Author Archives: Edward Colley

Stirring tales inspired by wagging tails

“Scratch a dog and you’ll find a permanent job.” –  humourist Franklin P Jones.

Authors have to scratch a living as well, yet many of them find cuddle- time with a canine friend a perfect antidote to hours tapping away at the keyboard. Here are a few authors with a pooch under the desk…

stephen king

King pictured in his Bangor, Maine home office with Marlowe in July, 1995. Picture: Jill Krementz.

If it’s good enough for British royalty, it’s good enough for king of horror and suspense Stephen King, who shares Queen Elizabeth II’s love for the diminutive corgi.

Virginia Woolf loved cocker spaniels and her beloved dog Pinka was often by her side. She also wrote Flush: A Biography, a half-fictional account of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, which was named Flush. Woolf once said: “This you’ll call sentimental, perhaps, but a dog somehow represents — no I can’t think of the word — the private side of life…the play side.”

john-steinbeck

Steinbeck with his faithful friend Charley, the French poodle.

You probably know that John Steinbeck loved his poodle Charley, because Travels with Charley is all about him and Charley going on a road trip.

But his setter Toby deserves a special shout out too, because Toby ate the first draft of Of Mice and Men, meaning that Steinbeck had to start over from scratch: “My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my [manuscript] book. Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically.”

Steinbeck’s French poodle, Charley, is proof that dogs are the cure for writer’s block. When Steinbeck felt like was out of ideas, he loaded Charley into his pick-up truck and drove across the country.

Pumpkin was Kurt Vonnegut’s yappy, shaggy little dog and near-constant companion. Vonnegut himself once said: “I cannot distinguish between the love I have for people and the love I have for dogs.”

gertrude stein

Stein (left) with Toklas and Basket.

Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B Toklas had an affinity for white poodles, who were always named Basket. The pooch would be bathed in sulphur water each day and then Stein would make it run in circles in the yard until it was dry.

Tail end words from comedian Groucho Marx: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

No snowflakes in the torture chamber

‘We don’t want to hear it’ is a cry shared by
over-sensitive souls and despots

In these days of hurt feelings, so-called snowflakes, the perpetually offended and those who see a slight or an infringement of their rights at every turn, it is sobering to reflect on the experiences of lives in less tolerant societies where issues such as freedom of expression or no-platforming are entirely in the hands of a government or military regime rather than a disgruntled student body or an online petition.

As the pressure group PEN International points out, writers and journalists around the world are targeted – and in some cases hounded and murdered – for their peaceful pursuit of free expression.

“Authoritarian governments are becoming increasingly emboldened and are targeting writers and journalists in ever greater numbers. Some are paying a heavy price for merely carrying out their work,” said Salients Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.

I’ve been researching this topic after reading about the experiences of a Kenyan who was incarcerated, tortured and jailed on a trumped up charge fundamentally because his attitude didn’t tally with that of the authorities.

Wahome Mutahi’s Three Days on the Cross, published in October 1991, is presented as a fictional account of everyday brutality by the security forces in Moi regime Kenya. But the scenes of torture at the hands of members of the notorious Special Branch are drawn directly from the author’s own experience following his arrest in October 1986.

Mutahi (1954 – 2003), a journalist and novelist widely read in East Africa, was known to be opposed to the brutal regime of his country. In 1986, during a clampdown on Wahome Mutahiintellectual activities he was arrested and jailed. He was charged with neglecting to report a felony thus being guilty of sedition.

His captors said he knew people who were publishing seditious material – material critical of the government. The allegations were false; he didn’t know anyone engaged in such activities – he was a journalist on The Nation, just writing.

Special Branch officers went to his Nairobi office one Sunday morning and took him to the city’s Nyayo House, a respectable-looking office building for the police. But in its basement were interrogation rooms, cells and barbaric torture chambers. He was held there for 30 days accused of being involved in an organised movement.

In conversation with Paul Theroux (recounted in Dark Star Safari), Mutahi recalled telling his accusers: “If you have evidence against me, take me to court. That made them very angry. They stopped talking to me. They stripped me naked and beat me – three men with pieces of wood. They demanded that I confess.

“Then they stood me in my cell and sprayed me with water. My cell was about the size of a mattress. They soaked me – water was everywhere. Then they locked the door and left me.”

