This Boy – from poverty to parliament


I was recommended Alan Johnson’s childhood memoir, This Boy, by Lovely Mum. I was curious as she’s not generally a reader of political biographies. I never think of her as very political at all, in fact, although she’s always drummed it into me that voting is important (i.e. it’s pretty much murderers, thieves and people who don’t vote, in her books). She never liked Tony Blair (smug) and she only liked the Green Party till they got in and started doing terrible things with the bins (apparently). But she liked this book because it reminded her of her childhood, being poor and the child of a single mother in London in the fifties and beyond.

She said she liked the book because it was well-written and ‘not one of those misery memoirs’. She was right on both counts, although Johnson lived in appalling conditions and had a lot to contend with in his young life. In fact, his style of writing reminded me of the way my mum talks about her childhood. She has always been the queen of matter of fact. When I asked her many years ago about her father who sloped off when she was two, about whether it bothered her, she said “I didn’t really think about it much. It was a bit embarrassing, I suppose. I just used to tell people he was dead.”

Like Johnson, she was used to the shame of being sent on begging errands by her mother, being dragged here and there in the search for extended credit or some other favour. They weren’t quite as destitute and there was no violent, gambling husband making a bad thing worse but it was a life of uncertainty, a childhood of thinking about food and electricity. There are possibly no fewer children today like that. Notting Hill, where Johnson grew up, is affluent now, but though Rachman’s slums are gone, other estates rot elsewhere.

One of the most interesting things about this book, which takes Johnson only so far as a job as a postman, is considering where he ended up – the Houses of Parliament. As a child he scavenged for coal on the street and was always, despite the best efforts of his lovable, kind mother and his almost superhumanly strong sister, hungry. A disinterested student with dreams of becoming a rock star, he comes across as a very normal, everyday person. I wonder how many primary school children living on crappy estates right now will end up in politics. It’s hard to imagine many of those biographies somehow. When you watch MPs braying and jeering at each other across the green leather benches, it reminds you that politics is still very much a posh man’s game overall.

Certainly Alan Johnson’s story is very inspiring, in an unassuming kind of way. It would still be a good read whatever he had ended up doing in later life, as it’s open-spirited, funny and honest, with twists and turns that keep you gripped, wondering how things might pan out. But the main thought the book left me with is that Alan Johnson feels like an unusual politician, and perhaps confidence in parliament would be greater if there were more who came across like him.


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Last Man in Tower – darkness looming


I loved Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger so I was excited when I was bought Last Man in Tower. There’s no doubt that Adiga is a hugely talented author; he has a beautiful way of phrasing things, a way with description that has you fully immersed – Mumbai in this book is a city under construction and you can hear the cacophony of noise, smell the greed in the air.

The residents of the crumbling Vishram Society tower block are made an offer by oily property tycoon Dharmen Shah. He wants to knock down the society and build new luxury apartments. Some residents with dreams of polished wood cupboards or gleaming new cars are ready to jump at the chance but others, like the blind Mrs Pinto and retired teacher Masterji, resist. As the deadline looms closer, relationships in the society fracture, then detonate, and the residents find themselves in situations that were previously unimaginable.

Despite an interesting premise and Adiga’s obvious skill as a writer, this book fell a little flat for me. There are so many characters that it’s hard to truly get to know any of them, except perhaps for Masterji, whose increasingly untenable position in the society, and everything that goes along with it, leads him to a new understanding of himself. At times, this is deeply moving – he has long been inflexible and self-regarding – and he never becomes an unequivocal hero – but he is stripped bare here in a way that is both uncomfortable and fascinating.

There is so much darkness in this book. The message seems to be that people are capable of huge amounts of evil, that even the strongest-seeming friendships can turn out to be worthless, that people are selfish and greedy and morally bankrupt, that dignity is an illusion – I found it quite desperate in tone. But that wasn’t my objection as such. It was more that with so many characters, I couldn’t get inside the book – I felt like I was just watching a sad show as a passive spectator. The White Tiger had me absolutely sucked in, whereas the people from the Vishram Society are already fading for me. I would still read more Adiga, but this story, with its unrelenting bleakness and lack of vivid characterisation, just wasn’t the one for me.

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Dedicated To You – scribbled snapshots from strangers

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 Clothes on Their Backs – effortlessly excellent

Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs is a wonderful study of a family of Jewish Hungarian immigrants, told from the perspective of Vivien. This inquisitive, bookish girl is the daughter of Ervin and Berta (a pair of timid, cardigan-wearing mice) and the niece of Sándor Kovaks, flamboyant pimp and infamous slum landlord (not to be confused with the real-life Sándor Kovács, a seemingly innocuous academic).

