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J.L. Carr and A Month In The Country

Novel-writing can be a cold-blooded business. One uses whatever happens to be lying around in memory and employs it to suit one’s ends … All’s grist that comes to the mill.’ – J.L. Carr, from the foreword to A Month in the Country

J.L. Carr’s short novel A Month in the Country, his fifth, was published in 1980. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Guardian Fiction Prize in the same year. If you have yet to read it, here are three good reasons why you should. First, J.L. Carr was a one-off and, in the words of the literary critic D.J. Taylor, ‘one of the most distinctive and idiosyncratic novelists of the post-war era.’ Secondly it is a very short book, fewer than 100 pages – it can be read in an afternoon and twice if necessary. Finally, and most critically, A Month in the Country is a masterpiece, a strange, lyrical meditation on passing time, the English landscape and art. No two of Carr’s novels are alike, an idiosyncrasy that on occasion cost him readers. But no other author could have written A Month in the Country; it too is an unforgettable one-off.

Joseph Lloyd Carr – he called himself James or Jim – was born in 1912 in the North Yorkshire village of Carlton Miniott. His father was a stationmaster and Wesleyan lay preacher, aspects of whom found their way into A Month in the Country in the character of Mr. Ellerbeck, as portrayed by Jim Cartwright in Pat O’Connor’s film adaptation. For many years he was a teacher, eventually becoming headmaster of a primary school in Kettering in Northamptonshire. He was 51 when his first novel, A Day in Summer, was published in 1963. In 1967, he retired from teaching to devote himself to writing and to set himself up as a small publisher. Carr’s business plans were as quirky as his fiction. He produced a series of tiny selections of famous historical poets, such as Keats, Chaucer and Donne, which retailed at sixpence for adults and fourpence for children. He also published exquisite and eccentric hand-drawn maps of English counties, many of which are still available directly from the Quince Tree Press (, and which have something in common with the work of the artist Grayson Perry. Eventually the Quince Tree Press would publish its founder’s novels too.

A Month in the Country was published by the Sussex academic press Harvester in 1980 to little fanfare. Like all great books it owes much of its subsequent popularity not to glowing reviews – there were few initially – but to word-of-mouth recommendation. Readers found something unique and haunting in Carr’s evocation of a long-gone summer in the fictional Yorkshire village of Oxgodby; as the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald noted, ‘Carr is by no means a lavish writer, but he has the magic touch to re-enter the imagined past.’ It quickly became the author’s most appreciated novel and remains so to this day, read widely by those who know little or nothing of Carr’s other books or his various careers and who continue to discover a profoundly affecting work of art. In the wake of its commercial and critical success, a film was perhaps inevitable.

In his outstanding biography of Carr, The Last Englishman, Byron Rogers recounts Carr conducting director O’Connor, scriptwriter Simon Gray and producer Kenith Trodd on a walking tour of the countryside locations which had inspired parts of the novel. ‘We went over to Newton in the Willows [near Kettering],’ Carr later wrote. ‘This is the little church all alone in the meadows … I kept the official and private vandals at bay when it became redundant. This is the novel’s backdrop, and it is charming and it is sad. One stands there and looks and wonders if anything at all is worthwhile…’ As Rogers notes, ‘this was written by man then at the peak of his literary success … This should have been a time for reflective self-congratulation, albeit tempered by the death of his wife Sally the year before. Instead, as he showed his guests the church in the meadows, Carr was close to despair. Something had happened to him in this place.

There is one further reason why any fan of the film of A Month in the Country might also consider reading the book. In the transition from page to screen, Simon Gray and Pat O’Connor effectively altered the focus of Carr’s novel. The film seems explicitly concerned with the lingering effects of the First World War on those who fought in it and on English society at large. This element, while present, is deliberately understated in the novel, part of the backdrop to events around the mural, the church and the village. In real life Carr had fought to preserve a church very like the fictional one in Oxgodby; and A Month in the Country was written while Sally Carr was in the terminal stage of a long illness. In that context, the following short paragraph from near the end of the novel, whilst still related to the trauma of the Great War, is imbued with a more personal significance, both to the narrator Birkin and to the enigmatic artist who drew him.

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

Jim Carr wrote three further wonderful novels, none of them much like A Month in the Country or for that matter one another. He died in 1994 at the age of 81. In Byron Rogers’s beautiful phrase, the last day of his life was the only one in which he had not been fully conscious. Like the painter of the Oxgodby Jesus, Carr’s work now stands for him, as eloquent as it is sublime.

NOTE: This essay was commissioned by the BFI for the booklet accompanying the new DVD and Blu Ray edition of A Month in the Country, available now.

You can also hear me discussing J.L. Carr and A Month in the Country with Lissa Evans, John Mitchinson and Mathew Clayton on the first episode of our podcast Backlisted, available via Soundcloud, iTunes etc.

BANDE À PART: Jean-Luc Godard’s playtime

The penalty of Godard’s fixation on the movie past is that … old movies may not provide an adequate frame of reference for a view of this world. Then we regret that Godard is not the kind of artist who can provide an intellectual structure commensurate with the brilliance of his style and the quality of his details. Because, of course, we think in terms of masterpieces and we feel that here is a man who has the gifts for masterpieces. But maybe he hasn’t; maybe he has artistry of a different kind.’ – Pauline Kael, review of Bande à part, The New Republic, September 10 1966

We had fun, lots of fun. And I have to say we didn’t think about making great careers or things like that – we just wanted to be actors and play.” Anna Karina in conversation with Jason Solomons at the BFI, January 16 2016

If anyone had earned the right in 1964 to bill themselves, however mischievously, as someone whose middle name was CINÉMA, it was probably Jean-Luc Godard. After the international success of À bout de souffle six years earlier, the writer and director had been responsible for a varied string of challenging, thrilling and innovative films – a hot streak without precedent, consisting of Le Petit soldat, Une femme est une femme, Vivre sa vie, Les Carabiniers and most recently Le Mépris. The latter, starring Brigitte Bardot, filmed in dazzling Italian sunshine during the summer of 1963 and funded with French, Italian and American money, had been an arthouse blockbuster: something of an oxymoron but no less true for that. Utilising Technicolour, Cinemascope and some tactical nudity shot at the insistence of the film’s American co-producers, Godard delivered ‘the greatest work of art produced in post-war Europe’ (Colin MacCabe) and a box-office smash. CINÉMA was 33 years old.

