Life Changers

I’ve rather neglected the books aspect of this blog so far: mostly ideas for posts occur to me as I’ve been sat on the laptop, listening to music with headphones on, working away at something else. (Is there any greater spur to blog than having some work to do?). But obviously books are very important to me: I’m a voracious reader, always have been. Some books have had a massive effect – what was it Cathy said to Nellie Dean in Wuthering Heights?

I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.

If books are waking dreams, then this is undoubtedly true for me. Books have affected the colour of my mind, the shape of my ideas, the texture of my imaginings. So in this blog I want to chart the books that have been deeply influential.

1. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardobe

This is the first “great” book I ever read, where it just kept getting better and better as I kept reading. I think at the time I had mostly been reading Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, but TLTWATW felt magnificent, epic, compared to them. Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong but Blyton or Dahl – I loved all the Famous Five, Malory Towers, Twins at St. Clairs, and Five Find-Outer series, and Dahl’s gruesome imagination tickles my humour-spot, even now. But TLTWATW had great themes, like sacrifice and betrayal and redemption (I didn’t pick up the whole Christian symbolism until much later on), even while its setting seemed familiar and (as with Mr and Mrs Beaver) homely. It was the first book I ever read which expanded my vision of what life was about.

2. The Lord of the Rings

My dad and uncles, being 1970s prog rock types, were natural Tolkien fans, and were keen to press The Hobbit onto me as soon as I was old enough. Oddly enough, I didn’t think it was all that great (it suffers, as Tolkien himself regretted, occassional instances of him writing down to his audience). It did though clear the way to Lord of the Rings, and I still vividly remember the first time I took it out the library. I asked the elderly gentleman librarian (he used to wear a panama hat) if they had it; he was standing by the stack of books to be returned to the shelves, and by happenstance had it to hand. He passed it over with a great look in his eyes, one that said “You are REALLY going to enjoy this, my lad.” I spent about an hour just leafing through it before I took it out: I loved the dwarvish runes and the elven script in the opening pages; I loved the cover, a magnificent, monstrous depiction of Mount Doom; I loved the appendices with the alphabets and timelines and family trees; I loved the sense of a complete world, an imaginary universe, just waiting to be explored.

Though I barely had the reading maturity to comprehend it all (I remember getting confused between Sauron and Saruman and having to backtrack several chapters), Lord of the Rings completely swamped me. My first attempts at writing were absurd imitations, and I spent ages trying to read sundry Tolkien books like The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales before I realised that I wasn’t interested in the “unexplored vistas” of Middle Earth. But there can be no doubt that LOTR truly is an astonishing creative effort, one in which many people are indeed happy enough to reside in.

3. Educating Rita

After Lord of the Rings, I spent a lot of time reading horror (mostly Stephen King, Shaun Hutson, and James Herbert) – hey, I was 13-14 and massively into heavy metal. Goes with the territory. I can’t say that, except from King’s fine novel IT, many of them left much of an impression. Eventually, though, we started doing books at school which spoke to me in some fashion. Educating Rita was the first: the story of a working-class woman who wants to improve her mind through an Open University course in English Lit., it dazzled me with its demonstration of how one’s mind, one’s life, could be improved through literature. Though my family were readers,  they inclined towards best-sellers rather than literary novels etc. Not that there’s anything so wrong with that, but there was a whole world out there beyond my ken. Suddenly, there was Rita reading Ibsen, Forster, Blake, Shakespeare, Ferlinghetti, and the like. This led me to seriously extend my own reading range, and I became an insanely ambitious reader, trying out DH Lawrence, EM Forster, James Joyce, Martin Amis, William Burroughs, Oscar Wilde and James Kelman within the next year. Which leads me to:

4. Maurice

Yeah, EM Forster’s homosexual-themed novel. What can I say? I was young, callow, adolescent – in other words, I was 15. But I loved Forster’s feeling for the countryside, his subtlety and lyricism, his symbolism and his rejection of conventional, unthinking morality. Maurice led me, of course, to Howards End and A Passage To India, the true greats in his canon.

5. Trainspotting

Irvine Welsh exploded into my life like the Sex Pistols: noisy, anarchic, visceral, ugly, truthful, real. Living in Scotland was then to wallow in this great sentimental image of national life, one of twee Scottishness and a ridiculous feeling of superiority over England. (Measured ever-watchfully, of course). They (the English, of course) were racist, were hooligans, had more poverty and worse schools, were less community-minded, were war-mongering, Thatcher-voting snobs. You name the lazy prejudice, it was smugly applied. Welsh exploded all those myths with a novel of extreme bravery: the first book I’d ever read which mocked the Scottish cultural cringe, the first which explored the council estates in all their gaudy, brutal, helpless squalor. (Kelman’s characters were usually so good, so honest, so stymied-by-exterior-circumstances: Welsh’s were the full technicolour range of characters you might meet down your local pub).

I immediately recognised the truth of what Welsh was saying and spent ages trying to write like him, in dialect, with working-class characters, concerning drugs and crime etc. Took me a while to realise that these weren’t really my subjects, or to find a way to something different with them. Also, Welsh’s career has been a sad decline from the visceral Trainspotting to the adequate Filth and Porno to the abject Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. Still, I very much look forward to reading his prequel, Skag Boys.