In the windowless cell Mutahi could not tell if it was day or night. “I was still naked and really cold, standing in the water, in the darkness. I don’t know how much time passed – maybe 12 or 15 hours.”

Then the door suddenly opened and he was brusquely asked if he had anything to say. He said no and was left again for a long time before the door opened once more and the same question was fired at him, eliciting the same response.

“I came to a situation where I was living in a nightmare. I hallucinated. I saw food in patches on the floor.” Waking from a fitful, troubled sleep, Mutahi was desolated to find himself ankle deep in water and shivering, not able to stand or sit. “My feet were rotting. I was on the point of a breakdown. I thought of suicide. When a week passed they must have thought I was dying because they put me in a dry cell.”

Three Days on the Cross by Wahome MutahiBut the interrogation continued. He was blindfolded and taken to another room. After many sessions, Mutahi realised he was weakening and that he would rather serve a specific sentence than suffer not knowing when his confinement would end. And so he signed a ‘confession’. “I was given 15 months. It was something definite – not torture any more.”

Everyone who found themselves in such situations, said Mutahi, eventually pleaded guilty under interrogation, “provided they didn’t go insane first.”

The term ‘snowflake’ is pejorative and unhelpful especially when applied generally to students and millennials (though some of the more extreme proponents of safe spaces and no-platforming perhaps deserve a little ribbing).

Nevertheless it’s clear that there is an increasing tendency to shy away from some of the less pleasant realities: law students excused lectures on sexual abuse for example or medical trainees allowed to opt out of witnessing distressing procedures.

Such over-sensitive souls refuse to hear an opinion contrary to their own and in this, in a horrible irony, they link to those despots around the world who find ideas with which they disagree frightening and threatening. They don’t want to hear – and for them the solution is not a safe space but a torture chamber.

Want to learn more?

Writing secrets of 14 world class authors

Anthony Trollope was at his desk, pen in hand, from 5.30am every day. In contrast William Styron habitually slept until noon and then lay around in bed for another hour ‘thinking’ before going anywhere near his typewriter. For Philip Larkin the ideal time for writing was after doing the washing up in the evening while Truman Capote could not compose a single paragraph unless lying down. These insights into the daily rituals of notable writers are given in a (now dormant) blog called ‘The Daily Routines’ which I stumbled across recently. Here are some gleanings from this entertaining blog:

Anthony Trollope
Every day for many years he woke in darkness and wrote from 5.30am to 8.30am, with his watch in front of him. In his autobiography Trollope said he required of himself 250 words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before 8.30, he took out a freshanthony_trollope piece of paper and started the next. For many years the writing session was followed by a day job with the Royal Mail postal service. Under this regime, he produced 49 novels in 35 years. Having prospered so well, he urged his method on all writers: “Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common labourer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for 30 hours at his desk without moving, as men have sat – or said that they have sat.”

Ernest Hemingway
Another early riser, when working on a book or story he would write every morning as soon after first light as possible. He said: “There is no one to disturb you; it is cool and you warm as you write. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and you know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”

John Grisham
The author of numerous legal best-sellers also former the habit of being up with the lark. When he first started writing, Grisham says, he had “these little rituals that were silly and brutal but very important. The alarm clock would go off at 5.00am and I’d jump in the shower. My office was five minutes away. And I had to be at my desk, in my office, with the first cup of coffee, a legal pad and write the first word at 5.30am, five days a week.” His goal: to write a page every day. Sometimes that would take 10 minutes, sometimes an hour. Often he would write for two hours before he had to turn to his job as a lawyer, which he never especially enjoyed. Interviewed in 2008, Grisham recalled that in the Mississippi Legislature there were “enormous amounts of wasted time” that would give him the opportunity to write. “I was very disciplined about it,” he said, before quickly conceding he doesn’t have such discipline now: “I don’t have to.”

Kingsley Amis
The Lucky Jim author would rise late, breakfast and get to his desk at about 10.30am, still in pyjamas and dressing gown. “And the agreement I have with myself is that I can stop whenever I like and go and shave and so on. In practice, it’s not till about 1.00pm or 1.15 that I do that. Then I emerge and nicotine and alcohol are produced. I work on until about 2.00pm or 2.15, have lunch, then if there’s urgency about, I have to write in the afternoon, which I really hate doing. But then the agreement is that it doesn’t matter how little gets done in the afternoon. And later on, with luck, a cup of tea turns up, and then it’s only a question of drinking more cups of tea until the bar opens at 6.00pm and one can get into second gear. I go on until about 8.30 and I always hate stopping.”

