Here's another post in my A Letter from a Merry Go Round series.
I’ve always been a picky reader.
Rejecting a book takes a matter of moments. Sometimes a page is enough, while at other times, a paragraph will do it. Once I commit to a book though, I’m reluctant to throw it aside. If the first page or two have grabbed me, I’ll stay the journey, even if it hurts.
There are exceptions. ‘Literary’ novels promise so much and are so highly thought of by a certain circle of reviewers, that I’ve often subjected myself to their tender mercies, drinking them down like some foul medicine, imbibing page after page of tortuous drivel. But when the treatment appears to be killing the patient, it’s generally wiser to withdraw the medicine, and many a literary novel has been thrown aside with sufficient violence to express, what I feel, is a nicely metaphorical display of my inner turmoil and mental torment.
I will, from time to time, stick with a favoured author through thick and thin, ploughing on through a hundred pages or so of unpromising exposition to get to the meat within. These are always traditionally-published books, especially from well-known authors, that really ought to have been quite severely edited to eliminate the padding from their first third. I suppose that when you are dealing with a writer who’s been around for a while, such as John le Carre, it must be quite difficult for a publisher to insist on swingeing cuts to the reams of overwrought prose, but really, the publishers would do us all a tremendous favour if they would just bite the bullet and get on with it. I’ve picked on John le Carre in particular here, because I’ve been wrestling with one of his books for some time, and I still have absolutely no idea what it’s about, who the main characters are, where it’s set, and more importantly, where it’s going. Even so, I’ll stick with it a bit longer, because over the years, he’s built up a bank of trust as far as I’m concerned, and I’ll try to hold on, for as long as I can, to the idea that the book is going somewhere. But this book is testing my patience, and this brings me neatly to the topic of this blog post: the existence of the emergency bookcase.
I must read. Every day. This is not open to negotiation. Though for those occasions when I can’t face doing battle with a book that is giving me difficulty, or for when I’ve just finished a book without having its successor lined up, there must be a supply of emergency books on hand. At one point, I would have been able to call this post, The Emergency Book, but I’ve moved beyond that point many years ago. There has to be a selection within easy reach of my pillow.
The residents of the emergency bookcase are very particular titles that must fulfil a number of requirements.
Firstly, they must be the kind of book that can be dipped in and out of. Books with short chapters will do at a pinch, but ideally, these should be books that are not necessarily linear narratives, e.g. a fictional diary, such as one of the Adrian Mole books, makes an excellent emergency book. It really isn’t necessary to read the whole book through from start to finish in order to enjoy it, and it doesn’t really matter if a long gap is left in between reading one episode the next. Even better though, are collections of short work, and I like to keep a number of these on the emergency bookcase at any one time.
This brings us on to the second main requirement. Emergency books must be entertaining. It is no good, in my opinion, having an emergency book that is hard work. Worthy tomes with high moral tones are not welcome in the emergency bookcase. We need books that are written with a certain panache and punchy style. Wit and humour are the order of the day, angst and dreariness are out.
It’s inter sting to note that most of my emergency books were written a long time ago. Perhaps that says something about the state of satire in the modern world, although, with the way things are going these days, any satirists who are still producing work, must be struggling to produce anything that is quite as ridiculous as the daily reality. The notable exception is David Sedaris. While I’m sure that his work will not be to everyone’s taste, his collections of short works are pithy and to the point, so they make excellent emergency book material.
In a similar vein, although a lot older, any collection of James Thurber’s short pieces will be a useful addition to your emergency bookcase. And if that isn’t enough from the American humorists, then a collection of S.J. Perelman’s work will keep you busy for some considerable time.
There is one book which must always be on my emergency bookcase, and that is an edition of the complete works of Saki. Saki, the pen name of H.H. Monro, wrote with a Sureness of touch that will delight and surprise you, and I never tire of reading his pieces. They are also fantastically short. Saki did not mess about, thank goodness. Perfect.
My current emergency book of choice is a collection of pieces along the lines of a fictional memoir, and its title is Someone Like Me. Sadly, its author, Miles Kington, is no longer with us, but he left behind a legacy of wonderfully warm and yet dryly witty prose. The outrageous events in each of the short pieces verge on the downright unbelievable, and yet they are strangely recognisable, dealing as they do with the foibles of family members. The characters are drawn with affection and you find yourself drawn into their world, reminiscing at the same time and remembering the larger-than-life characters from your own life.
I have my own memory of Miles Kington in real life. One year while attending the Cheltenham Literature Festival with an old friend, we walked into the bar in the town hall, and we were pleasantly surprised to see a jazz trio playing in one corner. I performed a swift double take and realised that yes, the man playing the double bass was Miles Kington, a person I had only ever seen on TV, where he used to appear in humorous panel shows. It was quite a surreal experience to sit and sip a pint of Guinness while watching a celebrity playing jazz across the room. I seem to remember that he was actually pretty good at the double bass, and I also have a memory, though it’s one of those slippery memories that may have been the result of either my imagination, or the Guinness, but I have a feeling that one point, I looked up to see him playing a teapot. In case you haven’t heard of this musical treat before, let me assure you that it is possible to place the mouthpiece from a trumpet into the spout of the metal teapot and play it, using the teapot’s lid as a kind of mute.
Looking back, I wish I’d offered Miles a pint of Guinness as some small recompense for the fun he’d given me with his witty writing.
You see, as a teenager, I discovered that when you are supposed to be doing serious work in the library, you could grab a copy of Punch from the magazine stand and while away a happy half-hour reading the funniest bits. Miles was a regular contributor to the magazine for quite a long time, and his way of playing with words went down very well with me and a few of my friends. Thinking about it now, I have a sneaking suspicion that the teachers were perfectly aware of what we were giggling over, but I’m guessing that they did exactly the same thing themselves in the staff room, probably grabbing the magazine before it made its way to the library, and I don’t recall ever being told off for reading the magazine when I should have been concentrating on some more mundane task. Either that, or my friends and I were sufficiently adept at hiding the magazine under a large volume from the Encyclopedia Britannica. At any rate, they were happy times, and given what I do now, they were also an excellent grounding in humorous writing.
Skipping forward to the present day, I can only imagine what Miles would have made of the nonsensical carryings-on of our illustrious leaders, but I’m sure that he would have shied away from the shameless dog-whistle rhetoric and hate-filled diatribes that seem to shower down on us with each new day. Instead, he would have made some wry observations, and in his own gentle way, pointed out that we are all in our own way ridiculous. And in so doing, he would have reminded us that there are better ways to behave. The phrase much-missed is overused these days, but for those of us who have had our lives enriched by Miles’ humour, it is entirely appropriate to use it.
The version of Miles’ childhood portrayed in Someone Like Me may be largely fictitious, but one thing is for sure: it will always take pride of place on my emergency bookcase.
And the next time I drink a glass of Guinness, I’ll raise a toast to Miles.
Someone Like Me can be found, with some difficulty, in bookshops, but Amazon has it listed:
His obituary, or one of them, is here: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/miles-kington-polymath-wit-and-jazz-aficionado-dies-at-66-776222.html