Godard’s next feature film, then, could be interpreted as a reaction to the circumstances surrounding the making of Le Mépris. Bande à part swaps technicolour for black and white, the Isle of Capri for the Paris suburbs, mediterranean sunlight for winter mist. It was shot cheaply, in a matter of weeks rather than months. And it reunited Godard with his wife Anna Karina, the Danish actress who had starred in three of his previous films, and with whom he had formed the production company Anouchka Films – this would be its inaugural project. Above all, where Le Mépris is langourous and considered, Bande à part feels spontaneous and above all playful.

The delight Godard takes in the relative informality offered to him by Bande à part is present in its opening titles, from ‘JEANLUC CINÉMA GODARD’ to composer Michel Legrand’s credit: ‘FOR THE LAST (?) TIME ON THE SCREEN, THE MUSIC OF MICHEL LEGRAND’, an in-joke Legrand only knew about when he attended the film’s premiere. It’s also there in the use of Legrand’s ‘I Will Wait for You’, the hit song from Jacques Demy’s recently-released Les parapluies de Cherbourg, first whistled by Franz (Sami Frey) as he and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) speed along a road next to the Seine, then later playing tinnily on a radio as Odile (Karina) descends the stairs to a café basement.

There are numerous other examples of this: the camera casually passing an illuminated shop sign on the place de Clichy which reads ‘NOUVELLE VAGUE’; the play-acting of the two ‘boys’ shooting one another like characters from a gangster film or a Western (specifically Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid); Godard’s droll narrative recap: “The story till now, for people who’ve come in late. Three weeks ago … a hoard of money … an English class … a house by the river … a starry-eyed girl”; the bilingual Franglais Shakespearean note Arthur slips to Odile in their English lesson, ‘tou bi or not tou bi contre votre poitrine, it iz ze question’; and the justly celebrated race through the Louvre, subsequently recreated in colour by Bernardo Bertolucci for The Dreamers (2003), a whistle-stop tour of the museum and an expression of pure joy achieved in just three shots.

And, of course, there is the Madison sequence. To which we shall return shortly.

The superficial ‘spontaneity’ and playfulness of Bande à part are just the sorts of knowing cinematic illusion – and allusion – Godard revelled in. When speaking of her work with Godard, and this film in particular, Anna Karina is at pains to dispel the notion that it was the product of on-set improvisation or that there was anything informal about its air of informality. Everything was rehearsed and prepared. The nonchalance of that stroll past a neon ‘NOUVELLE VAGUE’ for instance: written into the script, manufactured on demand, erected over a suitable boutique, framed with seeming carelessness by cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Similarly the apparently carefree nature of Franz, Arthur and Odile’s loop of the Louvre is largely down to inspired discipline in the editing suite.

Bande à part was an adaptation of an American crime thriller called Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens; or more accurately perhaps, a filmic meditation on an adaptation of an American crime thriller. (It’s almost surprising to discover that some of the original plot and a few chunks of the novel’s dialogue did make it into the shooting script, alongside Godard’s trademark rifling of classical and contemporary sources: Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Queneau, Breton and so on.) As Pauline Kael noted fifty years ago, ‘Band of Outsiders [the film’s American title] is like a reverie of a gangster movie as students in an expresso (sic.) bar might remember it or plan it.

However, just as the spontaneity of Bande à part is largely manufactured, so too its playfulness conceals a deeper melancholy, what Kael calls ‘the sadness in frivolity’. Joshua Clover has pointed out that the film does not concern itself only with the ‘vexed romance’ of Arthur, Odile and Franz – surely intended to evoke Truffaut’s Jules et Jim – but with the city of Paris and its suburbs too, at night and during daylight hours, black and white and ghostly grey. First we see Arthur play at being shot; later we see Arthur being shot. As in so many of Godard’s films Bande à part is both a film about film and also a film about the limitations of film. The reverie of a gangster movie, like a movie itself, cannot last. Playtime will soon be over.

Which brings us to the Madison, one of the sweetest, saddest, most profoundly cinematic things Godard ever committed to celluloid. All the contradictions of Bande à part are present in this one short scene. Like every great film dance routine from Astaire to Fosse, its informality was the result of weeks of rehearsal by the three participants; and because this is cinema, there is a manipulation of sound – music, silence, voiceover – and image to create an illusion of spontaneity whilst simultaneously disrupting that illusion. Our three outsiders band together in a dance that is both synchronised and separate: side-by-side, moving in harmony, three loners. Like the gang itself, this is a provisional arrangement; and like a film, it won’t last. But for the three minutes it’s happening, time seems to be suspended – another contradiction. And Godard lets the viewer see this scene come together and fall apart, as first Frey exits the floor and the frame, then Brasseur, leaving Karina to dance the Madison alone until she is called to a halt by an off-screen voice.

The Madison is an apotheosis. Three years later, ‘JEANLUC CINÉMA GODARD’ would bring Week-end, and the first phase of his career, to a halt with the notorious words ‘Fin de Cinéma’; perhaps it was to the spirit of Bande à part, this scene and to himself he was referring. But more than fifty years on, Franz, Arthur and Odile are still dancing. And we are still watching them.

NOTE: This essay was commissioned by the BFI for the booklet accompanying the new Blu Ray edition of Bande à part, available now.

