Oct 30 2011: Reader’s Diary (Brittle Star Magazine, May 2010)


Of the three addictions that have shaped my life, I can only remember with certainty where the least desirable of them began: with an Embassy filter-tip, one summer afternoon outside a corrugated iron shed in New Quay, mid-Wales, at the antique restoration workshop where I spent my teenage Saturdays working. With music, I can clearly remember my first LP purchase (a Goodies record, bought from an electrical repair shop in Ripley, since you ask) but for years before that, I’d been playing my Dad’s old copies of things like Apache by The Shadows, so where exactly the obsession with music that continues to this day really began is more hazy than it should be.

The third addiction is, of course, books. I have strong memories of learning to read while my Grandad – an ex-miner, disabled by an accident in the 1950s, always at home in his wheelchair – ran his finger under the rhyming captions of Rupert Bear annuals and recited them as I slowly learned to match the print with the sounds. There was a set of Dr Seuss books that had been handed down to us: Fox In Socks, Green Eggs And Ham, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. There was the weekly visit to the library to exchange one pile of picture books about dinosaurs for another with my Dad – that comes into it, too. But what was the first book that gripped me, and opened up this world that remains an ongoing part of my life? I remember the first cigarette better, it seems.

Whatever it was, reading is now ingrained: this Reader’s Diary could easily have resembled one of those Georges Perec lists, incorporating newspapers, work documents, take-away menus and any number of snippets scanned online. What it couldn’t have been is especially coherent, or focused on celebrated new books: not only do I source most things from random finds, I’ve learned from experience that the time it takes to read a new novel by Martin Amis, Tom Wolfe or Philip Roth can mean forgoing the pleasure of those by Richard Brautigan and Amos Tutuola I’ve not already found time for. So the fact that much of what passes for a contemporary prize-winning canon passes me by is no longer something I feel the need to regret.

After all, had I been intent on following the prize shortlists and broadsheet recommendations, I might never have found myself picking up a Scientific Book Club edition of PG Stafford and BH Golightly’s fascinating (and very positive – how times change) 1970 study LSD In Action at a National Trust bookshop in Cambridgeshire, or a small 1931 hardback containing Sylvia Townsend Warner’s marvellously odd narrative poem Opus 7 in a Charing Cross bargain basement, before reading it at a sitting on the train back to Nottingham that same day.

by Cecil Beaton,photograph,1930

Opus 7 has certainly been one of the month’s great pleasures. The poem’s 55 pages return to the territory staked out in Warner’s debut novel, Lolly Willowes, but here the tale of a single woman in an English village finding that her lodgers are not all they seem is told in heroic verse couplets, with a pinch of the flavour found in George Crabbe, full of a lurching, inebriated energy appropriate to the plot’s engagement with the pleasures and perils of drink: “The grave was filled, the sods rammed down awry – /so soon the impatient darkness took the sky,/ knocking day on the head as though day were/ a crack-legged rabbit squirming in a snare”.

The general mood can be summed up by her remark that “Strange was the night, and strange the road well-known;/everything strange, as though the wind had blown/ thin the substantial world…”. It’s certainly no surprise to find the whole enterprise gloriously eccentric, nor, given that Warner tips us frequently into unsettling territory, that the poem is dedicated to that early twentieth century Welsh master of uncanny tales like The White People, Arthur Machen.

In some ways, Opus 7 is the poetic equivalent of Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter’s tableaux of kitten weddings and rabbit schoolrooms, and an encounter with a tableux that resembled one of Potter’s works in a Yarmouth museum a few weeks ago led me to order P.A. Morris’ self-published monograph, Walter Potter and his Museum of Curious Taxidermy, a biography and compendium of works by this Sussex eccentric that more than adequately explains the attempts to buy his idiosyncratic museum’s collection entire when it came up for auction in 2003. Sadly, it also shows what a loss it remains that the bid to keep Potter’s works together was rejected: the museum is now widely dispersed.

Perhaps a certain archaic melancholy and morbid fascination of the kind found in Potter’s eccentric dioramas illustrating nursery rhymes and folk songs runs through the whole month’s reading. Another area in which I’ve found myself reading obsessively is among an array of old anatomy and science textbooks, outdated encyclopaedias, and piles of 1940s National Geographic magazines, all bought in battered condition at car boot sales solely to dismantle for their plates and photographs, as part of a collage project I’ve been working on, concurrent with a novel in which a fictional artist of the 1960s and 70s features heavily.

