Frank Skinner – drinking piss and near-misses with bricks

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Mr Literary Kitty bought me Frank Skinner’s autobiography for my birthday. He said it was the only book he’d ever bought off the back of reading the first line in a bookshop and laughing at it. I had high hopes as I’d always loved Skinner’s comedy and I fancied him quite inexplicably for a year or so at school, even though my friends shrieked with laughter. “He looks like a diseased lightbulb head!”

Anyway. It must be hard for a comedian to write an autobiography due to the pressure to make it relentlessly funny. Comedians are also famed for being people who make jokes to avoid talking seriously about themselves and their lives, and I wonder whether it made Frank Skinner uncomfortable to write about his life as a whole, rather than just the funny bits.

The Scotsman’s assertation on the book’s jacket is that: ‘Skinner has a pathological need to tell the truth’. He does share the rather humiliating experience of losing his virginity to a ropey old prostitute called Corky, but then embarrassments like that are Skinner’s bread and butter. It’s a hilarious, if stomach-churning story, but I can’t help thinking that he’d have left it out if it hadn’t been funny, however much it might have interested his readers.

For most of the book, Skinner skims as quickly as possible over the bits of his life where real emotion is involved. However, I’m not knocking him for not wanting to do a Cheryl Cole style soul-baring weepy, and admittedly there is more than one kind of honesty. Maybe Frank would argue that he had been more honest than Cheryl. He’s certainly funnier. If Cheryl has a Corky-style story she’s keeping it well and truly under wraps. Anyway, this flippancy seems to change as the book goes along and there are actually a few quite touching moments, especially when Skinner talks about his dad’s death.

The ideal reader of this book would probably be male, fond of football and partial to knob-jokes. However, I’m none of those things and I still enjoyed it. The book has a chaotic timeline which wasn’t really my cup of tea but I understand Skinner’s desire to avoid that ‘long boring stretch of time before the person gets famous’. There are some fantastic anecdotes, including one about him accidentally making a stranger drink his piss in a crowded bar, and one about the time he (as a child) nearly killed his neighbour’s daughter with a brick. There are many more but I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of the book, especially with poor delivery.

Overall, Frank Skinner feels a lot like sitting in a pub with Frank Skinner and having him give you a rambling oral account of his life, complete with a lot of jokes, the odd tear and quite a lot of filth. Fans will love it, the very squeamish will hate it and most readers will appreciate the honesty and unflinching openness with which he tells his story to date.

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Status Anxiety – interesting and accessible (ignore the culture snobs)

I love Alain de Botton. I have done ever since I was at home sick and I watched a whole series of him presenting a user-friendly philosophy programme (Philosophy: a Guide to Happiness, 4od), exploring concepts such as anger and love. Still, people are always complaining about him, like the Guardian, which says, in its critique of Status Anxiety:

“Alain de Botton is the kind of public intellectual our debased culture deserves. This prince of précis, this queen of quotation, pastes together entire books by citing and then restating in inferior prose the ideas of great writers from centuries gone by. Aping the forms of philosophical thought in tones of complacent condescension, he provides for his readers the comforting sensation of reading something profound at little cost of mental effort.”

OK, so allow me to clamber up on my soapbox for a moment. Not everyone wants to read the complete works of Plato in the original Greek as the Guardian probably wants to pretend it has. Some people will be quite grateful to Botton for doing his research and distilling it into an accessible, reader-friendly format in which he poses some thought-provoking questions and suggests a few interesting conclusions.

Far from having a tone of ‘complacent condescension’ I find Botton quite humble and thoughtful. He doesn’t hector his readers into agreeing with things and he doesn’t imply that they’re stupid, as the above Guardian writer is in danger of doing. As for ‘our debased culture’, I prefer to sidestep the notion that the good old days when church services were all in Latin were better. How would we even know?!

So Alain de Botton apparently ‘provides for his readers the comforting sensation of reading something profound at little cost of mental effort’. Stepping out of the way of the condescension that drips from those hypocritical words I say: well, what’s wrong with that? If Botton can get people thinking about themselves and their interior lives without them feeling that they’d need to be a professor to understand what the hell he’s going on about then I’d say that’s a great skill, rather than something to be sneered at by people who like their culture complicated.