Books I Still Intend To Read - annual report 2015

At the back of THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY is an appendix called Books I Still Intend to Read, inspired by Henry Miller’s identically-titled selection in The Books In My Life. Because this appendix was compiled two years ago – and by ‘compiled’ I mean thrown together in fifteen minutes at the proofing stage – I have now finished quite a few of the books I said I still intended to read at the end of 2013.

Here’s how things stand. The books I read from cover to cover during 2015 are in bold.

Appendix Three – Books I Still Intend To Read

The remainder of Remembrance of Things Past – Marcel Proust
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey [READ 2014]
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon [READ 2014]
Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
A House for Mr Biswas – V.S. Naipaul [READ 2014]
Naked Lunch – William Burroughs
The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank [READ 2014]
White Teeth – Zadie Smith
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
The Summer Book – Tove Jansson
Masquerade – Kit Williams
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift
The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters [READ 2014]
Journey to the End of the Night – Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Tarantula – Bob Dylan [READ 2014]
Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
Stoner – John Williams [READ 2014]
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
The second half of Daniel Deronda – George Eliot
The Man without Qualities – Robert Musil
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner [READ 2014]
Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
Bringing Up The Bodies – Hilary Mantel
Stalingrad – Antony Beevor
Life and Fate – Vasily Grossman
The World as Will and Representation – Arthur Schopenhauer
Autobiography – Morrissey
Inferno – Dan Brown

Please note: I didn’t read only these eleven books in 2015.

The annual report for titles read in 2014 may be found here.

In keeping with what I explicity and repeatedly urged people not to do in READ Y’SELF FITTER, here are a few Strong-to-Mild Opinions about the Books I Intended To Read In 2015 And Did.

Infinite Jest – the temptation to write ‘quite good’ and leave it at that is a strong one, because a) despite a wide range of reactions while I was reading, from delight to boredom to rage and back again, ‘quite good’ accurately represents my opinion of Infinite Jest, or at least the mean average of those varied reactions, b) ‘quite good’ has a knowingly irksome ‘mostly harmless’ ring to it and c) anyone who makes it to the end of DFW’s infamous and enormous novel seems to feel compelled to have a Strong Opinion to show for their trouble; Infinite Jest must either be a masterpiece or a waste of time, about which the reader can then feel justifiably vindicated or aggrieved, as he or she prefers, and then say so – forcefully. Anyway, I read it in three and a half weeks in October and liked it and there we are. 7/10.

Fatiguingly clever; brilliantly funny; a 1079-page extrapolation of an idea Douglas Adams would have dealt with in a paragraph; an exhausting anatomy of addiction; a prophetic satire of American consumerism in the forthcoming Internet age; an exceedingly long pilot episode of Arrested Development scripted by Thomas Pynchon; NOT MORE SODDING TENNIS; all of these were true at various points while I was reading Infinite Jest. In the end and by the end, I felt I could only judge it as a novel after reading the whole thing, partly because the tradition of the Great American Novel was so clearly one with which David Foster Wallace was self-consciously engaged and partly because the reader can only see the grand design, if there is one, at the end of the book. As a gigantic warehouse for its author’s preoccupations, enthusiasms, footnotes and astounding facility for maximalist set-pieces, it very definitely deserves to be toured and even lived in for a month or so; as a novel, it felt to me like a magnificent failure – but I know this was the debate when it was published twenty years ago and has continued to be so ever since. Did Foster Wallace reinvent the wheel with Infinite Jest? Or by the end of the book, have the wheels come off? Either way, it will run and run and run and run and run and run and run and run and run and run and RU.

Naked Lunch – quite good.

Love in a Cold Climate – read The Pursuit of Love several years ago as both it and Love in a Cold Climate are great favourites of Mrs Miller. Thanks to the TV adaptation from the early 00s, which has been viewed in this house numerous times, I was very familiar with much of the novel’s plot, its characters and best lines, in particular Uncle Matthew’s use of “damned aesthete” as the worst insult one can fling at someone. (I also own a very stylish matching shirt and tie combination inspired by one worn by ‘Boy’ Dougdale in this adaptation, like the damned aesthete I am.) I enjoyed actually reading the actual novel even more; subsequently read The Blessing, about which I knew nothing and which was wonderful. Nancy Mitford is a deeply amusing writer because she lets no one off the hook.

The Summer Book – as discussed in TYoRD the Moomin books were some of my favourites when I was growing up. Yet despite owning a hardback copy of The Summer Book for almost twenty years, well before it was republished to great acclaim by Sort Of Books, I had never read any of Tove Jansson’s adult novels or short stories. I think I’d started The Summer Book twice before in fact and failed to engage with it. Anyway at the third attempt I finally got it and went on to read The True Deceiver and Sun City (Jansson’s yet-to-be-republished second novel), as well as a chunk of the big biography of Jansson (thank you Will Grozier) and Moominvalley in November, which I’d read several times as a child but not since. I liked all these books very much, particularly The Summer Book, but my favourite remains Moominvalley in November which, save for the presence of Hemulens, Fillyjonks etc, is written in precisely the same register as her adult work and is characteristically funny, melancholy and unique. How fortunate to have had such a magical writer as a companion, on and off, for forty years.

Masquerade – two people spotted Kit Williams’s picture book Masquerade in this list and very kindly sent me copies of the book. Thank you to Louise Richardson and my father-in-law. I read it in twenty minutes. Then in a spirit of due diligence I read it again. In fact I read each donated copy of Masquerade once to make things even and fair. The book reminded me of the gatefold sleeve of a 1970s pomp-rock orchestral suite for children, such as The Butterfly Ball or something like that. Setting aside the ‘buried golden hare’ element, Masquerade is a very peculiar bestseller and reminded me of a documentary I watched a few years ago about Kit Williams, which is on YouTube and which I recommend if you want to see the sort of paintings he’s been working on since then and which the popular mnemonic NSFW barely covers.

