Everybody is saddled with the curse of small talk

GoldGold
by Dan Rhodes

I can’t remember where I saw this book recommended but I clearly did as it was on my birthday wishlist at the start of the year. Whoever recommended it, I must thank you, because this was just what I was looking for – an enjoyable, funny, page-turning read that was also emotionally engaging and well phrased.

This is a very British book, and also very much a side of Britain that I know well, so I felt immediately at home in the setting Rhodes had created, but that perhaps says as much about his skill as a writer as about my familiarity with small Welsh villages!

Miyuki has been visiting the same Welsh coastal village every January for years for her annual holiday. She rents the same cottage, eats the same terrible junk food and visits the same roster of local pubs. She knows a handful of locals by name (or nickname) and they in turn know her as the Japanese girl (though she’s not really). This year, a sudden creative urge from Miyuki threatens to make this her most eventful – and not in a good way – holiday yet.

“Over time, she began to sympathise with her interrogators. She came to the conclusion that if people wanted to talk to her about Japan then there was no reason they shouldn’t. She had grown to realise that everybody is saddled with the curse of small talk in one way or another. Veterinary assistants trying to relax in general company are tormented with interminable true stories of decrepit parrots, crippled badgers, and poodles with weeping sores; off-duty plumbers trying to wind down in pubs are pestered by fellow drinkers with extensive inquiries about float valves and stopcocks…”

Rhodes does a good job of being funny about everyday life – the boring bits, the secret bits but also the very serious bits – without ever being nasty. Tall Mr Hughes might tend to go on a bit about his latest topic of interest (on this holiday it’s alligators) but he’s clearly beloved by his drinking pals Short Mr Hughes and Mr Puw. Septic Barry might be a little over-sharing when it comes to his own business in septic tanks – and indeed he gave himself that nickname – but he’s also the local ladies’ man and Rhodes had me rooting for him where another author might have made him a comedy villain.

“Mr Edwards was a man of few words, and most of these were holy and mackerel. He could load the phrase in so many ways. Depending on his tone and his manner it could be a greeting, a valediction, an expression of surprise, of pleasure or dismay, an admonition, a congratulation, a remonstration, or even a comfort in a difficult time.”

Miyuki is a well drawn character. Quiet and reserved, she is nevertheless happy to chat to whoever sits next to her at the pub and even contribute to the Hughes Puw and Hughes pub quiz team. She likes to read a book a day on holiday so that before January is out she knows that she has averaged more than a book a month over the year. She walks the cliff tops, she drinks real ale and she takes pleasure in dropping her contact lenses on the woodburning stove at night to watch them shrivel up.

This book didn’t have me laughing out loud or rolling on the floor, and it didn’t change my life, but it was like a warm hug. Which was nice.

Published 2007 by Canongate.

Source: This was a present from my Mum.

And we got back to work

The Restraint of Beasts
by Magnus Mills

I was sent this book by an old friend in a book swap and I can see why he chose it. It’s a comedy of a pretty niche sort and I think you’d have to know someone well to confidently recommend this to them. I was amused, so thanks Matt.

Mills takes a very simple story of everyday working class life, with all the drudgery and repetition that real life entails, and injects a few bizarre moments and a lot of black humour. Tam and Richie are Scottish fencers working under the supervision of the unnamed narrator, who must cajole and harass them into doing their job. Early in the novel, their employer sends them away from rural Scotland to equally rural west England to erect specialist fences for a grumpy farmer. The three main characters must share a small, dilapidated caravan and all they have to look forward to, aside from going home to Scotland when the job is finished, is their nightly visit to the local pub. When they come across local fencers the Hall Brothers, they think they have inadvertently trodden on toes and are in trouble for it, but the tale turns out to be much stranger than that.

Or does it? At the end I had quite a few unanswered questions. There are a number of things said that seem to be evasions or euphemisms that are not explained. Everything is sinister and suspect. A talk from the boss will be built up to as a climactic event, while the real big drama just happens with a shrug. The humour is understated and dark.

“Tam slowly advanced on the sheep, chisel raised like a dagger, getting within a few yards of the animal. Then suddenly he sprang forward.
‘Tam, no!’ I yelled.
The sheep instantly bolted, and Tam fell forward onto the ground…
‘What are you doing?’ I said.
‘I was just seeing if I could catch it, that’s all,’ he replied.
‘Why?’
‘In case we have to eat them.’
‘Why should we have to do that?’
‘Well, there’s fuck all else, is there?’ He looked desperate…
I made Tam promise not to kill, or practise killing, any sheep, and we got back to work.”

Tam and Richie are harmlessly useless. Work-shy and thoughtless to the point of stupidity, they spend all their money (and more, in the form of loans from the narrator) on beer and cigarettes. But they’re sweet in their reliance on one another and they’re happy enough with what they have. When persuaded to work they are good at their job and often it’s easy to sympathise with their reluctance to work – when it’s cold and raining and they just want to be finished and home for Christmas, for instance.

I’m not sure if a point is being made or if it’s just intended to be funny but there are a lot of conversations in the novel where a manager gives an impossible order or wilfully misunderstands an employee. The story is certainly firmly on the side of the main three characters – the working men. It doesn’t try to make big statements about society or the state of Britain but you could argue that this one small example does illustrate issues such as employment rights, debt and heavy drinking.

I did find the tone and subject disorienting at first. Mills worked as a fencer for years and has included a lot of detail about the job in his prose. And the tone is so very dry that it took me a while to pick up on the irony at work. But a chapter or so in it clicked for me and I found myself grinning through the rest of the book.