Stephen King
“There are certain things I do if I sit down to write,” he said. “I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8.00am to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places.”

Will Self
Using a manual typewriter, he writes first drafts as early in the morning as possible. Once the first drafts are 80% complete he’ll start on a second so that “there’s a conveyor belt of drafts in progress: this helps me to grasp the totality of the book. I accelerate towards the end, usually because I’m on or past my deadline.” Of a writer’s life he adds: “I have a healthy appetite for solitude. If you don’t, you have no business being a writer.”

Gunter Grass
When working on a first version he would write between five and seven pages a day. “For the third version, three pages a day. It’s very slow.” When in the day does he write? “Never, never at night. I don’t believe in writing at night because it comes too easily. When I read it in the morning it’s not good. I need daylight to begin. Between 9.00am and 10.00 I have a long breakfast with reading and music. After breakfast I work, and then take a break for coffee in the afternoon. I start again and finish at 7.00pm.”

James Thurber
Near blind in his later years, Thurber would write in his head and dictate the passages from memory to a secretary. Interviewed in the 1950s he said: “I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, ‘Dammit, turber 2Thurber, stop writing!’ She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, ‘Is he sick?’ ‘No,’ my wife says, ‘he’s writing something.’ I have to do it that way on account of my eyes. I still write occasionally – in the proper sense of the word – using black crayon on yellow paper and getting perhaps 20 words to the page. My usual method, though, is to spend the mornings turning over the text in my mind. Then in the afternoon, between two and five, I call in a secretary and dictate to her. I can do about 2,000 words. It took me about 10 years to learn.”

Truman Capote
Interviewed in 1957, the author said: “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon – obsessions of this sort – and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.”

P G Wodehouse
After rising at 7.30am, breakfasting and walking the dog, Wodehouse would be at his desk by 9.00. His study was a spacious, pine-clad room overlooking the garden. His writing methods had not changed in years. He would sit and brood in a favourite armchair, draft a paragraph or two in pencil, then move to the typewriter. In his last decade, Wodehouse could still average 1,000 words a day where, as a younger man, he had often written 2,500 words and more in that period.

Arthur Miller
“I wish I had a routine for writing,” the playwright said in 1999. “I get up in the morning and I go out to my studio and I write. And then I tear it up! That’s the routine, really. Then, occasionally, something sticks. And then I follow that. The only image I can think of is a man walking around with an iron rod in his hand during a lightning storm.”

Roald Dahl
Settled into a writing career, Dahl lived on a farm where he raised livestock and bred greyhounds. His routine was to write from 10.00am until noon, spend the afternoon tending his animals and return to his writing again from 4.00pm to 6.00. His writing was far from effortless; it was not unusual for him to spend six months working on a single short story.

Wiliam Styron
The Sophie’s Choice author followed an unconventional routine: sleep until noon, read and think in bed for another hour or so, lunch around 1.30pm, run errands, deal with the mail, listen to music, daydream and generally ease into the idea of working until 4.00pm. Then up to the workroom to write for four hours, perfecting each paragraph until 200 or 300 words were down. After that, cocktails and dinner with the family and friends at 8.00pm or 9.00 and stay up until two or three in the morning, drinking and reading and smoking and listening to music.

Philip Larkin
“My life is as simple as I can make it,” he said in 1982. “Work all day, cook, eat, wash up, telephone, hack writing, drink, television in the evenings. I almost never go out. Writing is in the evenings after washing up. It’s a routine like any other. And really it works very well, I don’t think you can work on a poem for more than two hours. After that you’re Philip-Larkingoing round in circles and it’s much better to leave it for 24 hours by which time your subconscious or whatever has solved the block and you’re ready to go on. The best writing conditions I ever had were in Belfast, when I was working at the university there. I wrote between 8.00pm and 10.00, then went to the university bar till 11.00, later playing cards or talking with friends till 1.00am or 2.00. The first part of the evening had the second part to look forward to, and I could enjoy the second part with a clear conscience because I’d done my two hours. I can’t seem to organise that now.”

