Ten Books

13/09/2014 § 1 Comment

Everybody’s doing it. Ten Books That Have Stayed With You Since Childhood. Ten Books That You Feel You Should Have Read But Haven’t. Ten Books That You Have Never Read But Are Pretending You Have For The Sole Purpose Of Impressing Your Online Friends, Most Of Whom You Haven’t Met.

The lists have varied, but for the purposes of this exercise I’m sticking to the childhood one. Just because. So there.

Lots of people have done very impressive lists that read more like Guardian articles on the subject of ’Ten Books Children Must Read’ (or, more accurately, ’Ten Books That Adults Think Children Must Read, which isn’t necessary the same thing). I would love to be able to join them, these children who seemed to read nothing but classics, with their Secret Gardens, their Emils and the Detectiveses, their Swallowses and Amazonses.

I did read, and enjoy, those books, and quite a few more (Stig of the Dump! Bloody marvellous book). But they’re not the ones that jumped unbidden into my head, whose spines broke through overuse, whose characters swam around in my head when I was supposed to be learning the pluperfect indicative of ‘video’ or exactly how to spell hipotenuze hyppotineuse hypotenuse.

These are they.

Charles M. Schulz – Peanuts
Charlie Brown and Snoopy – twin idols of my childhood. Charlie Brown, for his uselessness, a quality to which I felt ideally suited to aspire; Snoopy, for his Snoopyness. He was loyal – how many other dogs would strike up an enduring friendship with an incomprehensibly monolingual bird of indeterminate species? His fantasy world (“Here’s the world famous fighter pilot doing battle with the Red Baron”) mirrored mine (“Parikian comes in, bowls, and there’s his hat-trick and England have won the Ashes!”). And he possessed the enviable ability to kiss pretty girls on the nose and get away with it.

Besides, you’ve got to love a beagle with a van Gogh in his kennel.

Dr. Seuss — The Cat in the Hat
A cat.
A hat.
A catty hat.
A hatty cat.
A natty batty snowball-splatty
Ever-so-slightly twatty cat.
But memorable, for all that.

Roald Dahl — Danny, Champion of the World
All the Roald Dahls, of course. Or at least all of them that had been written when I was a child, which means James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, the insuperable Fantastic Mr. Fox.

My obsession with him led me to read his adult short stories at a slightly earlier age than I was supposed to, but I like to think he would have approved.

Today, coincidentally, is Roald Dahl Day. Treat yourself – read Danny, Champion of the World.

photo 4 photo 3

Laura Ingalls Wilder — Little House on the Prairie
Eleven-year-old me was a little bit in love with fifteen-year-old Laura. It was one of the great loves, doomed from the start by geographical and temporal realities over which I had no control. I might, freed from parental control and afforded an unlimited budget, have found my way to de Smet, SD, but the impracticalities of time travel would have put an end to any prospect of finding Laura and wooing her.

And anyway, what chance would I have had? In These Happy Golden Years Laura marries Almanzo Wilder — rugged and manly son of the soil, farmer boy, good with horses. I could boast little more than an obsession with cricket (see below), Grade Four piano, and a fair to moderate ability on a skateboard, virtues that I think would have counted for little in the Land of the Pioneers.

The only thing we had in common was that both our dads played the fiddle. Perhaps we could have talked about that.

Playfair cricket annual and, later, Wisden
Cricket lends itself well to statistics. Boys of a certain kind love lists. I was (am) a boy who loved (loves) cricket.

Ergo, Playfair (only pocket-sized, yet still more full of gems like “D R Doshi 8-7-1-1″ and “Zaheer Abbas 216* and 156*” than Kevin Pietersen is of himself) and later Wisden (weightier, more grown-up, with page upon page of magnificently arcane details jostling alongside serious articles about the state of the game and match reports of MCC vs Old Salopians) were staples. Wisden still is. Is there a better way to while away half an hour on a November afternoon than to spend it perusing* the list of players who have scored two centuries in the same Test match?

I don’t think so. And neither do you.

*OK, memorising. Go away.

