Wakefield

Wakefield

And the train, slowing, pulls me from sleep

and stops somewhere just outside Wakefield

where the mist still hangs, ebbing,

banked beside copse and the dew-heavy grass

 

And folds and half rolls back like a coverlet

as the hare creeps into view. He is

all pant-breath, nose and eager listening.

Close enough to feel almost like nearness.

 

And memory is just as keen-eyed, you lie

leveret soft in the curled edges of half-sleep.

A thought that pricks up its ears at silence

quickening suddenly from a quiet mind field.

 

And then as soon moving, jolted

forward, a quick exhalation of engines.

All the noisy nothing of the coming day

the mist scatters from the looming city.

 

And it is gone, only bearing glances slantwise

running from fingers, eyes and too much seeking.

A dusting of hair over lips.

A hare brushing the long grass.Image

Beyond an apple a day

I know that lots of people will consider this complete internet over-share and so I suggest if you find people sharing personal information over the internet offensive or embarrassing you stop reading now.

Today I went to hear Emma Woolf talk beautifully, modestly, insightfully, honestly, bravely and intelligently about her writing and her new book The Ministry of Thin (http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/products/emma+woolf/the+ministry+of+thin/9573064/). Those of you who know me well will know that I have struggled with anorexia throughout my twenties. Any of you who have read my blog might have seen me mention Emma’s book An Apple a Day in my list of books that made me. In truth this book didn’t ‘make’ me, it saved me, I genuinely believe that I am alive because of it. It is the single most important book in my library, it is the book that saved my life.

This is relevant because as I get older and I have come further through a process of recovery I have been more and more convinced that we are struggling through an epidemic of illnesses, anxiety and depression about food, the ways we see our bodies (and other people’s) the way we judge and assess ourselves and each other and how we equate our own successes and failures with our physical selves. It is pernicious, it is destructive and it is on the increase.

At tonight’s talk I saw women and men too visibly moved by their own experiences of viewing their bodies as battle grounds, whether or not they had any direct experience of a diagnosed eating disorder, because we have become used to constantly dealing with our own demons, of one sort and another, about how we look and how we think other people view our bodies.

I think this book is essential reading for anyone who has experienced how we can be our own worst enemies: how we congratulate our friends for losing weight, or apologise for eating, or eat in secret sometimes or secretly wish we could just switch off the voice in our head that comments when we feel we’ve over-indulged. Emma’s writing speaks to me about how we navigate all the complications of understanding the relationship between our psyche and our physical appearance – because I think we have got it all wrong. We think that if you are thin you must be happy, we think if you’re overweight you must have a problem and we constantly assess our own worth in relation to those around us – most particularly in how we think we might look in a pair of jeans. This is, quite frankly, bonkers but it is not uncommon. Emma writes this all much more eloquently than I could and it is enlightening reading from a sociological and cultural perspective as much as it reaches out to the individual.

Today I thanked Emma, with complete conviction, for being so instrumental in helping me overcome the most difficult challenge I’ve ever had to face and that meant saying, clearly and loudly into a microphone in front of 100 or so people that I had anorexia and that I hoped and believed I was getting better. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but it required nothing like the level of bravery it took for me to face the illness. A year ago, I’m fairly sure I couldn’t have said that in front of all of my family, let alone a room of strangers and the film crews of Channel 4 but today I did and I am proud of myself. I am proud for having faced up to an illness and for allowing myself to stop punishing myself for having it – just as if I had a broken leg or cancer or any number of other illnesses I have allowed myself to understand it is an illness and it is not my fault. Some people may baulk at comparing anorexia with cancer but this is an illness which kills, had it not been treated I firmly believe that it would have killed me.

I’m sorry if this is all a bit too much for many people to read and for some of you it may make no sense at all but for me it is hugely important and so many of you have (often unwittingly) been instrumental in helping me to recover even if you have simply recognised the me that existed beyond the illness and loved me for all the reasons I am myself beyond its often confining and restrictive borders. Anorexia is at its most punishing when it makes you feel alone and so many of you have been reminders of a world I wanted to be a part of and share in and contribute to. To all of you I share my most profound and heartfelt thanks.