 

The Daily Routines blog by American author Mason Currey is no longer updated but can be found at: https://dailyroutines.typepad.com/daily_routines/

• For insight on authors and their working methods try: How I Write, The Secret Lives of Authors, edited by Dan Crowe, and On Writing by Stephen King.

Reading from the sick bed

Sickness, recovery, recuperation. At such times what sort of reading material do you reach for? The question arose for me after I returned from the other side of the world with an injury which will keep me virtually housebound for some months.

At first, stupified by antibiotics, I felt too dazed to read anything more demanding than the opening credits of an old movie on TV. But as strength and interest returned little by little it was the old and familiar which I sought out – the literary equivalent of comfort food.

waugh bridesheadMy first choice was Evelyn Waugh’s magnum opus Brideshead Revisited, a novel which has long been in my top five and to which I was returning for the fourth or fifth time – unwise perhaps in view of the old maxim ‘never go back’. Turning to the first page, I hoped my experience would not mirror that of the author who was reportedly “appalled” after re-reading the work, finding “distasteful” the book’s “rhetorical and ornamental language”.

On this reading I did find some of Charles Ryder’s internal monologues a bit overcooked and descriptive passages occasionally a tad florid – but those are mere quibbles. Overwhelmingly I was once again dazzled by the beauty and clarity of the narrative. Testimony to its potency is plain when viewing the impeccable 1983 11-episode TV series based on the book in which large passages of Ryder’s narrative, together with countless dialogue exchanges, are lifted verbatim from the pages of the novel.

The story arc, from sunlit carefree days in 1920s Oxford to the spirit-sapping gloom of the 1940s war years, is superbly handled by the author through a central character who is invested with qualities of detachment sufficient to lend an objectiveness to the first person storytelling.

Though how anyone without a good shorthand note or a tape recording can set down all those conversations in such detail is a mystery. But the suspension of disbelief is a necessary requirement when reading first person fiction – all narrators, it appears, being blessed with perfect recall!

The butler didn’t do it

That suspension becomes trickier when an unreliable narrator enters upon the scene, as happens in my follow-up choice of sick bay reading. This was my third encounter with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. An art gallery ticket tucked into the pages revealed that I last read it on holiday in August 1999. (The find instantly brings back a memory: witnessing a total solar eclipse from a Bavarian hillside, the sudden gloom silencing the chattering birds.)

Twenty years is a long time between readings but I’d always thought of this novel as a reliable favourite. This time though, I was a little less enchanted. On previous readings I was clearly not irritated by the narrator’s fastidious, very correct, rather Edwardian style of writing. This is of course deliberately and cleverly done by Ishiguro to paint a picture of the anachronous and insular nature of Stevens, the central character, who knows very little of ordinary life outside the confines of the great house in which he serves as butler.

Stevens is not at ease with himself as a human being, preferring to live as a virtual automaton. He has suppressed emotion and personality, shunned close relationships and excused himself from most kinds of normal life in favour of a Quixotic crusade to become the ultimate man servant – the personification of his interpretation of ‘dignity’.

kazou remainsThe preservation of dignity, according to Stevens, is akin to “not removing one’s clothes in public”. It’s an odd remark but it tells us that Stevens isn’t comfortable stepping outside his professional persona for fear of losing respect; he has locked himself inside his ‘dignity’ and can’t find a way out – even if he wanted to. This detachment has built up a cold shield around the butler – one which Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, tries in vain to penetrate. Her timid romantic overtures – bringing flowers to his pantry, teasing him about the sentimental novel she finds him reading – freeze and snap in the permafrost of Stevens’s aura. Miss Kenton gives up, leaves service and marries.

Years later Stevens, still serving at Darlington Hall, Oxfordshire, travels to Cornwall to seek out Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn) in the hope of luring her back into service and – though he cannot admit this to himself – reignite his relationship with the housekeeper on an altogether more personal level.