Middlesex – quite good. Have I read enough American cult novels yet?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being – although parts of this seemed rather dated to me e.g. the 80s post-modern ‘this is me, writing a novel’ stuff and the erotic #content incorporating a bowler hat, which was reminiscent of an Athena poster, the final sections of this novel were so intellectually rigorous and deeply moving that I feel churlish pointing out the two aforementioned very minor and debateable flaws. So ignore me and please read it.

The Woman in White – I was reading Finnegans Wake at the same time as The Woman in White so in my memory the two will forever be linked. Totally preposterous, hugely melodramatic, Highly Coincidental Entertainment. Great.

A Brief History of Time – my old university friend Ian, a mathematics whizz, found A Brief History of Time in the appendix of TYoRD and when I was visiting him in November, suggested that I probably had no intention of reading this particular book, which was entirely correct (see last year’s annual report for proof.) So I did read it, ashamed. I found it hard going at times and had to read several chapters more than once but by the end felt I had had a tour of vital scientific ideas I really ought to have understood before now. So thanks Professor Hawking and thanks Ian. (In fact I was already familiar with many of these advanced scientific concepts via Doctor Who, Star Trek and, of course, Douglas Adams’s books; plus a grounding in sci-fi nerdery meant I was able to spot a mistake near the end of ABHoT to do with the film Back to the Future, something about which I was so pedantically pleased I immediately felt ashamed again. So it goes.)

Life and Fate – this sat on our shelves for nearly twenty years. I finished it feeling I must read it again and much sooner than that. Many of the themes and characters only come into focus slowly over the course of its 900 pages, as Grossman intended. Again, certain chapters and passages will stay with me forever, especially those set in the camps and in wartime Stalingrad. A remarkable novel which for all its deliberate concordances with War and Peace could be read with no knowledge of Tolstoy whatsoever.

EDIT: this doesn’t really do justice to Life and Fate. Actually none of these blurbs really do justice to the books in question do they? But this blurb doesn’t even do justice to how I felt about the book while I was reading it. I think what I admired most was the control within it, the authorial determination to get the lived experience of an entire nation down without flinching. Again, please read it.

Inferno – much to the irritation of several readers, I failed to tackle a second Dan Brown novel like I said I would – and initially claimed I had done – in TYoRD. Humour is so subjective isn’t it? No. Anyway, this is another book I read in December while working my way through Finnegans Wake. (Be assured I’m not going to attempt another Moby-Dick vs The Da Vinci Code-style comparison between the two here.) I can report that I enjoyed Inferno very much. Dan Brown deserves much credit for inventing a genre of which he is the master: Dante for Da Vinci, Florence for Paris, killer spike-haired lady for killer albino monk, and so on. And I found Inferno a cut above The Da Vinci Code too; clearly a lot of work went into it. Plus without giving the ending away, the plot twist in the final 100 pages is one of the most over-the-top, audacious, morally equivocal and just plain jaw-dropping things I think I’ve ever read. The chutzpah of it!

Anyway, Inferno represents a farewell to The Year of Reading Dangerously, a book and project which has occupied ten years of my life. I have started writing something else. See you in ten years time or fewer or less.


How We Used To Live

Earlier in the year, I was delighted to be asked to write a short essay for the DVD booklet of Paul Kelly’s wonderful film How We Used to Live. Here it is. If you haven’t seen the film yet, please buy or rent a copy of the DVD or stream it via your personal computer or have it downloaded straight to your eyeballs or something. It’s great.

The London Everyone Knows: How We Used To Live

Finding myself before St. Paul’s, I went in; I mounted to the dome: I saw thence London, with its river, and its bridges, and its churches; I saw antique Westminster, and the green Temple Gardens, with sun upon them, and a glad, blue sky, of early spring above; and, between them and it, not too dense a cloud of haze … Since those days, I have seen the West-end, the parks, the fine squares; but I love the city far better. The city seems so much more in earnest: its business, its rush, its roar, are such serious things, sights, and sounds. The city is getting its living – the West-end but enjoying its pleasure. At the West-end you may be amused, but in the city you are deeply excited.

Charlotte Brontë, Villette (1853)

The collaborations between director Paul Kelly and the members of Saint Etienne (collected on the BFI DVD A London Trilogy) stretch back more than a decade and until now have tended to focus on vanishing points: the Lower Lea Valley prior to its redevelopment for the 2012 Olympics in What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?, the fading cafés and snack bars which Londoners once took for granted in the Today’s Special series of shorts. How We Used to Live, drawn entirely from the various film collections in the BFI archives, represents something different. On one level, it is an assembly of nostalgic snapshots of the city going about its daily business and nightly pleasures. But it is also a celebration of London as a symbol of perpetual change. Every day, the film suggests, the sun will rise over a settlement that is two thousand years old and brand new.

The footage in How We Used to Live spans a period from the 1950s to the 1980s; “no longer post-war but pre-something else,” as Ian McShane’s narrator observes early in the film. Brick buildings are demolished by the wrecker’s ball as towering cranes swing slabs of concrete into place (“a forest of concrete and glass”). A man in an old-fashioned flat cap and overalls presides over the installation of an untarnished steel girder. Inspired by the excitement and modernity of the Festival of Britain, a baby boy is christened ‘Skylon’ – “poor sod”. It represents a time capsule but one that is not confined to the era of rolled umbrellas and coffee bars. The London of Samuel Pepys and Lucy Snowe (Charlotte Brontë’s fictional surrogate in Villette) is all about us, a place that will always be ancient and modern to those passing through it, “the city … getting its living – the West-end but enjoying its pleasure”.

The film’s visual montage blends one era into another. Commuters pour in and out of railway stations, Euston, King’s Cross, Waterloo, sometimes decades apart. Double-decker buses depart Bethnal Green in the 1970s and arrive in Piccadilly somewhere in the 1950s. A skateboarder moves with exhilarating speed through the past. And Londoners always like a drink, regardless of the time on the clock. The choice of McShane to relate Bob Stanley’s and Travis Elborough’s script is another temporal dissolve: the actor is a presence in important London films of the 1960s (The Pleasure Girls), 70s (Villain, Sitting Target) and the turn of the millennium (Sexy Beast). He also, happily, has a voice like the snug of a Mayfair boozer, black velvet and smoke.