Most of all I wanted to thank all of my family in some way publicly, because more than anyone else they have given so much of their own lives in the firm belief in the ongoing value and potential of mine. It is a trust and love beyond measure, I am extraordinarily fortunate.

Precious Cargo: An interview with Neil McSweeney

“I feel that the essence of a song, a painting, a book is something you can’t sell. You can only sell the paper, the frame, the plastic.”

Sitting in a noisy bookshop cafe, Neil McSweeney pulls out a selection of books from his bag alongside two he’s just bought; replacement copies, he explains, for those he must have lent or given to other people. It’s indicative of an attitude to sharing imagination which forms a central part of our conversation. “The funny thing about the books that you really like is that want to give them away. I seldom have the ones that mean most to me as I’m always giving them to other people”. The importance of sharing things, particularly creatively, with others: music, books, ideas, really matters to Neil McSweeney. It is something that will be very familiar to fans of his music. His gigs often feel like the best kind of family gathering, with a wide-ranging, loyal fan base who come along to enjoy a pint and a song or two with someone they feel they’ve got to know. It is music they feel invested in, personally. Chatting to fans at one of his most recent gigs I was struck by how much they spoke as though they were coming to watch a friend play, even though they’d never actually met Neil off-stage.

I’ve always been interested in what inspired the lyricism which is at the heart of McSweeney’s music and was intrigued to see if his reading habits influenced that process. This interview forms part of Waterstones’ ‘Books That Made Me’ campaign – a project to find out the books that have had the most influence on readers today. I invited Neil to tell me about the role that books have played in his life and which titles he would choose for his ‘Books That Made Me’ shortlist.

We begin by talking about how much books have been a part of his life, was he a reader growing up?

I was an avid reader when I was younger and spent a lot of time in bookshops. It creates a certain kind of mindset, I love that, slightly divorced from the world, because reading is a very solitary pursuit. I’ve always associated it with a learning experience, self-discovery. There are plenty of books I like, but the books I’ve chosen have been ones that have really changed my life. My mum taught us to read, so I could read by the time I went to school. I read a lot of fantasy, ‘choose your own adventure’ and later Terry Brooks. We would drive to Spain on holiday and I missed it all, reading in the back of the car.”

The Discovery of Heaven

However, it’s the books that he encountered as an adult that seem to have left the most lasting impression. Neil’s first choice is one he can’t remember how he stumbled across but it’s the first that came to mind when he started thinking about the most important books to him. The Discovery of Heaven is a Dutch novel by Harry Mulisch, published to great acclaim in the early Nineties. The book incorporates philosophical and theological ideas with an epic plot, often compared with the work of Umberto Eco. It is a book which is about travel and journeys, through space, time, thought and theology. Neil McSweeney’s music has a lot to say about journeys too, both the literal journeys that form the basis of songs like ‘Glencoe’ and, more recently, ‘San Miniato’ but also pathways of thought and experience. It is music that is both about being centred, finding home and also about constant flux and movement. It’s a blend which is there in his family background – Neil’s father’s family are from the west coast of Ireland and emigrated across the world but his mother’s family can be traced back to the same field and the same village. He was born in Scotland but moved when he was young, finally settling in Sheffield where he made his first album, Remember to Smile, released in 2006.

The thing that I took from the book that stays with me to this day is that cause and effect in human affairs is unfathomably complex. We have this idea that Harry Mulisch wrote this book, his name is on the cover and all the reviews are attributed to him, but this book is about all the people connected to the authorship of this book, the unknown ripples. This book started me thinking about how whatever people do with their lives, however long they live for, they all have an equal sized patch on the quilt. 70 years or 7 hours, once you have existed there is a gap in the world when you are gone and who knows what effect that has on the world”.

Where There's a Will

Neil explains the next two choices form something of a pair: Tom Hodkinson’s How to be Idle and John Mortimer’s Where there’s a Will. They’re both books which use a light, deft, touch to bring home the importance of taking pleasure in life and in taking the time to enjoy life properly. John Mortimer’s brilliant comic creation Horace Rumpole is an ageing barrister who takes delight in (aside from defending the indefensible) cigars and cheese and tomato sandwiches. Tom Hodgkinson’s life-affirming antidote to self-help manuals is a guide in how to reclaim your life and free yourself from the limitations of work-obsessed capitalist conventions.