When Stevens writes: ‘No doubt, she is pondering with regret decisions made in the far-off past that have now left her, deep in middle age, so alone and desolate’, it is quite early on in the book and the reader has yet to discover his true nature. But we are being misled – as we find later – for here he is unconsciously considering his own position. Further into the novel, when Stevens’s achingly poignant backstory has been revealed, we are quite sure that when he quotes Mrs Benn as writing in her letter: ‘The rest of my life stretches out as an emptiness before me’, it is a misattribution and it is his own bleak future which is being contemplated.

Hardy, Chandler and back to Waugh

So The Remains of the Day stays in my top five and I will one day again revisit Brideshead, though, by that time, I will probably need to have it read to me! Number three, currently on the nightstand, is Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge to which I return for the umpteenth time. It’s my favourite Hardy novel (with Tess close behind) and it never fails me. At root I suppose I have fairly unsophisticated  tastes when it comes to entertainment. With books, plays or movies, I like a beginning, a middle and an end – and a cracking good yarn in between. The Mayor of Casterbridge delivers on all counts.

There’s some snobbishness about Hardy’s novels (the author regarded himself as a poet first) which I fail to understand. Dickens, Trollope and Thackeray all get the nod of approval. Even Stevenson and Conan Doyle are lauded. But for some reason Hardy gets the raspberry. Well let them sneer. I shall continue getting great enjoyment from rereading the Wessex novels whether in sickness or in health.

I reckon I’ll need two more ‘comfort food’ books to see me back on my feet. So after Hardy it will be a complete change: Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely, another of my top five and my favourite Philip Marlowe novel. The film of the book (released as Murder, My Sweet in the USA) features the excellent Dick Powell as the down-at-heel Shamus. Forget Bogart – for me, Powell was the best Marlowe to grace the screen. A great book and a fab movie!

Leaving LA, it’s back across the pond to Britain for my final restorative read – The Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh. When I first read these wartime novels I had to buy them separately – and I still have the copies. But now Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender are available in one volume and if you haven’t read them, plan to do so. You won’t be disappointed.

mayor philip sword

Revisiting the king of legal thrillers

John Grisham

John Grisham: past his best?

With no reading material before a long flight I picked up a John Grisham potboiler in the San Francisco airport without much enthusiasm. It was the mid 1990s, the book was The Pelican Brief and, to my surprise – because Grisham was being hyped all over the place then– I thoroughly enjoyed it, while being aware that possessing such a novel would cause several noses to be looked down.

As with wine and antiques’ circles, there are many snobs around in the book-reading world, though they would perhaps say they are simply more discerning readers. Each to his or her own; there’s no cause to sneer at Mills and Boon fans, for example – at least they’re reading.

And weren’t the majority of contemporary readers of Austen, Dickens, Doyle and Hardy simply popular fiction readers who liked a good tale well told? 

After I devoured The Pelican Brief, I proceeded to gobble up all of JG’s wordy legal thrillers. The Painted House ended the run; I hadn’t read the jacket notes. It was a rambling sentimental tale of bygone Americana. Where were the hotshot lawyers? Where were the big showcase trials?

Something changed with Grisham at that point. Maybe his publishers urged him to go in other directions, maybe he urged himself. 

Leaving the legal world behind – his specialist area – may have won a few fans but must have lost many more. And then even his courtroom-based output began to take a twee moralistic tone with humble downhome country folk fighting those ugly, hard-hearted corporations. I bailed out.

King of TortsBut a recent unexpected hospital stay in New Zealand brought me back. I had nothing but a dull Maigret novel with me when the mobile hospital library (a trolley loaded with about 80 books, about half by Dick Francis) made a welcome visit.

Two Grishams presented themselves – The Pelican Brief (natch) and The King of Torts. I chose Torts. I couldn’t remember if I’d read it before. Having completed it, I still can’t remember.

But one thing I did learn  – after an interval of about 10 years, I’m over JG.

The King of Torts is an entertaining tale but it’s flabby and overwritten. Grisham writes well in his genre but he suffers from verbosity. Back in the 90s I was entertained by the detailed  descriptions of luxury yachts, fast cars, lavish dinners and private planes. This time round I found myself skimming bits. Millions and billions of dollars piled up in various tort actions until the figures became simply symbolic.

And those tort cases were essentially like Hitchcock’s McGuffins – devices to drive an otherwise simple story, in this case a moral tale about greed and consequences, pride before a fall – a very old theme.