Status Anxiety takes the reader through a potted history of status in human society, including its changing nature over the years and how it affects us individually. Botton’s theory is that the causes of status anxiety lie in: lovelessness (or the fear of it), expectation, meritocracy, snobbery and dependence. He treats these causes separately (one per chapter) and has a number of interesting observations to make about them. The solutions, he opines, are: philosophy, art, politics, religion and bohemianism – and he gives the layman plenty to chew over in terms of their impact on the human soul.

The only aspect of the book about which I agree with the Guardian is its illustrations: “banal ideas are illustrated by pseudo-logical flowcharts, graphs and diagrams.” That we could, admittedly, have done without. But the rest of the Guardian’s comments say more about its own sense of status anxiety than they do about Alain de Botton and his readers. The review complains that “the real value of this volume – beautifully designed and manufactured by Hamish Hamilton – is not as a work of thought but as an object, a status symbol. If you read it on the train or in a coffee shop, you are declaring that not only are you the kind of sensitive, thoughtful person who reads improving literature, you are the kind of successful person who can afford to buy it in hardback.”

Or maybe we just thought we would learn something from it?

Grumpy windbag cynics can scoff all they like but Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety is an interesting, accessible and measured introduction to the problems of the individual in society. Reading it might get you sneered at by Guardian readers who label you a vacuous ponce but by the end of the book you’ll have a new understanding of the importance of not caring what they think. That in itself makes Alain de Botton both relevant and useful – and I’ll fight with a stick anyone who tries to claim differently.*

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*Just kidding. I don’t have a stick. But don’t be mean about Alain de Botton.

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A Fraction of the Whole – epic in every way

I’m going to start this review by saying flat-out that A Fraction of the Whole is my book of the year. Already. I’m confident that nothing could come along and usurp it. I haven’t loved a book like this since Dinaw Mengestu’s Children of the Revolution. Tolz’s debut was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize but it lost out to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (a worthy winner, I had thought, until I read this).

The book focuses on the tangled lives of the Dean family, primarily Terry Dean, sports hero turned robber turned murderer, his half-brother Martin Dean, a frustrated philosopher with perennial bad luck, and his son, Jasper Dean, who could spend a lifetime trying to unravel the parenting web that his father has spun tightly around him.

Tolz is a man who understands the entirety of the human condition, our strengths, our weaknesses, our shambolic failures, our victories, our failures masquerading as victories and vice versa. I wanted to underline paragraph after paragraph so I could remember the best bits and when travelling (drunk) on the train without a pen (never without a book, of course) I ended up tearing tiny corners off the pages to so I didn’t lose my favourite sections.

Even if this is the only book Steve Tolz ever writes, even if every book he writes after this is utter drivel, he will remain for me a great voice of the twenty-first century. He can do epic and moving to the point that you can practically hear violins swelling in the background and he can do witty – you can be smirking mere moments after you’ve wiped a tear. He would be an excellent speechwriter – delivering beautiful, unsettling soliloquies that make you want to slap the book down on the table and say “Yes! Exactly! That’s exactly what people are like! Right there!”

And yet despite the book’s philosophical nature, it’s full of action, and not just mundane action but ACTION in capital letters. We’re talking murderers on the loose, millionaires being made, cars being crashed through strip club walls and fugitives escaping overseas.

This book is all about lives being overshadowed, whether by grief, inflexible thinking or others who have gone before – those who blaze a bright trail unmatchable by those who follow behind. I think it’s fair to say that Tolz is much more interested in life’s losers than in stories of triumph and glory and A Fraction of the Whole is lives up to its name with its exploration of human helplessness in the face of an unknowable future.