How to be Idle

The brilliance of How to be Idle is that [Hodgkinson] manages to understand how if you look back on your life at the things you’ve been pleased with, or regrets, you’d arrive at this book. This undoubtedly changed my life because it made me realise that the things that mattered most to me should be the things I give most time to. I’ve had lots of different jobs and they’ve all had a worth beyond the salary, even the most mundane things I’ve done. There is a point where lots of people feel buffeted around, as though they’re not an agent in their own life. I think it’s easier for some people than others but I had been brought up with a degree of social programming, with a strong work ethic and my parents were determined I should go to university. I’d been making music since I was a kid but there was a tension between the creativity and the goal of having a career, making money from music. These books came at around the time I wrote a song on my first album called Remember to Smile, before my first son was born, and it fed into how I wanted to be a parent. I decided that I would make a choice; if I could, if I was able, I would spend as much time as I could with my children, I’d make it happen.”

John Mortimer, he tells me, is deliberately a more humorous choice “it always penetrates the gloom, it’s a beautiful book. I’ve always been a bit scared of regret. I used to think it was a pressured thing, thinking if I don’t do this I might regret it whereas now it’s more about thinking about the things I don’t have to do and realising if I don’t do them, that’s not a decision I will regret. It’s flipped round and been about making sure I do the things that matter most.” It’s a sentiment which is crystallised in one of the songs from the forthcoming album ‘Be Your Own Dog’ which has at its heart the impulse to instinctively grab life with both hands and in your own way.

The humour of John Mortimer is certainly some way from Neil’s fourth choice, Being Dead by Jim Crace. This book begins as a simply told love story but with a sudden twist of fate becomes a paean to the meaning of life and the cyclical nature of human existence.

Being Dead

It’s a bit like a headache, you can’t quite remember what it’s like when you haven’t got one! When I’m not reading his prose I forget what it’s like but as soon as I read it I know it’s his voice. I really connect with it. It is a theme that runs through all of my songs too, about how you have a finite amount of time and then you die. Death has been relatively lacking from my life but I also think there’s a degree to which it has become fetishised in our culture too. What I like about this book is that it’s just about two ordinary people and they fell in love and it didn’t all work out (as life doesn’t) and then they died and it’s told in a relatively matter-of-fact, dispassionate way. That’s it. There’s something very freeing about that.”

He’s now a father of two and I wonder whether that’s changed his attitude towards seeing life (and death) with such a open-eyed honesty. “Death used to be commonplace. It still is commonplace – we’re only going one way after all – but there is this sense now that there is an injustice to dying young, that you should be allocated a certain lot of time and that if you don’t get that, you’ve been cheated. I don’t view it like that. As a parent there is a terror at the idea that your children might die but they’re just people and we don’t know how much time we have with them. It’s a routine thing with me that they’ll be winding me up and then I’ll hold them close because I love them more than anything else. Living in the knowledge we’re all temporary enriches life. Pretending it isn’t going to happen impoverishes it, it allows us to do things that cost us a great deal and shapes how we conduct our lives for the worse.”

Neil’s next choice is a book he hasn’t actually finished reading, but he says he already knows it’s going on the list. W. G. Sebold’s Rings of Saturn. It’s a book which begins as a chronicle of a walk around East Anglia but stretches and meanders to include musings on art, literature, nature and allusions as wide, varied and oblique as they are tender and insightful. The author Philip Hoare, author of The Sea Inside, recently wrote about it in The Independent as one of the books that changed his life describing: “That dawning realisation is its great and subtle power, like a looming thundercloud moving in from far away.”