Nostalgia, suggests Kelly, is nothing to be embarrassed by. “The interesting thing about the use of images is that they’re often drawn up out of something in the past, some experience which stimulated a strong emotional response,” announces one unknown commentator against the melancholy vista of an empty Battersea funfair at dusk or dawn. What propels How We Used to Live forward is not just Kelly’s visual cross-hatching of styles and eras but also its original score by Pete Wiggs, which balances melancholy and optimism from moment to moment for the duration of the entire film to mesmerising effect. When, after half an hour or so, the working day at an end, a few drinks to the good, the nightclubs, dancehalls and discotheques of these various Londons burst simultaneously into joyful life, it’s with the seeming inevitability of an expertly chosen record at precisely the right moment.

As journalist Neil Mudd has noted, the film evokes the work of pioneering documentary maker Humphrey Jennings, both in its emphasis on the ordinary beauty of the everyday world (as in A Diary for Timothy, 1945) and also in its “subtle and poignant use of juxtaposition”, a technique utilised most notably by Jennings in Listen to Britain (1942). But Kelly is also a filmmaker who understands pop music, just as Wiggs and Stanley are pop musicians with a longstanding affinity for film. More than anything, How We Used to Live is about rhythm: the rhythm of London life over several decades, the rhythms of many types of music and cadences of speech, and the rhythm of film itself, drummed up in an editing suite from a jumble of unexceptional sources – in Kelly’s phrase, “bins marked ‘Buses’ and bins marked ‘Trains’”.

The net effect of this rolling collage is to project a vision of London that is both familiar and novel, a landscape of metropolitan existence that should be instantly recognisable to the viewer even if the people dress funny and the buildings have been torn down. The film’s message is one of continuity and renewal: how we used to live is how we still live. It is both an elegy for the city and a love song to it and it reminds us of the truth of William Faulkner’s famous phrase from Requiem for a Nun.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Maggot Brain - John Lahr vs Vic and Bob, 1991

Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer are going on tour again in November. At the height of Big Night Out mania in 1991, I went along with my friend Dom to one of their shows at the Hammersmith Odeon (the “Brown” tour). I seem to remember I enjoyed it and he didn’t. Lots of audience members had come dressed as Les. It’s unconfirmed whether Les will be joining the reunion but maybe you will.

Later that same month Channel 4 broadcast Vic Reeves Big Night Out on Tour, a recording of the same show at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle (subsequently released on VHS). The programme was reviewed angrily in the Independent on Sunday by the comedy historian John Lahr. I remember being quite taken aback at the time by the sheer viciousness of what Lahr had to say. With his references to “deracinated, impoverished fun” and “the terrifying bray of the new philistines”, not to mention labelling the entire crowd “maggots”, rarely can a reviewer have expressed such a visceral loathing for both act and audience.

To my knowledge that review has never appeared online but I’ve never forgotten it – a real-life Peter-Finch-in-Network moment. So here is an excerpt, originally published on December 29 1991. Many thanks to John Williams @WorldofTelly for tracking it down, along with the two letters that follow.

(And please someone, commission Lahr to review one of the November shows…)


“…In The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show (BBC2) Eric Morecambe was back among us, wiggling his black-framed eyeglasses to camera, slapping Ernie’s podgy cheeks with both hands, and creating genuine moments of joy. It was wonderful, poetic hokum. There were Eric and Ernie – totems of an earlier generation’s Christmas cheer – having the time of their life again.

Morecambe and Wise, like all great music hall turns, made a spectacle of their prowess. But Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, voted this year’s best variety performers at The British Comedy Awards (ITV), sent up expertise in Vic Reeves Big Night Out on Tour (C4). They danced but couldn’t dance; they sang but couldn’t sing, their characters had no character, they used language but the language had no sense or shape or wit. The laughter of the old-guard comedians was driven by terror; the incessant mockery of Reeves and Mortimer is driven by tedium. The goofiness of their sound-bite routines takes liberties not so much with life as with the formulas of television entertainment: the talk-show host (Reeves’s own button-down persona sat behind a desk), the quiz show (”Judge Nutmeg”), TV celebrity guest (”The Man With A Stick”), the pop folk song (”Oh, Mr Songwriter write me a song on your trumpet”), the TV critic (the dog puppet ”Greg Mitchell”). It is deracinated, impoverished fun.

This show mined the deep vein of the younger generation’s nihilism. ”I’m a little down in the dumps, Vic,” said Mortimer. ”I put a spoon in the knife drawer.” The Newcastle audience howled. Nothing mattered. Nothing made sense. There was just the horse-laugh in the void, the terrifying bray of the new philistines. ”What do we say to the Man With The Stick?” shouted Reeves to the fans, who shouted happily back ”What’s at the end of the stick, Vic?”. At the finale, when Reeves sang his No 1 hit ‘‘Dizzy’‘, the audience leapt into the aisles imitating the whirling dervish of the performers with a St Vitus dance of their own. They thought Reeves was magnificent, the way a glowworm must appear to a maggot.”

NOTE: Reading this again now, Lahr makes the show sound completely brilliant.

The following week the Independent on Sunday printed two letters from readers responding to Lahr.

“JOHN LAHR’S review of Vic Reeves Big Night Out on Tour (29 December) was as bizarre, and in many ways funnier, than the show itself. The splendid pomposity of his comment that ”the show mined the deep vein of the younger generation’s nihilism” brought to mind Ronnie Barker’s harrumphing colonels (retd); the intellectual asperity of ”the horse-laugh in the void, the terrifying bray of the new philistines” recalled some of the better spoofs on the self-conscious seriousness of lit crit programmes; and the observation that ”they thought Reeves was magnificent, the way a glowworm must appear to a maggot” was gratuitously rude and, I imagine, entomologically contentious. If Vic Reeves is mining anything, it’s nothing more threatening than a national affection for the ridiculous – and plenty of comics and writers have chipped away at that vein.”