For Tolz’s characters, especially the luckless Martin Dean, good intentions almost always produce catastrophic results. ‘There before the grace of the universe go I’ seems to be a thought that is close to the author’s heart and it is one that interests me too. I remember reading Frank Skinner’s autobiography and in it he recounts the time when, as a child, he threw a brick at a little girl’s face in a moment of petulance. The girl (his next door neighbour) mercifully came off with cuts and bruises and Skinner escaped with no more than a furious reprimand from his parents – but he seems genuinely quite harrowed by how different the story could have been. No one, he notes, wants to laugh along with the child-killer comedian who bricked a little girl to death. But Frank Skinner got lucky where Martin Dean does not although Frank Skinner had to write his own life story whereas Martin’s is done for him, skilfully, touchingly and superlatively by Steve Tolz. Do not miss out on this book – it is seven hundred pages of absolute magic.

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The Day the World Ends – not bursting with, or bereft of, gems

When I was offered the chance to review a book of poems by Ethan Coen (one half of the filmmaking Coen brothers) I accepted happily on the grounds that a) it seemed like a gloriously unlikely proposition and b) I love poetry and hate the fact that so little of it gets published nowadays.

The poems weren’t all my cup of tea (I’ve always hated limericks and Coen is rather fond of them) but the collection covers a wide range of topics from farting alpacas to relationship regrets, with an ode to the big-assed women of the world in between. Quirky and irreverent, The Day the World Ends will no doubt please Coen brothers’ fans and those who hate stuffy, flowery verse.  If you cringe at the merest hint of crudity, however, then this collection is probably not for you.

Having said that, it would be unfair to paint Coen’s poems as entirely crude or macho, and to illustrate the opposite view I wanted to share my favourite poem from the collection here, which is called ‘On Turning Fifty’.  Here, Coen shows a gentler, more introspective side without resorting to the flowery or the fluffy. For me personally, this is where he is at his best.

 

‘On Turning Fifty’

Having arrived I send back word

On what to expect,

What not to expect,

What to avoid,

What to do.

First of all, don’t come here the way I came.

Not through the forties.

The forties are nothing but a good dream gone bad.
I mean:

The deaths?
Not like in your youth when peers’ flameouts

—Drugs, motorcycles, etc. —

Little bothered you, or—

Let’s admit it—bothered you not at all.  

In your forties, the Sad Diers

—From cancers, weird blood diseases, the occasional

                astounding heart attack—

will give you pause.

These Not-Old who die a-wasting,

Or are smothered by a tumor,

Or detonate,

Leaving stunned young families to pick up the pieces,

Send a message that you now know how to read

And don’t want to.

So there’s that.

Then, professionally

Things get a little drab:

Doing this, doing that—things you’ve

Done before.

Sex ditto.

And just in general the

Idiotic optimism that lit your tripping way forward

Through your twenties and even (if less brilliantly) your

                thirties

Dwindles,

And then one day,

When you’re, oh,

Forty-three or forty-four,

It gutters out altogether

With a hopeless pfft

And a little spitcurl of updrifting smoke.

 

So don’t come this way.
Skip the forties.

 

“Skip the forties?” you say.

“Go straight to fifty from—what? —thirty-nine?

Miss ten years?”

 

Well, yes.

You’re not missing anything, is my point.

And once you’re fifty

You can start the long peaceful coast down to white-haired

                hardihood,

Wheelspokes humming as age’s breeze

Lightly riffles your hair.

Sure.
Why not.

 

Why

Waste a decade

Dodging the medical lightning bolts,

Why

Sit grumpily

Through the emotional brownouts,

Why

Squint

And squint and squint and squint until you realize,
Fuck! I need reading glasses!

I’m telling you: the forties are nothing.

The forties are less than nothing.

The forties are the ugly stretch of the Interstate.
The forties are taupe.
The forties are ten pieces of shit on a stick.

 

All right, so this poem wasn’t about turning fifty so much

As about your forties, your miserable forties.

But if I’d called the poem “Skip your Forties, Fuckers,”

Would you have read it?

Now that you have—

Learn something for fuck’s sake.

Don’t stumble around for a hundred and twenty months

                like I did, blindfolded,

Waving a stick,

And the piñata in the next fucking country.

 

For fuck’s sake:

I’m trying to help you.

Hello?