The Rings of Saturn

Neil says Rings of Saturn directly influenced the new album, particularly the cover art. “We were talking about the album and although the songs are wide-ranging, I think of it as a winter album. Not because it’s about snow and things dying out but actually it’s a cyclical thing and it must happen, it’s essential. For some reason, having that concept in my head, I’d never heard of this book but I had this idea that it should have a fish on it. I think it was something to do with the process of taking a living thing, making it dead and feeding a whole community as something that had been going on for generations. I sent this to Matt [Boulter, the guitarist in the band] and he thought I must have read this book. The symbolism is integral to the book and symbolism is very much a part of the songs but it isn’t how they were conceived. It’s about making something that is true. So many of the ideas and images in this book resonate with that.”

The new album, Cargo has a much more joyful tone when contrasted with some of the melancholic music from his earlier albums but this may have something to do with Neil’s relationship with music these days. It is certainly something reflected in his final book choice: The Gift by Lewis Hyde, a book that argues for the importance of reciprocity within creative endeavours.

This [book] is about the fact that the creative process involves a series of gifts. The first half is practical, about the idea of a gift economies and alternative ways of organising economic systems. Spiritual approaches to nature and spirituality, all of which has an internal logic: that everything in nature that is valuable is given. The point of the book is that in a world where we’ve been encouraged to view creativity as a series of commodities which we can flog to consumers, this is an alienating thing for a lot of creative people and it can be quite disabling for people. This is the final piece of the jigsaw, allowing me to settle and understand what I’m doing when I make music and write songs. I can come to some sort of rhythm – I feel that the essence of a song, a painting, is something you can’t sell. You can sell the paper, the frame, the plastic. With music this is most interesting of all because it’s only recently we’ve had any way of fixing it to a physical object. Before that the actual experience was free.”

This is part of a more fundamental belief that Neil expounds, explaining that creativity is not all about the creator and not purely about the fixed and finished object. We talk about how the process of lending books is like this too, there is meaning in the giving and the book itself is different as it passes from hand to hand. Neil explains that this also applies to the act of making music.

We’re at a point where the process of fixing music is coming undone and returning to its natural, original state. If you write a story, a poem, a song there is something in the moment when you write that isn’t owned by you. I write music but I just happen to be in the right place, the right frame of mind to connect with it. There is a sense that the thing arrives and you have to be in the right place for your brain to capture the pattern, the abstraction and then the crucial thing is that you pass it on. It has to be a generous thing, a gift. If your primary concern is what you’re going to make or get from it then something fundamental is lost.”

Neil describes the best music as being – through the process of sharing – reciprocal, endless and constantly giving. The new album is Neil’s most collaborative to date, featuring Lucy Farrell, Sam Sweeney, Brooks Williams, Matt Boulter, Vera Van Heeringen, Jock Tyldesley among others. It is an album which manages to bring together a plethora of voices, talent and ideas in a way which is both innovative and utterly familiar. It brims over with an immense generosity of spirit and it demands to be shared. Find a gig, listen to it live. You’ll be amongst friends.

   The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World - Canons

 

Judge a girl by her covers: the books that made me.

BTMM banner

On the 23rd of May, Waterstones is launching a new campaign to find out what are the books that changed the world and made a difference in people’s lives. You can read all about the official campaign here: http://www.thebookthatmademe.com/

You can also read Jon Woolcott’s excellent introduction to the project on the Waterstones blog here.

It’s an idea that probably appeals to most book-lovers, we like to think of books as having an impact, that they are important. Yet really contemplating the books that have changed your life is, I have discovered, much more challenging than you might think. I am a consummate devourer of books, I gobble them up quickly and greedily reach for the next like a chocoholic on a one-way mission to heart-failure (thankfully Fiction is better for you than Dairy Milk). I have plenty of books that I love, plenty that I like and a fair number that make me so angry that merely contemplating their existence makes my blood boil (yes, Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Heart of Darkness, I’m looking at you).

Thinking of the ones that have actually made a difference is more challenging but equally rewarding too. It is as though most books are pebbles skimming water barely leaving a ripple but there are a few that sink down deeper, so that when you look under the surface they have changed the ground that lies underneath.