Book of British Birds
Fond as I was of birds, there was a part of me that regarded twitching as a competitive sport. How many birds had I seen? Was it more than my friend Michael? (Ornithology was the only area in which I could possibly hope to compete with Michael, nauseatingly adept and competitive as he was in the sporting arena, and perennially lazy as I was in the intellectual. We achieved joint top marks in the school General Knowledge paper, an achievement only slightly undermined by the fact that we had blatantly cheated — or, as my magnificently sagacious and kind form teacher put it when he explained that our scores were to be expunged from the records, “collaborated”.)

Where was I? Oh yes, competitive ornithology. How strong were my binoculars? Would the acquisition of stronger binoculars enable me to see MORE BIRDS?

There was something of the statistician about me as I leafed through this large volume, with its beautiful representative illustrations of every single bird it was possible to see if you lived in the British Isles. The distribution maps were a source of endless fascination, showing where you could see each bird. How I yearned to see the dramatic Golden Eagle, impossibly romantic and distant, with its few nesting pairs in the north of Scotland.

But I loved the small birds too. Wrens were common enough for the sight of one to be a pleasure rather than an excitement, but I still remember the moment I saw a goldcrest by the vegetable patch in our garden, its eponymous distinguishing feature wonderfully visible and making certain identification a cinch. Most of my twitching life before and since has been a case of fantasy and guesswork.

“Is that a tufted duck or a wigeon?” I asked myself as I peered at an indistinguishable blob through my (not strong enough) binoculars across the marsh flats of Suffolk, near my great-aunt’s house. “Maybe I’ll just put down both.”

Tick. Next up: the avocet.

I mock myself, but Crikey aren’t birds wonderful? Except starlings. Starlings are bastards.

Willans and Searle – Down With Skool!
It’s frankly astonishing that anybody from my generation can spell anything.

Truth be told, I was more of a Fotherington-Thomas than a Molesworth. Chiz chiz. Wot a weed.

Richard Scarry – What Do People Do All Day?
What do people do all day? They lounge around looking at the pictures in a Richard Scarry book, mostly.
Dogs dressed as traffic cops!
Families of pigs driving to the seaside!
Watermelons cascading off colourful trucks and squishing the cars behind them!
Lowly Worm!
You had to be there.

Goscinny & Uderzo – Asterix
If you didn’t love Asterix I don’t want to know you.

Unless, that is, you loved Tintin instead.

Some people loved both, but most people, when pressed, would belong to one camp or the other. It was like Jane Eyre vs Pride & Prejudice. But with menhirs and magic potion and incompetent detective twins and hard-of-hearing professors.

Dogmatix vs Snowy in a bone collecting contest. Discuss.

Eleanor & Herbert Farjeon (illustrated, I now discover, by Rosalind Thornycroft – Kings and Queens

photo 1 photo 2Slightly left field, this. For me, at least.

I hated history and was famously useless at it. I couldn’t remember which Henry was which (still can’t) and it was all frankly a bit of a blur between 1066 and the 1830s. There was a Civil War in there somewhere, wasn’t there? And that bloke with the wives. And plenty of wars with France. And Scotland. And everyone really.

But the gaps in my knowledge were no fault of Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon (and, lest I forget, illustrator Rosalind Thornycroft). With deft (well, deftish) poems and vivid illustrations they charted the history of the English (and later British) monarchy in easy-to-follow-even-for-historical-ignoramuses double spreads.

Couplets like “Sign, King John, or resign instead! / [And King John signed]” and “This time it was Henry who / hopped the twig, and a good job too” are burned into my memory (somewhat against my will).

Books, eh?

Metacricket

01/06/2014 § 2 Comments

The silent thwack of imaginary leather on non-existent willow; the ripple of notional one-handed applause; the hypothetical murmur of appreciation at a fine piece of fictional fielding or a dazzling Schrodinger’s catch.

Yes, the Metacricket season is here again.

In recent weeks it has become clear that I don’t belong to a cricket club any more. I belong to a Metacricket club.

For those unfamiliar with the game, here is a brief explanation.

Metacricket is a game whose existence depends on the organisation, anticipation and cancellation of cricket matches.