Erik Brown, Beckenham, Kent

“THE HUMOUR of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer is surreal and satirical, and its roots lie in Python and Milligan. They also write their own material and are original. I don’t expect my mother to like them or John Lahr.”

G Tewse, Tynemouth

NOTE: I like to think that on Friday morning at 9am, Erik and G will be hitting refresh on their laptops and trying for tickets, older but no less maggot-like.

Books I Still Intend To Read - annual report

At the back of THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY is an appendix called Books I Still Intend to Read, inspired by Henry Miller’s identically-titled selection in The Books In My Life. Because this appendix was compiled just over a year ago – and by ‘compiled’ I mean thrown together in fifteen minutes at the proofing stage – I have now finished several of the books I said I still intended to read at the end of 2013.

I’m aware I promised updates on the website and there haven’t been any since TYoRD was published back in May. Apologies. Here’s how things stand. The books I’ve read from cover to cover during the last year are in bold.

Appendix Three – Books I Still Intend To Read

The remainder of Remembrance of Things Past – Marcel Proust
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon
Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
A House for Mr Biswas – V.S. Naipaul
Naked Lunch – William Burroughs
The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank
White Teeth – Zadie Smith
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
The Summer Book – Tove Jansson
Masquerade – Kit Williams
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift
The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters
Journey to the End of the Night – Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Tarantula – Bob Dylan
Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
Stoner – John Williams
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
The second half of Daniel Deronda – George Eliot
The Man without Qualities – Robert Musil
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
Bringing Up The Bodies – Hilary Mantel
Stalingrad – Antony Beevor
Life and Fate – Vasily Grossman
The World as Will and Representation – Arthur Schopenhauer
Autobiography – Morrissey
Inferno – Dan Brown

Please note: I didn’t read only these eight books in 2014.

It feels quite strange to consider this list again. It’s a snapshot taken at the end of a long and tortuous process i.e. writing a book about reading over a period of some years. Were another snapshot to be taken now, it would look rather different. This is partly because of all the books that were recommended to me by strangers in 2014, either people who had read TYoRD or had come to one of the talks or contacted me via the website or on Twitter. But it’s also because enthusiasm for reading a particular title waxes and wanes according to where we are in our lives and also the books we’ve just been reading. I have just had a really rewarding month in terms of reading – to be discussed in a future blog – with one excellent book after another, none of which was drawn from the list above, and which, furthermore, has suggested new directions for reading in the year ahead. So this feels like looking backwards.

Also, why did I commit myself in print, forever, to reading The Man without Qualities? I have no idea. I really don’t want to read White Teeth or A Brief History of Time either. But that could change tomorrow and let’s hope it does. It won’t though.

Anyway, in keeping with what I explicity tell people not to do in READ Y’SELF FITTER, here are a few Strong-to-Mild Opinions about the Books I Intended To Read And Did.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – “amazing”. I go into all American cult novels with the feeling I’ve left it thirty years too late – at least – but this is just a sensational book, brilliantly executed in all conceivable ways. Felt grateful to have found it for the first time as an adult and made me want to read everything Kesey ever wrote. In fact I wish I’d read it as part of the original List of Betterment. Boom!

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – as noted in TYoRD, over the years I’ve told many people this is a fantastic book. Turns out it is. Despite winning many prizes in the US Michael Chabon’s novels struggle to sell in the UK, though perhaps that will change now he’s collaborated with Mark Ronson and therefore currently has a #1 album and will probably make more money just today than in the whole of his UK publishing life. (Chabon’s brief, beautiful essay comparing Wes Anderson’s films to Nabokov’s Pale Fire is my favourite piece of critical writing of recent years and you can find it here.)

A House for Mr Biswas – started this at school in 1985 because my best friend used to carry a copy round in his blazer pocket. Ah, youth. Much more droll than I was expecting but no less poignant. One of those novels the pleasures of which lie more in tone than anything else, certainly more than plot – the ending is given away in the opening sentence. And, like, he doesn’t even warn about spoilers! Anyway, plot schmot.

The Diary of a Young Girl – I feel awkward writing about this, especially during Holocaust Memorial week. It clearly deserves a more serious appraisal in a more appropriate context. But I found the book itself profoundly affecting. I believe Jeff Mangum was moved to write the songs on Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea after reading The Diary of a Young Girl as an adult rather than a student. The power lies not just in the circumstances of its creation but in the qualities of the book itself. Either way, humbling; she was a better writer than I am (absurd comparison but true).

The Little Stranger – is Sarah Waters’ best novel. I only know two people who agree with me about this and one of them is Mrs Miller. So we’re good. No further correspondence will be entered into.

Tarantula – this was special. Dylan wrote and tinkered with this “novel” for several years in the mid-to-late 60s. It’s like an extended riff on the sleeve notes of Highway 61 Revisited etc., page after page of all that beatnik speed-freak surrealism. I read about ten pages a day. And guess what? It was GREAT. Let’s be clear, the extent to which one is likely to appreciate and enjoy Tarantula is directly proportional to the extent to which one appreciates and enjoys mid-60’s Bob Dylan. But I do and I have done for thirty years and it reminded me of Dylan’s uniqueness and how he’s been there for me when, say, Saul Bellow hasn’t. I enjoyed it a lot more that the Jack Reacher novel I was reading at the same time, put it that way.

Stoner – yeah, it’s good. That’s it. The PenguinRandom backlist marketing department does not require my assistance.

As I Lay Dying – like Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, this made me work hard and I didn’t enjoy it (whatever that means) but it has lodged in my brain and I would like to read it again so maybe I did enjoy it after all. Finished it six months ago and it’s still settling. A friend in town told me she’d just read it for her book group. She looked like she’d been shot.