In order to be strict with myself and really focus on the books that changed me, I have limited this list to the 10 books that have changed my life (with one tiny cheat, I confess here and now). I have also arranged these in chronological order as that seemed the simplest way for me to order my thoughts but this doesn’t reflect their relative importance, they are all, I think, in their own way, as important as each other. Looking back at them has reminded me of how fortunate I have been in having friends, family, teachers and colleagues to point me in the right direction (and at the right book) when I have felt as though I was foundering.

It is easy to get sentimental about literature and I frequently do, but I have a very real sense, looking at these titles, that they have formed something like a compass for me to  navigate my own sense of personal history and they provide markers for where and when my life changed. I can read them again and re-inhabit a different version of myself; it is a form of personal time-travel which is uniquely transporting and strangely comforting. They remind me of where I have been and sometimes they can be a good map to show me where I’d like to be going. I’m glad I’m not the same little girl who used to carry an unlit candle up to bed in order to “pretend to be an orphan” but I can still remember what it was like to be her, she’s in there somewhere and if I open one or two of these books, I find her again.

The point of this exercise is, hopefully, to share these books and learn about other people’s lives through books. I would really like to collect together as many different experiences of the books that make, change, form and save lives. My choices are quite personal but I don’t think that should dictate the tone. I’d love to be the sort of person who’d taught themselves to make their own clothes or who has actually got round to the work of getting something published (for whom the book that made them might be far more practical). Everything from Motorcycle Maintenance to Philosophy is welcome. You can contribute your ideas on the Waterstones website but it would be great if anyone reading this wanted to post their ideas on here too. I also plan to create a gallery of images of people with their books or videos (for the more technically savvy) with extracts from their chosen book and/or the reason they’ve chosen it. You can post your choice in a comment here, or email it to me at megreengrass@gmail.com.

  1. The book that made me understand the joy of reading

Ned And The Joybaloo, Hiawyn Oram

Ned thinks he hates almost everything in his life; he is a very naughty little boy who draws on walls and scowls. Then one day, in the airing cupboard, he finds the Joybaloo, a giant creature full of magic with breath like paper roses and they go on adventures every Friday evening. I wasn’t a particularly naughty little girl and I certainly didn’t draw on the walls but this book really stuck with me about the nature of creating your own joy from your imagination and seeing beautiful things in the ordinary world around you. The book is a bit melancholic in parts and it’s quite a grown-up children’s story but it’s all the better for not dumbing down. For all it is quite magical, it is a book all about how to live in the real world and still keep a sense of wonderment. I think that’s a brilliant formative lesson for anyone and I would thoroughly recommend getting your hands on a copy. Sadly it’s now out of print but it is worth hunting down for the illustrations alone.

  1. The book(s) that made me a desperate, dreaming romantic:

I Capture the Castle Anne of Green Gables: Centenary Edition

I know, I know, I’m cheating but I really can’t separate these books as they share such a common influence. I know I’m not the only little girl who felt an affinity with these protagonists. I think both of these books did more to shape and mould my character than many other influences could have. As a girl’s guide to growing up, I think I could have done far worse. Both contain strong female protagonists who are clever, funny, outspoken and filled with burning ambition to explore the world. They’re also both characters who love writing and books – no wonder I felt at home in their company. Anne and Cassandra have strong imaginative streaks and they grow up in unbelievably romantic locations but their lives are challenging, their families complex and their paths to adulthood far from simple. What made most difference to me was finding heroines who could be wildly romantic but retain a strongly practical, wryly sensible core. They have their head in the clouds but their feet on the ground and they are both very funny.

  1. The book that made me love poetry:

The Dragon Book of Verse

My school was the sort of school that thought that it was character-forming to learn and recite poetry aloud. A long-standing tradition was for 11 year olds to compete to learn Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott (for those of you familiar with Anne of Green Gables, this will start to make chronological sense!). I learned and recited it in front of my class, despite being incredibly nervous, despite being teased for doing so. I did it because I fell in love with the mythical, winding magic of the verse, I had always had poetry around me (my grandfather punctuated his speech with snippets of remembered verse) but this was when I really discovered it for myself. My prize was an inscribed edition of The Dragon Book of Verse and it was the start of a long-term love affair with poetry which I have carried through my life. When I have forgotten my own name, I suspect I will still be able to recite the opening lines of this poem, so firmly is it planted in my brain.