To qualify as Metacricket, the game must fulfil all of the following criteria:
1. The match must have been scheduled to take place;
2. The match must have to some extent been discussed by some of the participants;
3. The match must then have been cancelled.

In its simplest form, Metacricket consists of a discussion on the following lines:
Club Member: Have we got a game this Sunday?
Team Secretary: Ground’s too wet, so we cancelled.

Metacricket is a rich and immensely varied game, and its possible forms are too numerous to list here. I will merely give a description of some of the commonest examples encountered by the club Metacricketer:

1. The Team Secretary flags up a game four weeks in advance, receives an expression of interest and availability from fifteen or so players, no more than three of whom turn out to be available when the Team Secretary calls to confirm at the beginning of the week of the game in question. The more strenuous the efforts of the Team Secretary to get a team together, and the later in the week the cancellation, the more successful the game of Metacricket.

2. The Team Secretary ensures that eleven players are available, the Fixtures Secretary books the ground, and someone even remembers to buy a match ball. At 11.37 the night before the game the Club Secretary receives a text from his counterpart apologising for the fact that his team can only provide six players, three of whom are Colts.

3. Two full teams are available and ready to play.

It rains all day.

The most successful games of Rain Metacricket are the ones in which everyone feels duty bound to turn up because it’s sunny in the morning, but they all know that the rain is coming in from the west at lunchtime. The immersion of the pitch, at 1.43 pm, under enough water to fill Staines Reservoir fifteen times over, surprises nobody, and the seasoned Metacricketer will not even have bothered to bring their kit, but merely turns up for the inevitable leisurely two pints and four packets of cheesy moments that will only partly make up for the loss of the afternoon’s action. In a variant of this, the rain surprisingly fails to appear, but most of the players have looked at the forecast and made other plans, resulting in the cancellation of the game).

4. Eleven players are selected for a game and turn up expecting a keen renewal of a longstanding and eagerly anticipated fixture, but it turns out that the opposition folded the previous winter and failed to tell anyone. The Club Secretary is elusive when asked if he had confirmed the fixture according to normal practice. The more grounds that are visited in the fruitless pursuit of the fixture, the more successful the game of Metacricket. Bonus points are scored for failed attempts to reach the opposition’s Club Secretary on the day of the match.

5. Both teams turn out in full for the game but are eaten by a dinosaur at 1.57 pm on the day of the game (rare).

It will be clear from the above that it is not enough, if wanting to call oneself a Metacricket team, simply not to play cricket. One must make serious efforts to play cricket but be foiled (often at the last possible minute) by outside agencies over which the organisers have, or at least claim to have, no control. These outside agencies will include such things as: weather, Acts of God, stupidity (of self or of opposition), all-round general fecklessness and many more besides.

By extension, and in the context of Actual Cricket, a Metacricketer is one who appears eager to play cricket but never actually plays. The commonest kind of Metacricketer is the one who, at the pre-season dinner (the good Metacricketer always turns up to the social events), declares themselves “available if selected” for the whole season. When asked by the Team Secretary to play Actual Cricket, however, they turn out to be unavailable. As the season progresses, the reasons for their non-participation become increasingly outlandish, starting with the mundane (“it’s my son’s birthday” or the time-honoured “knee’s playing up”), progressing to the mildly convoluted (“I’d really like to, but my godfather’s invited me to Glyndebourne and I don’t really feel I can turn the old bugger down”) via the implausible (“would you believe it? My old history teacher’s having his retirement party in Prague that weekend”) and culminating with the brazenly and gloriously invented (“we’ve got the Pope coming to stay”).

Perhaps the greatest Metacricketer of all time was Ranulph Purslane-Ampersand, who, in a fifty-eight year career as captain of the Old Dirigibles Cricket Club, never played a single game. His name is so worshipped at the club that it is still, thirty-five years after his death, the first one on the team sheet — although it is always, of course, immediately crossed out.

Metacricket is, in my opinion, the greatest of all games. For those willing to devote the time to it, it can become an all-consuming passion, yielding many years of pleasurable disappointment, disillusion and regret.

It could be seen, in fact, as a metaphor for life itself.

You can

18/05/2014 § 2 Comments

You have many talents.