Grisham has legions of loyal fans. Anything with his name on it will sell. I’ll pass for a while but maybe one day, while idling in airport bookshop, I might pick up his latest paperback and feel the magical pull once again.

Kingsley Amis in virgin territory

Take a Girl Like YouAccording to the Wikipedia notes on Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis, the author takes great care to describe minutiae in much detail. Such meticulous description, we are told, gives rise to humour and brings ‘the world of the novel as close as possible to the physical world of the reader’.

Well possibly. I see the point – and it may work for some readers – but for me this approach delivers tedious and rather boring passages. I’m afraid I had to jump ship after some 70 pages (my absolute minimum litmus test). 

Amis tends to squeeze the pips out of a scene and then jump up and down on the pulp. The impression is of a writer rather over-pleased with his verbosity.

Of course, allowances have to be made for the passage of time. Amis was one the Angry Young Men on the British literary scene in the 1950s but he was 38 when this book was published in 1960 and times were changing. As Amis’ friend Philip Larkin remarked:

Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was rather late for me) between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.

The coy and knowing way in which Amis deals with sex in Take a Girl Like You (and it is a novel largely about sex, though without much actual sex) is slightly exasperating to the modern reader.

Like many modern readers, I am not held by ‘will she, won’t she?’ passages (unless, of course, they done well by the likes of Austen). My reaction after a dozen or so pages of attempted seduction is: ‘For God’s sake just get on with it or play cards’.

The story concerns a comely (is one still allowed to say ‘comely’?) Northern lass of 20 and her determination to hang on to her virginity until her wedding night. Jenny Bunn has moved to lodgings in a London suburb to begin teaching at a local school. Her comeliness does not go unnoticed and soon the wolves – one in particular – are circling.

Patrick Standish is the sort of stock Leslie Phillips-type character familiar to anyone who has watched those formulaic British comedy films of the 1950s and 60s (‘Ding dong! I say!’ whenever a pretty girl hoves into view; lots of drooling, eye-rolling and pitiful chat-up lines – that kind of thing.)

Kingsley Amis

Pursuit of a desirable female by such a character was regarded as a kind of hunting game; one in which the ‘prey’ really wanted be caught but insisted on a bit of chasing around the Mulberry bush  before melting in the arms of a macho charmer.

If the depictions were cringe-worthy in those days they are positively laughable now, as well as being insulting to both sexes.

I’m not getting into revisionist territory here. I appreciate that this novel was of its time and perhaps even then offered up stereotypes for comic effect. 

Comedies of manners from previous eras, satirising contemporary social mores, ridiculing conventions and so on, can still be entertaining to the modern reader (Austen, Dickens, Spark for example). But tales of the tedious sexless sex games of the 1950s have not travelled well, as this novel demonstrates.

My previous experience of Amis’ work is limited and mixed. Lucky Jim, his best-seller of the early 1950s, I found irritating, unfunny and dull while his 1980s Booker prize-winning The Old Devils is a masterwork which improves on re-reading.

Amis is regarded as one of the best authors of the 20th century and comes highly recommended by many writers whose opinion I respect. So I’m not giving up on old Kingsley just yet. I have several more of his novels lined up as well as a hefty biography.

But in the case of Take a Girl Like You, I’ll leave it thanks.

Life by Keith Richards #book review

I lead a gentleman’s life. Listen to Mozart, read many, many books. I’m a voracious reader. History, in  particular the British Navy, is my subject. The Nelson era and World War II are top of my list, but I do the ancient Romans too. I have a fine library furnished with these works, with dark wooden shelves reaching to the ceiling. This is where I hole up.

lifeThis is not perhaps how most people would picture the leisure days of one of rock and roll’s most famously debauched characters. Yet in his 2010 autobiography Life (there were surely more compelling title options than that!), Keith Richards comes across as a surprisingly erudite, intelligent and articulate individual. And yes, in his own way, he seems to be a gentleman – and a gentle man.

‘Surprisingly’ sounds condescending and perhaps a little naive – swallowing the druggie, dissolute showman image whole and not giving too much thought to the fact that that there is a person underneath this facade.

And this autobiography reveals a person who is thoughtful, perceptive, caring and seemingly completely without prejudices and the baggage of judgement. Naturally his background means that he is not a great respecter of ‘suits’ – the Establishment. The 75-year-old (67 when the book came out) has always been ready to ‘stick it to the man’ both in song, gesture, verbal exchange and – in previous years – in deed (he’s had a few punch-ups along the way and admits to habitually carrying a knife).