Published 1998 by Flamingo, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread First Novel Award. Winner of the McKitterick Prize in 1999.

Humour in the darkest places

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths
by Barbara Comyns

This partially fictionalised autobiography has me torn. On the one hand it was entertaining, funny and moving; on the other the author’s lack of education resulted in writing that was at times stilted or phrased in ways that I felt could have been improved by better editing.

“Sophia” lives in London, eking a meagre living as an artist in a commercial studio. Aged just 21 she and her artist lover Charles decide to marry. He is from a middle class family who disapprove mildly of his bohemian lifestyle but disapprove far more vehemently of Sophia marrying him and becoming a drain on his scant resources. Given the choice between his allowance and his marriage Charles chooses Sophia, which sounds romantic and indeed at first it seems that way. Comyns wittily describes making do with the little they have, the joy of rare treats, the shared humour of learning to cook and keep house. But when she falls pregnant life goes from bad to worse and abject poverty destroys the marriage and threatens her life multiple times.

It seems amazing, given the content (poverty, abortion, serious illness, the threat of having a child taken away) that I could say this, but this is a fairly light read. Comyns is great fun, with an original turn of phrase and genuine warmth, always trying to see the world in a positive light (or almost always; she has her dark times). In some ways book this functions as a brilliantly strong argument for the changes that society has made since the 1930s setting – maternity leave, child support, access to and information about contraception, and free healthcare would have helped her a lot, obviously, but I also mean the general attitude of the book’s characters that Charles has the right to his lifestyle and she has failed him by becoming pregnant, that he has no obligation to the family he has created.

The section about Sophia’s first pregnancy is the part that has stayed with me most strongly. She is summarily dismissed from her job on announcing the news (which her co-workers had all guessed before her because she has shockingly little knowledge on this front). She relies on charity to get to see a doctor, because she and Charles cannot afford it themselves, which means that her labour takes place in a hideous charitable hospital where she is treated like a wicked schoolgirl and given no explanation of anything. For instance, a bath is run for her and she is left alone to take it, but she is too doubled up in pain from a contraction to get in. When the nurse returns and sees this, she shouts at Sophia for being a “horrid, dirty girl” rather than lending her a hand.

For all of the awfulness that she goes through, I could not call Sophia entirely blameless. I know that she is to an extent a result of a certain culture but she so rarely speaks her mind. She never once berates Charles for not getting a job or for spending money unnecessarily when the family is literally starving. And she does let pride stop her from getting a little help sometimes, despite the extreme poverty she endures. There were a few such moments that reminded me of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, though in other respects the two books could not be much more different.

I am certainly intrigued by Comyns, who wrote further volumes of autobiography disguised to varying degrees, as well as some true fiction, but I do not think, on the basis of this book at least, that she was a great writer.

First published in Great Britain by Eyre & Spottiswoode 1950.

I picked this up after reading this intriguing review on Novel Insights.

That’s prostrate, with two Rs

Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years
by Sue Townsend

Oh, Sue Townsend, you never let me down. I’ve been struggling to read much lately but as soon as I opened this book I was tearing through the pages, laughing out loud and loving reconnecting with the characters that are so familiar they are like extended family.

I pretty much grew up with Adrian Mole. I somehow got hold of the first two books when I was about 10 (I think they’d been given to my older sister, not to me) and I read and re-read those volumes many a time through my teens. I think I have bought and read all of the subsequent volumes, and though grown-up Adrian is far more annoying than the teenage boy was, I still love being back in that world.

Adey, as Pandora still calls him, is approaching 40, is living next-door to his parents in a converted pigsty, is worried that his wife Daisy is gaining weight and losing interest in him, and is having trouble with his prostate (which everyone keeps calling his prostrate, much to his irritation). Still, he enjoys his job at a local independent bookshop and his five-year-old daughter Gracie is a treasure, albeit one with an overactive imagination. And surprisingly, the glamorous and successful Pandora (MP and junior minister) still shows enough interest in him to make his wife jealous.

This wouldn’t be an Adrian Mole book if he wasn’t teetering on the brink of total failure and there are moments when you wonder if he doesn’t bring it on himself (he’s so earnest) but he is ultimately a very sympathetic character surrounded by everyday-type chaos. What I’ve always thought Townsend does particularly well is to make Adrian a terrible writer when he’s trying to write (which he’s still convinced is his forte despite only ever having published a cookbook that his mother had to ghost-write when he couldn’t get past the introduction) but a brilliant diarist. His daily life, boring to his own eyes and those of his friends and family, becomes wonderfully funny through a combination of keen observation and fantastic characterisation.

In this book, for possibly the first time, my favourite character was Adrian’s mother Pauline. She freely admits to a long litany of faults but is devoted to her family and amazingly capable (she is often the only one who can persuade Gracie to wear her school uniform and not one of her many fancy dress costumes…and she does it without tears or tantrums). She is also writing an autobiography full of shocking lies that she has provisionally titled A Girl Called Shit and is threatening to take Adrian’s sister Rosie on The Jeremy Kyle Show to reveal who her real father is.

As ever, the diaries are set in the recent past (2007–2008) and provide an often-satirical look at life in Britain. There are the precursors to and early rumblings of recession, the resignation of Tony Blair, the summer floods and the smoking ban.

The next instalment of the Mole diaries is due out later this year and I greatly look forward to it.

Published 2009 by Michael Joseph.