You can change a fuse.
You can watch Frasier all day long.
You can cycle for an hour without feeling tired.
You can balance a cricket stump on your nose.
You can name all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films in order.
You can tell the difference between a rook and a crow.
You can flip a pancake and have it land back in the pan. Most of the time.
You can fix the model train, but you’re not quite sure you could do it again.
You can find the spot on the cat that makes it roll over and show you its tummy.
You can hold your own in three foreign languages, as long as you’re in a restaurant.
You can type at eighty-five words a minute, although not all of them are strictly words.
You can work out the square root of four thousand six hundred and twenty-four in your head.
You can hold a conversation with someone and never give them an inkling that you hate their living guts.
You can make the perfect cappuccino, but rarely do, because you don’t like coffee and it only reminds you of him.
You can stand on the sofa and jump up and down screaming “Go on Mo! Go on! Gooooo ooooon! Yeeeesssss!” But you can only do this twice in your life.
You can hold someone’s hand as they lie dying in a bare hospital room
and even though they no longer know who you are
you know they are registering your existence
and when the final breath finally escapes their lips you stay there, holding their hand,
knowing that you made a difference, but then you ask yourself
“made a difference to what, exactly?”
and the melancholy holds you for three days.

But, despite all this, there is one thing you cannot do.
Nor will you ever be able to.
It is this.
You will never be able to read the end of Winnie the Pooh aloud to your son
without the tears rising in you and taking you over
so that the final words
aren’t really words at all.

Everyone should have something they can’t do.

Book giveaway thing

27/04/2014 § Leave a comment

Some people are reticent about telling the world when it’s their birthday.

Not me.

To celebrate the day, and bearing in mind that I have made a habit of telling people how to celebrate other people’s anniversaries (Facebook friends will know what I mean), and also because I am extremely generous (nod your head and say “yes, Lev, you are extremely generous”) I’m doing a giveaway thing.

The premise is simple: I have three copies of that marvellous book Waving, Not Drowning to give to three people. All you have to do is suggest appropriate ways for a conductor (any old conductor) to celebrate their birthday. The best three, in the opinion of the judges, will win.

The rules:

1. Keep it clean. Seriously. One of the judges is nine years old.

2. Entries in by midnight (BST) tonight (27th April).

3. If you already own a copy of Waving, Not Drowning (there must be some of you), I will either send a copy to a person of your choice or send you a book of my choice.

4. I can’t think of any more rules and we’ve got to go out.

Write your suggestions below, or on Twitter, or on Facebook, or send them to me via very fast pigeon.

Ceci n’est pas un poème

21/03/2014 § 2 Comments

Today is International Poetry Day. Here is my contribution. I have taken Kurt Vonnegut’s words of wisdom to heart:

“Practising an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

Ceci n’est pas un poème

There’s an old joke in this here world
That if you take a normal sentence
And then split up
The words
Onto several lines
Like this
Then you have a poem.

Actually it’s not so much a joke
As a knowing comment
Or aperçu.

But is it true?
And how do you do it?

One
Word
A
Line
Is
Too
Few.

And if you put most of the words on one line and then the last one on another it just looks
Weird.

I say
If it looks like a poem
And sounds like a poem
And the person who wrote it calls it a poem
Then a poem it is.

Even if it doesn’t rhyme.

Yore a pendant

19/12/2013 § 3 Comments

A small earthquake was reported in the Home Counties this morning.

The cause?

“The military is moving towards less boots on the ground.”

The lips of thousands of enraged Radio Four listeners exploded simultaneously.

“Fewer!”

The impact was seismic. Tiles were loosened. Garden furniture wobbled. A wall in West Byfleet fell down.

And then the typing began.

“Dear Radio Four, I was appalled to hear chunter chunter fume explode…”

How we love it when Radio Four gets something wrong. How we squirm with outraged delight. And how we enjoy it when they apologise an hour or so later.

It’s exhausting being a pedant. You have to be right all the time. There is nothing worse than being hoist with your own pedantic petard.

And there, of course, the pedants dive in.

“What do you mean ‘Nothing worse’? There are many things worse. Just think of all the people who have nothing chunter chunter fume explode…”

And so the long day wears on.