  1. The book that made me want to be like my mum:

Air and Angels

This book represents my years as an in-house kleptomaniac, that is to say, I repeatedly made off with my mum’s books. For years she had to come and ferret them out from under my bed or collect them from a pile littered across the floor. I’m sure I’m not alone in raiding my parents’ library when I started to get bored with the Children’s section of the library. This was how I first encountered Classics; getting swept away by Jane Eyre (more on that later). The books I really remember from this period though are universally contemporary stories told by women; Anita Brookner, Joanna Trollope, Mary Wesley and the early works of Susan Hill. Given that she is best-known for her ghost stories, it is perhaps no wonder that the effect of having read Air and Angels is one of being haunted. It is a very strange, dream-like novel set amidst the mist-cloaked spires of Oxford and the world of academia.

It is, at its most simple, about the transformative, redemptive and destructive power of love and the sudden recognition of beauty. It is about a place where two people, one just entering their declining years (although he doesn’t know it) and one whose life is just beginning, intersect. It is a novel that exists almost entirely in potentia, I would struggle to say what actually happens and yet the impact is as shattering as a ringing bell through an acre of silence. Most importantly for me, I think, it made me think of my mother and the repeated descriptions of beauty and un-knowing grace always conjured up her face for me, it still does remind me just how much I wanted to hurry up and grow up just so I might have something of the same. It is a book which reminds me how desperately keen I was to grow up so I could just get there, somewhere, even if I didn’t know exactly where that was. It represents an opening door to the potentials of adulthood and when I re-read it (and I do) then it is a poignant echo of expectation and impatient hope.

  1. The book that made me get to know my dad better

Swallows and Amazons

Growing up, I knew very little about my father’s personal history although I knew plenty about my mother’s. What I did know was that he spent a good deal of time in the Lake District and that he loved and still loves the series of books by Arthur Ransome that begins with Swallows and Amazons. He has the full set in lovely green, hardback and I read them all as I was growing up. Swallows and Amazons is not actually my favourite, I prefer Winter Holiday which has more adventure and involves making an igloo (which basically sounded like the coolest thing I could think of). As a child of ‘90’s Britain where most of my adventures took place supervised in my own garden I can’t say that Ransome’s novels resonated with my own life, they seemed like as thorough a work of imagination as Enid Blyton. As I grew up I started to realise that they did say something very fundamental about what it had been like for my father to grow up, with a different level of freedom from adult intervention. It gave me a context for understanding lots of aspects of his personality: his spirit of adventure, his love for messing about in boats, his refusal to be put off having a picnic even in a howling gale, his love of games and Kendal Mint Cake (despite it being, as everyone knows, almost inedible, one mouthful leaves your teeth crying in a corner). I know now myself exactly how liberating it can be just to take yourself off and climb a hill or go for a long walk and can better imagine a childhood with far fewer constraints. I know much more about my father’s history now but in truth I still think I get to the heart of him more when I re-read this book, it is as though he had left something of himself on the pages, but perhaps it is the other way around.

  1. The book that made me want to be a bookseller:

Not the End of the World

I’ve written at length about Kate Atkinson before so I will keep this review brief. This is a collection of short stories which are wonderfully fantastical and yet utterly believable. The plots range from boys who turn into fish, to women who give birth to cats, the world ends, it begins again and again and again. When I was 18, Kate did an event to launch this book at the bookshop I was working in. She made a room full of people laugh and as I watched the rows of people, coming together to share a love of books, I knew I had found the right place for me to be. When I left university and was deciding what to do, this memory came back to me. I didn’t just want to read books, I wanted to share books, I still do.