The writing style here is engaging. How much credit is due to the co-author James Fox is difficult to judge. The former Sunday Times journalist has been a friend of the rock star since the early 1970s and would certainly be able to bring an authentic authorial tone to the writing. But to me the voice (and certainly the view of life) belongs largely to the man himself. Fox is perhaps not so much ghosting and tidying up the prose – putting apostrophes where they should be and reworking sentences which lost their way.

First meeting with Jagger

We begin in 1940s Dartford, Kent, birthplace of Richards and a certain Mick Jagger. The family history background, often rather tedious in works such as these, is illuminating and entertaining. By sticking to the salient, Richards keeps the reader engaged. 

From a boyhood love of the guitar and hours of finger-bleeding practice, his story leads us through the famous railway station meeting with Jagger – where a profound affinity in musical taste is established – to the early days of playing for beer (or for nothing) in seedy clubs and grimy pubs. Band members come and go; Brian Jones appears and stays; Jagger and Richards really want a drummer called Charlie Watts and they manage to snare him; a bassist called Bill Perks completes the line-up under the name of Wyman.

Years of poverty (getting the deposit back on stolen beer bottles) in squalid houses and flats precede a sudden propulsion – under the management of Andrew Oldham – to modest fame, notoriety (urinating at the roadside) and ultimately world-dominating rock deity.

Keith Richards

The career-span of The Rolling Stones is unprecedented in the world of showbiz. In the 1989 documentary 25×5, Richards (then a mere 46 years old) said the band was travelling ‘without maps’. No other group had lasted that long; there was no model, no template to follow. Amazingly the Stones continue to tour to this day filling gigantic stadia the world over. They’ve gone from ‘Lock up your daughters’ through ‘Lock up your mums’ to ‘Lock up your grannies’ and still (replacing a guitarist or two) they rock on.

The rise-to-fame part of the story Richards tells without pretensions of grandeur. He knows the band is unique and very good at what they do. He doesn’t have to work the message. His engaging, chat-over-a-pint style is never affected. He is proud of his achievements but not boastful.

An unreliable narrator?

There is, however, a point in the book where Richards becomes less engaging and develops the feels of an unreliable narrator. For most of the 1970s he was catastrophically involved with drugs. Heroin, in particular, created turmoil in his life. Though he somehow managed to make the gigs and turn up in the recording studio, his life was formed around drugs and the necessity to have them available. It took several years, in and out of cold turkey, to free himself from smack. When he came round, it was the 80s.

It is in this passage of Life that Richards loses my good will. He complains about Jagger’s insistence on controlling the band and making the decisions – conveniently forgetting that for a decade he was more or less out of his wits and his band mate had stepped up to the mark to keep the show on the road. Until then Richards had always been the glue, keeping the best interests of the group at heart and pushing forward.

Though there had been some disagreements between the two before (an unavoidable clash of two massive egos) this was the start of a rift between the boyhood friends which endures to this day. Richards complains that Jagger became ‘a control freak’ but doesn’t acknowledge that there was probably good reason for Mick taking the reins – doubting, as he must have done, the mental capabilities of his junkie partner.

Earlier in the book Richards complains that Brian Jones had become unpredictable and unreliable because of his drug habit. Regarded as an embarrassment and dead weight, he wanted Jones gone. Jagger can’t be blamed for feeling Richards had become a similar encumbrance, though the loss of this gifted songwriting partner would probably have dealt a lethal blow to the band.

But Richards pulled out of his nosedive and the band played on. The group’s legendary globe-trotting tours continue to this day with all four frontmen well into their 70s, travelling without maps and, seemingly – bar the odd accident with a coconut tree – without care. As they once observed: it’s only rock n roll.

In a Free State by V S Naipaul #Bookreview

V S Naipaul’s In a Free State, which won the Booker prize in 1971, is set in an unnamed African country (the author later wrote that it was a mixture of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda) which has recently won its independence. Now there is conflict between the popular, but weak, king – who is in hiding – and the power-hungry president who runs the army. They are of different tribes and the enmity is old and deep.

free state coverThe power struggle, in its final throws, forms the backdrop to the story. But there are no obvious signs of these turbulent events in the capital, where the book opens and we are introduced to the central character, Bobby, who has been attending a conference.