I shall be posting further Opinions in the coming days, covering the five great and one shit books I read this month. And from the list above next month I intend to read The Summer Book, which will make me the first man ever to have done so I believe.


The great contradictator speaks!

Not for the first time, I may have been too clever for my own good.

A couple of reviewers have pointed out an apparent mistake in THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY. In a footnote on page 253 of the book concerning the concept of ‘contradictatoriality’, I attribute the phrase ‘Reader, I married him’ to the novelist Jane Austen. This is obviously incorrect. Famously, these four words appear at the end of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. As Mr Dickon Edwards surmises in his diary here, ‘Mr Miller has got his Janes in a twist’. Yet THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY is a scrupulously correct book. It even contains footnotes about the need to guard against hawk-eyed pedants by never, ever making a single bibliographical or typographical error. Here I seem to have made an obvious and appalling howler. How has this been allowed to happen?

First let me say that both Mr Edwards and Brandon Robshaw in the Independent here have been very kind about the book and I thank them. Their shared impulse to point out this seeming error is entirely understandable. Pointing out errors in books that are otherwise 99.5% correct is something critics do to bolster their authority in the eyes of their readers – I should know, I have done it myself on several occasions. It’s not very fair but it is both easy and quite funny. (Full disclosure: I did it to Sarfraz Manzoor when I covered his sincere and poignant book about growing up as a Bruce Springsteen fan. In retrospect I was probably just jealous I hadn’t thought of it. I love Bruce.)

For the record, then, I am aware that ‘Reader, I married him’ comes from Jane Eyre. I had hoped that by the final chapter of a book about books which, until that point, has both been textually accurate and also rigorous in its acknowledgement of the need for total textual accuracy, the reader would trust me enough to realise that if I made a mistake, it was a deliberate one. Furthermore, it is a deliberate mistake with a humorous point to it. Messrs. Edwards and Robshaw seem to have missed that point; and if clever chaps like them don’t get the joke, perhaps other readers will miss it too.

So let me clarify. The reference occurs in a footnote which is an exploration of something called ‘contradictatoriality’, a term I invented to define a concept I made up. It is a portmanteau word suggesting a style of writing that is both contradictory and dictatorial – where the narrator keeps bumping up against the demands of their own book and gets irritated about it, leading him or her to express this grumpiness in the book itself, via footnotes or even in the main text. I give quite a few examples of contradictatorial books, including Pale Fire by Nabokov, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (note the full, correct title) and even ‘Reader, I married him’, from the pen of Jane Austen (sic.); and I point out that THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY, though it was not my original intention, has turned out to be a rather contradictatorial book itself. Of course, a contradictatorial narrator is inherently an unreliable narrator too; and it was very obviously always my original intention that THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY be full of these amusing tropes, one of which is a bumptious certainty that the narrator is always in the right and cannot help saying so. The joke here was supposed to be the obviousness of the schoolboy error set against the pompous sense of authority with which it was stated, near the end of a book full of increasingly exasperated assertions. In other words, contradictatoriality in action for humorous effect.

No, I’m not sure I get it either.

I should add that the book was proofed by at least twenty people, friends and professionals alike, prior to publication and not a single one remarked on this ‘error’, leading me to assume that the joke was working. But in retrospect, perhaps they just didn’t read that bit. It is a very long footnote near the end of an ever more perplexing book. I cannot fault Messrs. Edwards and Robshaw for their alertness and I concede the cliché has some truth to it: humour is indeed subjective. But I’d also like to say to them both: I’m not a complete idiot, you know.

Contradictatorially yours,


Jim'll Paint It - a word of explanation

So, as you may or may not know, the great Jim’ll Paint It offered to paint me one of his amazing pictures to mark the publication of THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY. I thought about it for a bit and, partly as a nod to my first book TILTING AT WINDMILLS, came up with the following:

Dear Jim,

Please could you paint Dan Brown sinking to his knees in despair after being humiliated in a game of crazy golf by Herman Melville, author of ‘Moby-Dick’, much to the appreciation of a crowd of spectators including Jane Austen, T.S. Eliot, William Shakespeare and Michel Houellebecq.

Thank you,

Andy Miller

Several weeks later, Jim responded with this:

Jim'll Paint It

As you can see, the painting is very obviously extraordinary and I am incredibly lucky that Jim agreed to paint it for me, especially as he receives hundreds of requests every week for pictures. N.B. Putting Kurt Vonnegut in the back row was Jim’s idea and probably makes the painting, which is why Jim is an artist and I’m not. I know he laboured long and hard to get Houellebecq’s trademark parka just right.

In fact, the picture would more accurately represent what’s in the book if I had asked Jim to paint Herman Melville and Dan Brown shaking hands after a closely-contested and entirely respectful game of crazy golf which has ended in a draw. But where’s the fun in that? As it stands, thousands of people all over the world have already seen this image, which has acted as a sort of visual blurb/virtual ambassador for the book in the run up to publication, and I have something remarkable and hilarious to remember this week by.

Thanks Jim. If I ever write another book, it’ll only be so I can get you to paint it.

Music to make the words sing for longer

NOTE: This is an extended version of a piece I wrote for the Independent, published on May 6 2014. It contains significantly more Miles Davis and a hilarious joke about Morrisons excised from the version in the paper.


In 1972, the trumpeter Miles Davis released a new LP called On the Corner. It rapidly became, in the words of the writer Paul Tingen, ‘the most vilified and controversial album in the history of jazz’. Critics from journals like Downbeat, who already viewed Davis’ electric music as a sell-out to rock, detested it; even some of the musicians who played on the album were baffled. And in fairness, even forty years later, On the Corner can set the unwary listener’s teeth on edge. Miles and his reluctant group sound like they’ve been awake for days, cranking out the same atonal riff, the tempo never varying, all possibility of self-expression utterly annihilated by the remorseless grind of the music. Quoting Nietzsche on Wagner, the jazz critic Stanley Crouch notoriously described On the Corner as ‘the greatest example of self-violation in the history of art’. But I love On the Corner. When I want to get some serious reading done, this is the record I choose.