  1. The book that made my change the way I looked at books:

Wide Sargasso Sea: Student Edition

You remember how I described the young girl, working her way through the Classics, discovering Jane Eyre, Rochester and all those dark brooding moors? Well my unquestioning faith in the integrity of narrative and plot stayed with me until I went to university and encountered Jean Rhys’ explosive prequel to Jane Eyre. Wide Sargasso Sea is Bertha Mason’s narrative as she describes her own life growing up, her meeting with a dashingly passionate Englishman and the dark deterioration of their marriage. Suddenly all my romantic ideals about Rochester were blown out of the water. I understood that narrators could lie or at least dissemble and that all novels were just one side of a story. I have never been able to read Jane Eyre in the same way again but it also made me look at novels in general, narrators in general in an entirely different light. No story, is the last and final word.

  1. The book that made me understand how to live with grief

Through a Glass, Darkly

Like all of Jostein Gaarder’s books, it would be hard to characterise this as a novel precisely, or at least to do so would be selling it short. It is a mixture of philosophical questioning, religious interrogation and a crucible of ideas wrapped up in Fiction. I have read all of the translated works and I have found all of them to be thought-provoking and often deeply moving but this one stands out for me as being the first book I read that made me really question death and what might come afterwards. This is the story of a little girl, confined to bed, watching the world pass by her window wondering about what is on the horizon – she is dying. As a premise, it is about as cheerful as a funeral parade but this is not a tragic novel (although it is sad), nor is it over-laid with mawkish sentiment (all this despite it having an angel as a main character). As with many of Gaarder’s books, the angel is a device for conversation and that is what most of this story is, a conversation about death and what, if anything, comes afterwards. It made me understand how to phrase questions about death and dying and when I lost someone for the first time, it gave a structure to grieving and a method of describing it.

  1. The book that made me believe I could get better

An Apple a Day: A Memoir of Love and Recovery from Anorexia

As you’ll have been able to tell by now, most of the books that have had an impact on my life have been works of Fiction, probably because I spend most of my life in a bit of a daydream, but also because I have a passion for the sort of Fiction that can give meaning reality. If this list was longer I would include a range of interesting and enlightening non-fiction that has certainly had significance in my life but I can’t honestly say it has changed me. However, there is one non-fiction book which I can honestly say went some way towards saving my life. In my mid-twenties I developed Anorexia and for a while the walls of my world got very close indeed until I felt walled into my own head with no way out. I had a fantastically supportive family and a brilliant team of medical practitioners around me who all ensured that I kept putting food in my mouth bite after painful bite but it wasn’t enough and whilst the superficial need to keep my body functioning improved, I got no closer to solving the real problem, the one in my head.

Emma Woolf, like me, developed Anorexia (which is cursed with being labelled as a teenager’s illness) as an adult and carried it through a significant part of her life even after she had learned to function, live and work without becoming dangerously ill. Reading her descriptions made me want to cry with relief – finally there was someone else out there in the world that understood that you could look perfectly fine, not even be extremely thin and still be carrying this dreaded secret about with you, every waking moment. This is not a book that provided me with answers. It is a very honest, accurate and cogent understanding of an increasingly common and debilitating illness that gets to the heart of a problem which most people think is about physical causes but in reality is a psychological illness with life-threatening physical symptoms. It made me realise that in order to really get better, I had to want to and that it might take years but that perseverance and learning to let go of controlling behaviour was the key to learning to live and enjoy living. I offer up almost daily, silent, thanks to Emma Woolf for being brave enough to tell her story which made me brave enough to face up to mine.

  1. The book that absolutely made me want to be a writer

Wise Children

This is, quite simply, the book that is everything I ever want to write. I finished it and knew I had found (for me) the perfect novel. It is too strange and complex a plot to try to describe but I suppose it is really a novel about families. It is irreverent, complex, bafflingly topsy-turvy in its plot and bold with its freedom to play with narrative tropes. It is wildly, bawdily funny. It is poignant in a way that goes beyond tears, it makes you want to take life in all its haphazard glory and wring all the experience out of it with both hands. This book made me want to be a writer and because I know I will never be able to write anything so wonderful, it is an ambition that will last me a lifetime.

 

The sound of snow

And you know how you know about the snow?
To wake like an acre, covered in muffling white.
I, who am all the chatter of too many words,
akin to the background noise of birds,
always with the radio on, drunk on airwaves,
have caught quiet like a cold.