6. Bad Wisdom

Being Scottish, I absorbed all the new Scottish writing, things like James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Duncan Maclean, Jeff Torrington. All are good writers – at one point I felt Kelman was as good as Joyce, which I now think highly overvalues Kelman, who isn’t much fun to read – but most of them have a highly realist style, jagged and impressionistic perhaps, but always trying to avoid seeming literary. Fidelity to the moment and capturing the reality were always the priority. There wasn’t much space for florid metaphors, put it that way. But as Wilde says, a truth in art is one whose opposite is also true. Consequently, when I first discovered Bad Wisdom I was absolutely enthralled precisely by its overblown prose, its insistence on imagination and fantasy. Written by two musicians, Bill Drummond (formerly of the KLF) and Mark Manning (Zodiac Mindwarp), chunk by chunk, the Manning sections contain the most (intentionally) ludicrously over-the-top prose you are ever likely to read: it makes Nabokov read like Hemingway. The subject matter is as OTT, with insane fantastical sections about supermodels wrestling in shit, biker vikings with a chainsaw execution ceremony, shamanistic rituals concerning “the Lost Chord” and the destruction of the world, and the key of Elvis to world peace. It’s just jaw-droppingly mind-blowing. Never have I read such rich metaphors, such juicy adjectives, such dazzling lush prose. Bad Wisdom is an amazing tour-de-force and one which completely changed the way I look at the world. As Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.

7. The New Industrial State

Bilbo tells Frodo in Lord of the Rings that paths lead to paths, that the road is endless. The same is true if you’re a reader: books lead to other books, albums lead to others. For example, the Velvet Underground is one of my all-time favourite bands, and reading that their “Sister Ray” was an attempt to do a free-form jazz song in a rock style led to me explore Ornette Coleman, Cecil Tyaylor, Archie Shepp, as well as less wild stuff like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, which I rather prefer! Reading a book from the library called Fifty Key Modern Thinkers, I was blown away by the entry on Jean Baudrillard, my head exploding with understanding and implications. Unfortunately, I don’t find many of Baudrillard’s works very comprehensible: I can read explications of his theories and understand, but I don’t have much of an engagement with him personally. Anyway, so one book of his I did like and which is easy enough to understand is The Consumer Society, much of which is a critique of The Affluent Society by someone called JK Galbraith. I hadn’t heard of Galbraith before, but one day browsing through a second-hand book store I found a copy of The New Industrial State, and so bought it. Until then, my understanding of industry and work had been adolescently Marxist (yeah, I know), but reading TNIS gave me a sense of how the post-war economic structure actually operated. Galbraith is essentially a Keynesian, but his analysis of how corporations function and how they aggregate into a broader system seemed to accord with reality far more than anything I had ever encountered. Some of his descriptions are pre-1973, or pre-Reaganite, or pre-Milton Friedman, however you prefer to look at it, but given the current world economic troubles, Galbraith’s points seem more salient than ever.

TNIS gave me a taste for books about finance and economics, and those are the books I still tend to read: for some reason, I don’t have much of an appetite for fiction these days. So this is the last life changer amongst the books I have read.

How  about you?


5 thoughts on “Life Changers

  1. Okay. I fess up. I forced myself to read a couple of Ian Rankins to kill time, and god it was an excruciating experience with all those music references standing out like dogs you know whats. So much for my foray into Scottish writers.

    Pleased to note that can now reach some sort of Musical Accord. Cecil Taylor is absolutely brilliant. Try Silent Tongues….great shards of discordant percussive sound. Saw him in concert performing Jitney….one composition which took 70 minutes to play out. Quite by accident sat next to a pair of pretty cultural friends, and they couldn’t relate one bit, but it made my week.

    A large section ofthe four metres of very collectable vinyl I had to sell off years ago included Miles and Coltrane to die for, plus a ton of Mingus, Eric Dolphy and favourite painists Monk, Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano, Randy Weston, Keith Jarrett, etc.

    Coltranes finest statement was In Transition. …no question.

    Listened to jazz exclusively for 10 years, but would not return to it today, even if I had the discs at hand.

    As you know, my heart belongs to trashy sixties garage and classic reggae and dub. Plus a bit of (only) Italian opera.

    Your Sex Pistols reference reminds me that I need to get my act together and put up a punk piece which will blow those Filth and Fury pretenders off the musicscape. Must admit however to being seriously impressed by Lydon’s dress sense once he got rid of the punk schmutter. Brogues, bespoke coats etc. That dude had serious style and it cost me a fortune to emulate.

    Even with a good sub-titling job, I just can’t see Trainspotting becoming Big in China. They are so into crap ketamine type drugs, and will never develope a healthy appreciation of ganga, great acid and smack. I suppose one can’t have everything ie a healthy drug culture and the world’s becoming economy.

  2. Ian Rankin! I wouldn’t associate him with any of the Scottish writers mentioned above. Really, if you can get a hold of Kelman, he is simply superb.

    Thanks for the jazz tips – not knowing anyone who’s similarly inclined, I don’t know what to go for sometimes. I’ll have to listen to In Transition, which I don’t have (my own Coltrane favourites are Love Supreme and Impressions).

    Yes, Lydon is one smart dude (some of his Public Image stuff knocks the Sex Pistols for six). He always disdained the uniformity of later punks. I have a DVD of the reformed Pistols playing a gig in London – all those rent-a-cliche mohawks. Gormless twats.

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