 

 

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Dedicated To…. – from forgotten friends to lost loves

I love second-hand books and second-hand bookshops, and I love that moment when you find an inscription written inside a pre-owned book – so I was intrigued when I came across Dedicated To….. The book describes itself as an ode to ‘the forgotten friendships, hidden stories and lost loves found in second-hand books’. Some are poignant, some are funny, and one particularly memorable inscription serves as a very stern poke in the eye.

This is a beautiful little book, illustrated with some fabulous book covers – and each of the inscriptions appears in the original handwriting alongside a printed transcription. As the editor W.B. Gooderham states in his introduction: “The right book, given to the right person at the right time, can work wonders…A book can say I miss you, I love you, I forgive you; I never want to see you again.” How true that is. I know I love giving books as presents and I never miss the opportunity to write in them either. A four-line rhyme written in the first book I ever gave my now-husband (a Penguin Classics King Lear) gained me a look I have never forgotten, and I love picking up an old book from my shelves and seeing a note from Lovely Mum (who always writes in my books), perhaps from Christmas 1998. It’s like a little slice of the past.

So we’ve established that I’m sentimental about my books. I have to think something is truly worthless to give it away once I’ve read it. I generally like to keep a complete record on my shelves. I’d be especially unlikely to give away a dedicated book, so before I give you my favourite inscriptions from Dedicated To…, I’d like to say how sad I found it that all the books featured therein had been given away. Advice spurned? No longer needed? Altogether forgotten? We can only speculate on that, and on the journeys these books have taken. Gooderham considers the matter too, and also notes the “added poignancy” given to the books as a result of their having been passed on.

 

Anyway, here are some of my favourite inscriptions:

 

Bawdy Ballads, Xmas 1989

“Mum says it is disgusting: I say it may encourage you to learn the piano.”

 

The Penguin Book of Infidelities ed. by Stephen Brook

“For Rebecca, in case you have any ideas!”

 

A Book of Surrealist Games ed. by Mel Gooding

“For Ted – my period is 3 days late. x.o.d.”

 

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, 21st December 2008

“To my darling husband – we have now been married for 6 very special months. Enjoy memories of our wonderful honeymoon as you read this. Anita xxx”

 

Jungle Lore by Jim Corbett, May 1958

“To John Hughes. Go shoot yourself. Henry”

 

Words by Jean Paul Sartre, September 1973

“For Mummy – may you read it all – clearly and without prejudice – right to the end! Lots of love, Hetty x x x

(The cover of the book is printed with the quote ‘I loathe my childhood and all that remains of it…’)

 

Mister Johnson by Joyce Cary, May 1991

“Dear John, When I was twelve or thirteen years old Grandma became increasingly alarmed at my philistine preoccupation with science and agriculture. I remember being whisked off to the bookshop in Bury, where on my behalf she selected “Mister Johnson”, my first adult book. It was an inspired choice – it amused me, introduced me to the joys of literature and also to the notion of an overseas colonial service. The book thus had a profound influence on my life; without it I may never have gone to Africa, and you may not have been born thirty years ago. To it you probably owe your existence and it is high time you were introduced. I pass it to you in turn with much love. Dad”

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The Human Mind – a lesson in good science

I started reading The Human Mind by Professor Robert Winston because Mr Literary Kitty was jumping up and down about it. (That’s a lie, I don’t know when I last saw him jump, but he did read lots of interesting facts out to me as he went, and he loved it so I thought I’d give it a go.) It was a bit sciencey for the first few pages and I’ve never really been interested in the label-heavy naming of the parts but after that it was a great read. Winston is a likeable chap, the sort of person you’d be grateful to be sat next to at a nerve-wracking dinner party. He has a great range of anecdotes to illustrate all sorts of scientific issues and he knows how to bring potentially opaque subject matter to life.

