read it many years later, when given a copy by a friend. It is good enough to read again, and I may well do that one day.

Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson. American Bill Bryson lived and worked in Britain for twenty years. Before going home to the USA, he travelled all over the UK using public transport, and detailed his experiences in this very amusing and warm-hearted book. It says so much about the differences between life in America and Britain, two countries that might use the same language, but couldn’t be more different. For anyone who has experienced life in a foreign country, it might make familiar reading. For an Englishman like me, it gave an insight into how our life, language, and customs can be so alien to someone from a place we all regard as so similar. It isn’t just quirky, it also has laugh out loud moments; and it is so well-written, you can almost hear it being spoken in your head.

The Dice Man, by Luke Rhinehart. This fascinating novel poses the question of how your life might turn out, if you left it all completely to chance. The main character is a psychiatrist named after the author, (a pen name) who one day decides to continue his life based on rolls of a die. He gives each number a potential outcome, and acts on the result. The effects of this decision are life-changing, and take him down a route from which there seems to be no escape. As well as the experiences of the Dice Man, we see cults spread around the idea, and as others begin to live their lives in the same way, society itself begins to change. A very unusual concept, and one that works very well.

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. I have a lot of time for the writing of John Steinbeck, and could have picked any of his better-known works for this post. I have chosen this one, as I had to study it at school. Although it is not a long book, it has stayed with me ever since, and I can recall scenes described in it over fifty years later. It has the feel of a script, so it is no wonder that it has been performed on stage many times, and films have been made of it too. Lennie and George are two drifters during the Great Depression in America in the 1930s. Set against the background of poverty, and migrant workers, we see that George is looking after Lennie, who seems to be mentally disabled. He talks constantly of rabbits, which he loves to stroke; but because of his size, and unaware of his strength, Lennie usually kills the unfortunate animals. He also strokes a small girl, which gets him into some serious trouble. They are on the move, encountering many other memorable characters, and always searching for the better life that they dream of. Lennie is almost a Frankenstein’s monster in some ways, and George is his Baron. Animals and dreams feature heavily, and the work has a haunting feel, that never leaves you.

There you have ten more books that I have read, and can recommend. Perhaps this is a series after all?

We all have a book in us

How many times has this been heard over the years? Approaching Retirement, I was often told, ‘now is the time to write that book’. After all, I had led a comparatively exciting working life. Over 20 years in a front line ambulance, followed by more than 10 years behind the scenes working for the Metropolitan Police. I had attended bombings, and major disasters. I had delivered babies, cared for victims of terrible burns and injuries, and ended my working life deploying firearms officers in Central London. There was also the possibility to inject humour, with unusual tales of quirky events, mistakes and errors made, and the strange characters that I had dealt with, or worked alongside. I had travelled a fair bit. What about experiences behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ in Soviet Russia, or visiting East Germany many years before the wall came down?
If this did not provide fertile enough ground for that book, there were always my personal interests. History, Civil Wars, Cameras and Photography, Dickensian London, and the development of weapons through the ages. Maybe I could use my experiences with the Police, to write about modern crime-fighting in the Metropolis? There was always the possibility that my new life in Norfolk would yield great material for a book about the transition from London to the countryside. I would definitely look into it. After all, didn’t my life deserve a printed legacy, or to be available as an electronic download? Surely I too deserved to be in the remainder bins at half price, or in the window of Waterstones as the cheapest of the ‘buy 3 get 1 free offer? Failing all that, I could adapt these experiences and interests, to write a work of fiction, loosely based on something I knew a bit about.

I considered all the options, starting with the obvious. My Life in the Ambulance Service. An interesting read, with a few chuckles, and lots of gasps. From the end of the 1970’s, to the start of the 21st century. Strikes, civil disorder, changes in the NHS, advancements in care, yet the job was essentially the same. There have been a few written already. They didn’t sell well. There was one exception to this, the marvellous ‘Bringing out the dead’, the only work to ever get inside the darker aspects of the job of a Paramedic. Generally though, people don’t want to read the truth about injury and illness. It just isn’t entertaining or informative.
What about Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War? I have always been interested in that period. I am a member of the Cromwell Association, and I live in East Anglia, so research should be easy. I was forgetting Antonia Fraser. Her definitive biography of the man and his times, as thick as a telephone directory, immaculately researched, and a great read for anyone interested in the subject. No point trying to better that.
Perhaps a crime thriller, drawing on my Police contacts? I remembered the novel ‘By Reason of Insanity’. Probably the best book about a serial killer, and those hunting him, ever written. Then there were the books about forensic detectives, pathologists, or those with a gritty, authentic feel, like the ‘Rebus’ series. Could I do better than all these?

I doubt it.
How about a non-fiction work of importance, say the history of a great city like London? Oops, Peter Ackroyd beat me to that one.
This leaves the fish- out- of- water transition to a strange land, as my best bet. Hang on, am I forgetting Bill Bryson, or ‘A Year in Provence’? My feeble musings on a life in Norfolk are never going to hold a candle to these best sellers.
So, it had to be a well-researched, thought-provoking work about the unhappy lot of the working class in Victorian London. I would start right away. I had the credentials, as I came from the poorest district in South London, Rotherhithe. Nuzzling the south bank of the Thames, this was a place that had changed beyond recognition, from unspeakable slum, it had become a fashionable, dockside development. The docks had closed, and the inhabitants mostly moved away. There had to be some mileage in that surely? No. I had forgotten Charles Dickens, not to mention Mr Ackroyd (again).

My conclusion is that we do not all have a book ‘in us’. Writers and authors have books in them. They get up early, write long and hard. They research, they study, they read other books, and they strive for excellence. They are their own harshest critics, and they give their lives to their work. Families are shunned, homes re-mortgaged, lovers abandoned, luxuries are foregone. They also have good ideas, and act upon them.

The recent meteoric success of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and its sequels, fuelled by social media sites on the Internet, is a good example. Written by a lady who waited until she had seen her family grow, and her career aspirations satisfied, she embarked on her trilogy of lust, bondage and dark love. It has probably made her a fortune, and she has the film rights to come as well.
I could have had that idea. I could imagine sex and bondage, vulnerable females, and a dark central character. It can’t be that difficult can it? But I didn’t have the idea, and if I had, I wouldn’t have acted on it. E. L James had the idea, and she did the work necessary to get it into print. She reaps a just reward, good luck to her. That is the difference between writers and readers. If you want to be a writer, you have to act on those ideas, and be prepared to work hard to make them appear on a page. They don’t always have to be new, but they must catch a mood, and be of their time. Just because you did something interesting, doesn’t necessarily make that thing, or you, interesting as well, when translated to the written page.

Keep reading, and enjoy those books. I choose to stop believing that I have a book ‘in me’. I don’t.