I recently wrote a book about the year I spent reading fifty of the greatest and most challenging books in the canon – Jane Eyre, Moby-Dick, War and Peace and so on. As a full-time working and commuting parent, most of this reading was done on trains. Every morning I would board the 6.44am to London and try to focus my pre-office energies on, say, Catch-22 or The Epic of Gilgamesh. It soon became clear that the challenge lay not just in engaging with the books in question but also in keeping the babble of the carriage at bay: the bing-bong of train manager announcements, the tish-tish-tish of leaky white earbuds, the honking of comedy ringtones, the repetitive beats of the slow-rolling refreshments trolley – TEAS! COFFEES! LIGHT SNACKS! – or the snores emerging from the occupant of an adjacent seat. The perfect sound to accompany Jane Eyre would probably be silence. But silence was not an option.

How to start? When we read, we enter an interzone somewhere between the real world, the world of the book and the wilder shores of our imagination. So Bruno Mars is probably out. One option might be to create a playlist based on the book we happen to be reading e.g. Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea could be soundtracked by Debussy’s La Mer, Charles Trenet’s ‘La Mer’, ‘Ocean Rain’ by Echo & the Bunnymen and Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’. However in my experience, this bespoke approach tends not to work. Each change of tone yanks the reader forcefully out of the book; too much time will be lost in contemplating one’s own cleverness rather than Dame Iris’s. And good luck compiling a Gilgamesh playlist.

Over the course of several books, I experimented with finding the music on my iPod which would block out extraneous noise but feed positively into the reading experience. It was surprisingly difficult. All my favourite records were too distracting – so no Kinks, Frank Sinatra or St Vincent. Songs with lyrics, especially good lyrics, were non-starters; concert orchestras, I discovered, were either too hushed or too bombastic; film soundtracks were incongruously syrupy or jarringly overdramatic; Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, though soothing, did little except provide a gentle sound-bed for other passengers’ unsought opinions and coffee-slurping. I attempted to read Samuel Beckett’s fiercely experimental The Unnamable to the strains of Lou Reed’s experimentally fierce Metal Machine Music. MMM successfully blotted out the carriage; unfortunately its sheer apocalyptic racket also blotted out the book. At the end, I had no sense whatsoever of what it was I had just read and felt compelled to “read” the novel again as an audiobook. And actually, this being Beckett, it was a success. But at some level, audiobooks felt like cheating.

The trick, it seemed, was to find non-vocal, non-melodic music which proceeded at a regular pace and consistent volume without actually being, say, a field recording of the production line at the Ford Motors plant in Dagenham. A lot of Krautrock – that wave of German progressive rock from the late 1960s and early 70s – fit this pattern, groups such as Can, Faust and NEU!. The ‘sehr kosmische’ Galactic Supermarket by Cosmic Jokers provided a surprisingly sympathetic setting for Toni Morrison’s remarkable Beloved, and not because Morrisons is also the name of a supermarket. The music pushed me onward while helping me stay in the zone (or interzone), lending some ‘serious meditative usefulness’ to my reading, ‘serious meditative usefulness’ being one of the genre’s prime attributes, according to Julian Cope in his excellent book Krautrocksampler, which – not coincidentally – I had read directly before Beloved.

Which brings us back to On the Corner. Jazz curmudgeon Stanley Crouch dismissed In a Silent Way, Miles Davis’s earlier, gentler foray into electric sound as “droning wallpaper music” without comprehending this was precisely what was good about it. On the Corner’s unique combination of groove, clatter and occasional outbreaks of melody suited my reading needs perfectly. I could drift in and out of the music while losing myself in Don Quixote – or vice versa. Somewhere off in the distance lay the 6.44am train and all its noisy cargo. The LP became so ingrained with the great books that now when I pick up a new novel, I find it hard to concentrate without the help of two drummers, an electric-sitar player, a bewildered cellist, a squelching Moog synthesizer and high-pitched squeals of trumpet fed through a wah-wah pedal by one of the preeminent artistic visionaries of the twentieth century.

Of course, great, challenging music like that contained in On the Corner is not utilitarian or functional. It should be engaged with every bit as much as great, challenging literature. And as a soundtrack it may not work for you, one person’s serious meditative usefulness being another’s droning wallpaper. But sometimes we need a boost, a guiding hand, to help us across the threshold of art – and it can come from some surprising places. Who knows? There may yet be life on Bruno Mars.

No MeowMeowBeenz for Malcolm

Yesterday, ‘Malcolm Lowry’ posted the following paragraph from Under The Volcano on ‘his’ Twitter feed @malcolmlowry:

‘The Consul felt a pang. Ah, to have a horse, and gallop away, singing, away to someone you loved perhaps, into the heart of all the simplicity and peace in the world; was not that like the opportunity afforded man by life itself? Of course not. Still, just for a moment, it had seemed that it was.’

I think that’s beautiful. Having just looked it up, I can tell you it comes from Chapter Seven of Under The Volcano, one of my favourite books on the original List of Betterment. ‘Malcolm’ was obliged to split the paragraph across three successive Tweets; I retweeted all three immediately, struck by their cumulative beauty and truthfulness. No one favorited or retweeted my retweets. By the rules of Twitter, this must mean that Under The Volcano is crap – no MeowMeowBeenz for Malcolm, who has even fewer followers than I do.

Meanwhile, do you know what the most popular retweeted quote of all time is on Twitter? It is ‘Don’t worry, be happy‘, attributed to Bobby McFerrin.

Don’t worry, be happy‘. Is that not the opportunity afforded man by life itself? Of course not. Still, just for a moment, it had seemed that it was on Twitter.

QED. Malcolm wins!

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