When we meet Vivien she is a middle-aged woman with grown-up daughters whose husband has just died, as has Ervin (Berta has predeceased him). As she clears out her parents West London flat, which was her childhood home, the ghosts of her past are all around her, prompting her to tell us the story of her younger years, which is full of sadness, punctuated by death and quietly, unostentatiously riveting.

Grant’s account of Vivien’s childhood is so atmospheric you almost feel you could reach out and touch the walls of her bedroom. You can hear the stillness in the air, the loneliness of having no one but her parents who jump every time there is a knock at the door. Their secrets are stacked up around them like so many dusty boxes and Berta’s opaque evasiveness is particularly well-written. She is a master at deflecting her daughter’s curious questions, and perhaps Vivien would never have found out anything about her family’s past were it not for a visit by her uncle when she was a child.

Sándor Kovacs, about whom so much has been written in the press, looms large in Vivien’s memory: the man who arrived at her quiet, colourless home in a bright blue suit with a gold bar of Toblerone for her. On his arm was a teenage West Indian girl in a leopard-print hat. Sándor is the man who so upset and enraged the normally timid Ervin that he sent him packing from the doorstep with curses and screams, his Toblerone refused.

When Vivien she seeks Sándor out again as an adult, at a time when she is struggling painfully to make her way in the world after a string of unfortunate tragedies, it is because she is curious about the wall of terrified silence erected around him by Ervin and guarded faithfully by Berta. When she finds him, it cracks open a whole world of the past she knows nothing about.

Though Ervin and the newspapers she reads in the library, who describe her uncle as ‘the face of evil’, have nothing good to say about Sándor, what Vivien finds is more complicated than a monster. Sándor is a fascinating character – showy, haunted, gregarious, tough and surprisingly loyal – a person as vibrant and brash as his brother is timid and tightly wound. Indeed, it is this dichotomy between the brothers, and their relationship (or lack thereof), that is one of the most interesting features in the book. Sándor is lovable in ways that Ervin is not, and Ervin is noble in ways that Sándor disdains. Neither is wholly good or wholly bad. There is no good or evil here, unless you want to make that judgement for yourself.  Grant isn’t interested in giving you characters that can be summed up in newspaper headlines, and her book is the richer for it.

Viv Groskop in her Guardian review says that the book ‘is so artfully constructed that you barely feel you’re reading it at all’, and that is exactly my view. I felt like I was breathing Viven, like Sándor was a visceral experience; The Clothes on Their Backs feels more like flesh and blood than paper and ink.

I have read a lot of books in my time and consequently I forget a lot of them, even excellent ones. New plots and new characters push out the old ones – but some remain wedged in years after I’ve read them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sándor, Vivien, Eunice, Berta and Ervin were among them a decade from now.

In my view, the best books are those that can make you mourn people you’ve never met and have you nostalgic for places you’ve never been. Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs is a brilliant example of this phenomenon, and if you’re looking for a book to engross you completely and effortlessly then I highly recommend it.

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May We Be Forgiven – life over the edge


I read the much-feted This Book Will Save Your Life some years ago now. It made quite an impression on me – its main character, Richard Novak, stayed with me, and I liked A.M. Homes’ style – she has a mastery of physiological insight and a talent for depicting the real, the raw, in a way that is truly satisfying to the reader. Harry, the main character in May We Be Forgiven, is in many ways reminiscent of Richard Novak – he has drifted through life lecturing on a dated subject, bumping along in a loveless husk of a marriage with the incredibly driven Claire. He harbours no deep desires, no design for life, until one day his monstrous brother’s downtrodden wife startles him with a kiss in in the kitchen, and what follows shatters life as everyone around them knows it.

I love it when I can’t guess where a book will go and that was definitely the case here. A.M. Homes likes to take those emotive moments in life that can be the catalyst for real change and run with them. What happens when a man with a famously dangerous temper, around whom people have always walked on eggshells, is forced to contemplate betrayal? And what happens when a man who has hitherto lived a sterile life with no responsibility is thrust into the middle of a traumatised, dysfunctional family and is tasked with leading them back to sanity?

Homes likes to explore the lives of people with material success who have lost contact with what really matters in life. There is a loneliness at the heart of her novels. Her characters learn to reconnect – life forces them to, and this awakening is fascinating and painful. Homes waits for her characters in the formative, difficult moments of their life. She prods and pokes them in the places where they are most vulnerable and most unsure of how to proceed. We wonder what we would do in Harry or Richard’s situation and we invest in their struggle.