He is driving south – where evidence of the unrest is all too apparent – to a government encampment where he lives and works as a civil servant. With him, hitching a ride, is Linda, the wife of a colleague. The pair belong to the white colonist class whose era is at an end and is now witnessing the dangerous divisions emerging in the new postcolonial nation.

The gated compound to which the couple are returning no longer offers the undisturbed security of the colonial years. As villages around burn and supporters of the king are rounded up, the increasingly fragile nature of the safety of their sanctuary becomes apparent.

The over-riding theme of the novel is one of displacement. In seeking, and winning, freedom the indigenous people are at odds with each other because of old tribal loyalties. The example of their former colonial masters won’t fit this new nation and this provokes resentment of the old regime and its representatives. As hostility rises to the surface the expats begin to pack their bags; Africa erupts around them, their idyll is over.

The principal characters, away from their native countries, experience an element of alienation aggravated by racial tension and sudden shifts of power around them. These elements feed into both the narrative and the exchanges of the road trip at the heart of this novel and have clearly influenced the personalities of the dysfunctional travellers over time.

Bobby is a troubled homosexual with a history of mental problems. His intense, unexplained, dislike for Linda bubbles under and sometimes boils over during the course of the journey. His companion’s superficial exuberance veils an unhappy marriage and a string of adulterous liaisons. An air of doom hangs over the whole as the drive becomes a race against time to reach safety as civil war threatens at every turn.

An encounter with an army convoy forces the couple to make an overnight stop in a crumbling lakeside hotel run by an eccentric retired British colonel whose nasty bullying of his native staff is redolent of the past relationship between colonial master and indigenous population. Pushing the symbolism further, it is clear that soon Africa will reclaim this decaying resort – abandoned by the expats who once saw a very different future there ­– and the raging colonel will fall at the hands of his resentful servants.

As the road trip continues it becomes clear that Bobby, Linda and all the other white expats can no longer rely on the status of privileged outsiders. Bobby’s brutal beating at the hands of one of the president’s soldier underscores the point that some of those who were once victims are now ready for revenge.

A sense of displacement

Naipaul’s biographer, Patrick French, offers this observation: “In a Free State is a disconcerting piece of writing, so taught and ambiguous that the author’s point of view is never apparent.”

Material for the novel came from Naipaul’s nine months in Uganda in 1966. At the invitation of the Farfield Foundation he took up the role of writer-in-residence at Makerere University.

The displaced international characters and restricted campus setting of the university are elements used in In a Free State and this sense of displacement was something the writer himself felt keenly on his return to London. Thousands of miles from his motherland – which he had left in 1950 – and between homes, Naipaul felt rootless. He began wandering the world.

In his introduction to the 2007 edition of the novel, Naipaul recalls how he often undertook the “spectacular day-long drive from Kampala in Uganda to Nairobi in Kenya.” The idea for the story came to him on one of the return journeys.

Memories of his Ugandan sojourn returned to him in 1969, when his wanderings had brought him to Victoria, British Columbia. Here he began writing the novel – a task that would be continued, and completed, in England.

free state naipaul

Naipaul: “Depression touches everyone in the novel.”

In 2007 Naipaul reflected: “In a Free State … was conceived and written during a time of intense personal depression that lasted two or three years.” The depression, he said, “touches everyone in the novel, the bar boys, the waiters and even the Africans seen on the road.”

The impartiality of the writing is deliberately contrived. The author said: “I was not responsible for the world I was discovering. I was recording what I had discovered. I had no point of view. I think I just laid out the material, the evidence, and left people to make up their mind.”


V S (Vidia) Naipaul, who died in August 2018 aged 85, was born in Trinidad, the descendant of Hindu Indians who immigrated to the island as indentured servants. His father was a journalist and author. Vidia won a scholarship to Oxford in 1950 and settled in England, though he travelled extensively. Knighted in 1990, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.

Recommended fiction by the same author: A House for Mr Biswas (1961), The Enigma of Arrival (1987), Half a Life (2001). Non-fiction: An Area of Darkness (1965).

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