He delves into how we learn, what we decide to pay attention to and how we define and refine our character. He covers the science of physical attraction and love (apparently there is a certain science to it!). He explores how the brain works and how it connects with the body. I learned that a woman’s sense of smell is a thousand times better than a man’s, that there’s a reason why women are stereotyped as better communicators – he covers so many things you might have wondered about and indeed many things you’ve probably never considered. He covers doppelgängers, introverts, the science of the senses, the ways drugs of all kinds affect the mind, the differences between theleft and right brain, the science of habit –and yet he’s comprehensive without being exhausting.

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Robert Winston is definitely the science teacher I wish I’d had, the kind you wouldn’t mind asking a stupid question. He interacts with the reader, you never feel like you’re being lectured. His writing style seems totally effortless – and this is one of the greatest compliments in my eyes when it comes to writing. I firmly believe that the ultimate eloquence is being able to make the seemingly baffling clear. Some people claim that some things are too complicated to ever be simply received but I just don’t agree.

Of course, readers are not going to become brain experts from reading this book but a denser, more technical book wouldn’t make us experts either. Pound for pound, the average reader will learn more here, I think. Robert Winston is engaging, funny, humble and very, very readable. If you want to become more generally informed about what the human mind is made of, this is a very good place to start.

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Pigeon English – a story of promise snatched

I loved Pigeon English right from the get-go. When I saw the comparisons on the cover to Room and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night I suspected I would. Stephen Kelman taught me the word ‘hutious’ (meaning frightening in Ghana) and totally transported me to a run-down London estate where I became immersed in the life of adolescent immigrant Harri Opoku and his family.

I could imagine this book as a film (and indeed it has been picked up by Skins director Adam Smith for a TV adaptation) – it could work even if the whole of Kelman’s first person prose was superimposed over the video track as narration – such is its power. I love an author who can write a person’s thoughts faithfully and authentically, which is especially hard when the character is a child. If you’ve never written a child, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was easy – but children are so complicated, their minds are so wild and untrammelled – they can imagine worlds of possibility in ways that adults can’t – and it is this juvenile creativity that Kelman reproduces so effectively.

I loved Emma Donoghue’s Room and her child narrator, Jack, but I did have slight misgivings about the authenticity of his narration – with Harri I had none. The way he weaves the harsh reality of his life on the estate with his own rich imaginative landscape is seamless – and it reminded me of what it was like to be a child. You take the half-truths given to you by adults, or gleaned from what’s going on around you, and you fill in the blanks. Sometimes this results in a more magical world and sometimes this incomplete understanding has devastating consequences. Both outcomes are compelling in their own way in this book.

When asked in a Q&A with Foyles who his favourite character in the book was, Kelman replied: “Harrison… We see the world through his eyes, he’s the narrator of the story and I love him; he has so much exuberance, so much curiosity for the world, and I think writing him was an inspiration to me. He’s a character that I’ve taken with me and he’s a good kid, I’m very fond of him.” I have to say, I felt very much the same.

The Observer claims the book “is too conscious of the gulf between its subjects and its inevitably middle-class readers to be truly convincing” but I tend to wonder why this consciousness is considered a negative. Kelman, who himself grew up on an estate in Luton, and who was still living there at the time of writing the book, is no doubt aware of the gap between his average reader and his characters. But isn’t it the job of the writer to present us with new worlds and provide us with a window of understanding into them?

Harri is eleven, still young and relatively innocent. A reader can love him easily. But as we watch him walk the tightrope of adolescence between the expectations of his strict Ghanaian mother and the temptations and threats of the local Dale Farm Crew,  we don’t know which way he will turn – there’s something thought-provoking about that. Kelman presents us with a more nuanced dilemma than that which is set out in news stories. He seems to indirectly pose the question: what will sweet, loveable Harri be like when he’s sixteen, given the paths that fork out around his feet at eleven? How will he be perceived by the readers who loved him in this book?

How often do we see in the media a fierce indignation on the part of ‘innocent kids’ with tough upbringings, only for it to turn to disgust when they get a little older and become  ‘feral teens gone wild’. Amongst other things, Kelman’s fantastic debut novel reminds us that one tends to morph into the other, and there are always more complex forces at work than simple good and bad.

An engaging, lively and effortless first novel that navigates the treacherous terrain between childhood and the realities of adult life.

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