Yet while inventing the works of my fictive artist, a Leeds municipal architect named Robert Holcombe, who purportedly studied alongside Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi after his national service in the late 1940s, I’ve been tempted time and again into reading the fascinating articles on bodily dysfunction and obsolete treatments in the textbooks I’ve been dismembering. Perhaps the appeal of chapter headings like ‘Diseases Caused by Animal Parasites’ in the 1941 textbook Common Skin Diseases, or ‘Staphylococcal Infections’ in the luridly illustrated Pathology, written in 1939 by J.Henry Dible and Thomas B.Davie, isn’t entirely self-evident.


But perhaps it’s not as strange as it seems: not only is reading these texts a wonderful procrastinating tool, and a way of feeding a sequence of poems that borrows some of these titles for its own, the details contained in these books about electro-therapeutic baths, obsolete diet powders and rare dermatological ailments are glimpses of lives ruined or saved, insights into the drama and strangeness going on continually under the skins of our own bodies. Even the page headings can seem evocative and poetic: ‘The Properties of Nerve’, ‘The Origin of the Heart-Beat’, ‘The Coats of the Eye-Ball’.

Such random material isn’t too far removed from poetry itself, then, and especially not from the poetry of writers associated with the world’s many and various Surrealist movements. These have been a constant in my reading since first picking up a rough overview of the movement at the age of 12 or 13, one Sunday morning at a friend’s house, and the extent of this particular rabbit-hole – one I’ve been descending into since that day – was represented this month by the Bloodaxe edition of Vitezlav Nezval’s Prague With Fingers Of Rain, a key collection from one of the founders of the Czech Surrealist group, belatedly released into English by the translations of Ewald Osers.

I knew Nezval previously for his 1935 novel Valerie And Her Week of Wonders (first published in 1945 and made into a celebrated film by Jaromil Jires in 1970). Valerie will seem strangely familiar to many, even if they’ve never read the book or seen the film based on it, due to its deep and acknowledged influence on Angela Carter, whose screenplay for Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves recycles many of Nezval’s key ideas, but substitutes werewolves for Nezval’s vampires. The arrival of Nezval’s poetry in English is something to be celebrated, then, and Prague With Fingers Of Rain is full of vivid, joyously lyrical stuff: “When the Charles Bridge is overgrown with grass/Come with me love to chase the geese away…”.

After reading Zeropolis, Bruce Bégout’s 2003 meditation on the experience of Las Vegas, perhaps it’s just as well we still have access to writings, like Nezval’s, that combine outlandish imagination with political revolt. In evoking the seductive unreality of this neon-lit mirage in the Nevada desert, Bégout writes about Las Vegas as a laboratory city, its malls, invisible service workers, high security residential estates and constant spectacular distractions the blueprint for developments and urban renewal around the globe. He invokes Coleridge’s definition of fiction as a “willing suspension of disbelief” and suggests the potency of Las Vegas lies in its ability to conjure a hallucination able to persuade us “that we ought not refuse to believe in it.”

Perhaps that might apply to the system that drives this process, too, and James Buchan’s 1997 study Frozen Desire: An Inquiry Into The Meaning Of Money explains why. Coming to it again this month, Buchan’s inquiry was every bit as powerful as I’d remembered it. His wide-ranging account shows clearly how, throughout history, money has masqueraded as a token promising to fulfil human desire, yet always, instead, enslaves that desire to its own purpose. Imagine, his final chapter asks, a world where ‘virtue and solvency discuss a separation’ and ‘Liberty puts down her shopping bag’. I’ve been returning to this book since first reading it around the turn of the millennium, and its power to inspire optimism in the face of a seemingly complete entrapment remains intact.


As the accountants’ axes are being audibly sharpened once more, and people’s lives await their latest sacrifices on the altar of this delusion, I can’t help thinking that it’s poetry, contrary movements like Surrealism and the superficially quaint but utterly indelible eccentricities of artists like Sylvia Townsend Warner and Walter Potter that will finally lead us to the exits concealed in the shadows of finance and its limited sense of the potential latent in ordinary things. Whatever first triggered this omnivorous urge to read, holding onto the imaginative possibilities opened up by writers like these remains the most compelling reason to keep going.

Essay commissioned by Brittle Star, 2010.


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