And all the while the snow comes smothering.
Cotton for all the suddenly fragile porcelain sounds,
like my voice, which was once louder than any of these.
There is nothing golden in all this soft world.
It makes everything old. Full of wrong-footed
shuffling, stammering for purchase.

And absence, moving like a knife through butter,
as loud as sleep, or shouting underwater,
falls with the snow and takes up residence under the eaves.
It covers the panes of all the world that words made real.
My ears ring weary with obmutescence,
drowning in your silver silence.

A Bolt From the Blue: A Review of The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

“We all see our lives as stories. If a person survives an ordinary span of sixty years or more, there is every chance that his or her life as a shapely story has ended, and all that remains to be experienced is epilogue. Life is not over, but the story is.” (Kurt Vonnegut)

The Universe Versus Alex Woods

There is a room in my house (I say room, it’s more like a cupboard) which is full of things I’m loath to part with. Like all practised hoarders I keep everything: letters, diaries, postcards, National Trust pencils that were the absolute pinnacle of family days out (back when a pencil was a genuine treat, that’s ’80’s parenting for you). They’re all things that in one way or another have created a shape for my memories. One thing this collection doesn’t include, however, is a meteorite.

For Alex Woods, the eponymous hero of Gavin Extence’s extraordinary novel The Universe Versus Alex Woods, a meteorite shapes his life in more ways than one. This is a story that begins with the improbable colliding with the ordinary and proceeds to narratively waltz between the two, treading a fine-line of unbelievable truth. It is about a boy who makes a friend and the journey, both literal and metaphorical, that this friendship takes him on. It’s a sort of Bildungsroman, albeit one that involves 113 grams of marijuana and a lot of Kurt Vonnegut.

Alex is just the right balance of ordinary teenager and unlikely hero. Like all my favourite narrators (Flora in Cold Comfort Farm, Cassandra in I Capture the Castle or Richard in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere) he approaches the world with a healthy combination of hope, determination, humour and stolid realism.

Because this is, crucially, a really funny book. Not just the sort of well-that’s-quite-amusing-thought-quietly-to-yourself sort of funny book but the kind that actually makes you laugh aloud. It also made me smile, real ear-to-ear smiles at the good-humour and astonishing grace of ordinary people. I smiled at Alex’s mother, alternately baffling, ludicrous and wise; at the gruffly, stubborn Mr Petersen and the cast of perfectly recognisable individuals that people this novel so beautifully. It is a skill to create a cast of characters to whom a reader so quickly feels a genuine affinity.

These days we’re all surrounded by ways to make our world smaller: encyclopedias in the palms of our hands, endless facts at the touch of a button and all of Space (or so it might seem) on our television screens. Thousands of us sit glued to the dulcet tones of Brian Cox as he brings our Solar System just a bit closer to our doorstep. For all of that though, it seems an ever-increasing struggle to make the pieces fit. For Alex, a close encounter with the Universe provides more questions than answers. The power of this novel is more than just a comic tale of boy-meets world, it’s about the ways in which we learn to make sense of that world. It is a quest where religion and science may be just two sides of the same coin, ways of making sense of the noise. As Alex says:

“I think that telling a story is is a way of trying to make life’s complexity more comprehensible. It’s a way of trying to separate order from chaos, patterns from pandemonium. Other ways include tarot and science”

One of the things I loved most about this novel is the way in which it deals with real hope, doubt and fear about what we do with our lives and the short time we have to live them. Much of this novel is about what it is important to say and how we say it, about what we choose to pass on or hang on to and what we need to learn to give up. It’s a (too often) poorly expressed belief that the best reflection of a life well-lived is the ripples left in the lives left behind. The story is over, the life carries on. It is a sentiment near-perfectly crystallised for me in this book. It is, truly, one of the best first novels I’ve ever read.

Cecil Day Lewis had a knack for getting to the root of what love in action means and I think it is very close to something that this novel gets to the heart of. It is about learning the courage to know and be oneself and the quiet generosity of letting go of something you care about:

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.

How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

I might not have a meteorite in the box I keep on the stairs but this book will certainly be one that stays with me. It will also be one that I pass on. Again and again.

Gavin on Alex