However, there is theme in both of the Homes books I’ve read so far: her protagonists are swimming in money. Therefore, even at the sharp end of their lives, they are buffeted by affluence. Sometimes I think it’s easy to be heartwarming when your character has an endless supply of money with which to change people’s lives for the better when he realises what an empty life he’s been living. What would the story look like for someone who had messed things up with friends and family, but who didn’t have the resources to dedicate the whole of their remaining days to making things right? To a certain extent, Homes’ books are wealth porn, fantasies of a life without limits, without the ugliness of survival decisions. Is it cheating, what Homes is doing, I sometimes wonder? Is she feeding me, as adverts do, by selling me a dream where the only limits are in my mind? In part, yes, I think so. But then this is fiction – does it have to live relentlessly in the drudgery of everyday life? Or is it fine for Homes to strip away the mundane and leave us with an amazing story of personal growth in a life unfettered by logistics? She is not interested, seemingly, in digging into reality as much as she is in digging into the mind in its crisis moments, and watching where it goes and where it resurfaces on the other side of that madness.

Dark, funny and unputdownable, May We Be Forgiven is a triumph from the pen of A.M. Homes – a riveting study of life after being tipped over the edge.


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The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared – a rich rollercoaster ride

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is one of those books that makes you stand back and admire the author, and envy the unbelievable richness of the mind that can produce a story as intricate and fantastical as this.

It’s not easy to sit in a café, broke and anxious, and spill onto the page a complete world filled with quidditch and dementors and horcruxes – not just an exploration or a  snapshot of a world that already exists, but something new, with new rules, new possibilities. It takes imagination and a vision – I admire that, and Jonas Jonasson comes from the same school as J.K. Rowling in that respect.

Allan Karlsson, the centegenarian who climbs out of a nursing home window and sets off a chaotic chain of events, has had a richer life than most. He has dined with various presidents, spent years in a brutal gulag, accidentally given Stalin the secret of the atom bomb, changed the fate of Indonesia with Albert Einstein’s chronically stupid brother, and all manner of other things. And that is before he gets himself caught up with a suitcase filled with stolen millions, a four ton elephant called Sonya and an international man-hunt.

Yep, Jonas Jonasson has built quite a world for his amiable hero Allan, and yet he hasn’t scrimped on his other characters, who are numerous and entertaining. They accompany Allan on his unlikely rollercoaster ride through history and it is perfect, in a book so outrageous, that the characters are all so realistically drawn. People stumble through life in this book, as they do in real life, even when the consequences are immense. And it’s this mundanity at the heart of the book, and the pottering, humdrum character of Allan himself, that make Jonasson’s rollercoaster ride so delicious. This is what makes the tale incredible rather than farcical. A quirky, brilliant read from an extremely fertile mind.

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist – bitter tea

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is charmingly written, and instantly riveting. A young Pakistani meets an American in a Lahore teashop and begins to tell him the story of his life. By titling his book in the way he has, and then giving a story about a clever young man who buys into the American dream, attends Princeton, falls in love with an American girl and becomes a high-flyer at a New York valuation firm, Mohsin Hamid invites his readers to examine their own unconscious prejudice about fundamentalism as fed by the fear-mongering Western media. One of the most interesting things about this book is the perspective it gives on the life of a suspicious-looking brown, and worst of all, sometimes bearded, person living in New York in an atmosphere of post-9/11 panic. This is the America of the apple pie and stars and stripes. A retro idyll: our hero wonders whether the America of that popular imagination ever existed, and whether, if it was resurrected, it would have any kind of place for a person like him. It’s an interesting thought, and it’s interesting to see a writer explore the perspective of someone who has some sympathy for the 9/11 attacks – not for the action itself, with its fatal consequences, but for the feeling of anger against America: the aggressor, the patronising big brother, the ruthless bully. It was interesting to watch Changez, our hero, with his love for the land of opportunity, its beautiful women and its personal freedoms, think again about the fragility of his life in the corporate machine.

The book is not centred around politics, whatever the assumption might be. It’s a personal story – one man on a path to success, hard won success at that, who is forced to re-evaluate his identity. Hamid writes convincingly about the two very different worlds his character straddles and Changez himself is full of depth. I read the book in a couple of sittings, eager to find out how it ends. I was transported – to dusty Lahore, to gleaming New York – and I was gripped by Changez’s life, its highs and its lows.

A fresh and refreshing perspective on most that popular of subjects: 9/11. Mohsin Hamid’s story is both beautiful and deeply sad.

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