I waver when it comes to pedantry. Part of me quivers, longing to correct the hapless pedantee. It’s / its. They’re / their / there. You’re / your.

“Your joking,” someone texts / tweets / emails / Facebooks (yes I know “to Facebook” isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, a thing. Sue me.)

“My joking what?” I reply (in my head – I don’t quite dare commit it to the ether).

But while one part of me quivers, the rest of me is painfully aware of the sad truth: the trouble with pedantry is that you tend to look like a bit of a prissy do-gooding git with nothing better to do than flaunt your perceived superiority over whomsoever you happen to be conversing with at the time. It’s not an attractive look. You can’t be a graceful, good-humoured, life-and-soul-of-the-party-type pedant. It’s the prissy way or no way at all.

And the other trouble with it is that language changes. If it didn’t we’d still be thouing and wouldsting each other instead of, like, omging and, like, loling, you know? Because language.

[That last sentence, by the way, is, so I’m told, correct nowadays. Because + noun = correct sentence. Because internet. I share your pain and raise you a hit of pure agony.]

Anyway, if you take the evolution of language back to its (‘it’s’? ‘i’ts’?) logical conclusion, we’d still be wriggling at each other in a single-celled haven’t-evolved-out-of-the-primordial-soup-yet kind of way.

So, yes, languages, like life forms, evolve.

But I’ll be buggered if you’ll get me to accept that the only reasonable reaction to the word “webinar” isn’t to vomit noisily on the person who said it.

Anyway, the “Radio Four got it wrong” thing led me to a brief burst of “Film Titles To Annoy Pedants”. Feel free to add your own.

For Who The Bell Tolls

The King and Me

Its A Wonderful Life

Me, Claudius

South Specific

To Of and Of Not

Brewsters Million’s

‘Tis the season

04/12/2013 § 5 Comments

Hello. Me again.

I’ve been off here for a while. Various reasons.

Sometimes I was on the verge of posting but then realised what I was going to write was pathetic; on other occasions I got halfway through writing something and got distracted by Borgen or something else altogether more worthwhile.

I half-wrote an amusing post about how the car broke down as a result of my devil-may-care attitude to fords. It contained the sentences “I’ve got a trolley jack” and “We’ve had a look, and there’s a leak in the minun ilmatyynyalus on täynnä ankeriaita.”

Oh how you would have laughed, if only I’d had the perseverance to finish it.

Mostly, though, I’ve just been too busy. Hurrah.

Anyway, to the point. I’d like to ask a favour.

You will have had a hard time, if you’re anything close to being connected to me, avoiding the appearance of my book Waving, Not Drowning earlier this year. Quite a few of you have bought it, for which you are in receipt of my refulgent gratitude.

Some of you might even have gone so far as to read it.

If you’re like me, though, it’s probably sitting in the exponentially-expanding “To Be Read” pile.

No matter. Such is life.

If you’re in the “already bought it” group, well, thank you – it really means a lot that people are willing to spend their hard-embezzled cash on the fecund outpourings of my diseased imagination. If you do happen to have read it, and, further, to have enjoyed it, golly gosh I’d be grateful if you felt able to spread the word. The idea, having produced the damn thing, is to sell it, and what with Christmas and everything…

You get the idea.

Even the distribution of a simple link to wavingnotdrowningbook.com, accompanied by a note on the lines of “I have read this and can confirm that it is a book” can work wonders. Or perhaps a brief review here, supposedly the golden key to increased sales. That would be brilliant. Or, if you hated every word of it and used it as a firelighter, perhaps your announcement could be more on the lines of “Buy this book! It burns slowly.”

Of course, if you haven’t bought it yet, well…’tis the season for subtle hints.

Again, you get the idea.

There is, it should hardly need stating, no obligation for anybody to do anything. But if you did – as I say, gratitude of a refulgent nature. Heaps of it.

Thanks.

Oh, and listen to this. It’s about music and that and it’s brilliant.

  • Waving, Not Drowning

    My first book, Waving, Not Drowning, is now available from www.wavingnotdrowningbook.com.
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