Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Chocolate Ocelot's Bookpile

Hello. It’s been ages, hasn’t it? You look great. Have you lost weight? And your hair - lovely! Do sit down. Have a cup of tea and a hobnob. No please, do. No? I’ll have yours then if you don’t mind. Mm, lovely. Anyway.

I was watching a thing on BBC4 recently. It was called, I think, Danny Baker Talks To Some Friends About Old Records, and was very worthy indeed. Everyone taking turns to talk about their first album or what their fave record shop was and so forth. All very nostalgic of a passing era and all that. And I enjoyed it well enough, but truth be told, I’m not much of a rock and popster. When conversations turn to what music folks listened to in their formative years, I tend to keep my head down and hope they don’t ask me. Unless I feel I’m particularly bold, in which case I tentatively own up to being a constituent member of that tiny slice of the population who used to record their favourite theme tunes off the telly. Oh yes, that was me. The funked-up 80’s Dr Who theme? Got it. The extended Airwolf outro? Got it. The Adventure Game theme featuring Acornsoft sound effects? I was all over it baby.

In other words, I was a very late comer to popular music indeed. Where others of my generation were absorbing Duran Duran’s Rio or enjoying the 12” of Depeche Mode’s Master and Servant (“It’s a lot, It’s a lot” and repeat) , I was listening to selected comedy sketches off the double album of We Are Most Amused and memorising every line of Balham, Gateway To The South. Ah, the comfort of a well-crafted skit.

As with so many aspects of life, I was a late adopter of pop and rock and their ilk. I was even a late adopter of the term ‘late adopter’, which shows how hardcore I am when it comes to lagging some way behind the zeitgeist. If the zeitgeist comes close enough for me to make out the back of its metaphorical head, I bend down and pretend to do my shoes up until it’s moved comfortingly off into the distance once more. Not only am I a late adopter, I’m a curmudgeonly one, a begrudging one. And not even an adopter, which suggests some sort of acquiescence to the new (often middle-aged concept) in question. I’m more like a host organism having something foisted on it, possibly by ingesting something frightful and foreign. Like a hapless impregnated colonial marine in Aliens.

But, characteristically, I digress.

Here’s the thing about that Danny Baker music programme. They were all talking about how what albums they bought and listened to, and how what records you have on your shelf defines who you are …

(Actually, come to think of it, that last bit may have been an entirely different BBC4 programme about albums. There’s a bunch of them at the moment, like last year’s spate of high-cheekboned shiny-lipped Brian no-not-the-actor Cox science shows. How many programmes are there about albums at the moment? Is it the album Olympics or something?)

… and I’m sitting there watching it, trying to pretend I’m the sort of person who bought Rumours and Diamond Dogs and Nevermind, instead of We Are Most Amused and the Flash Gordon soundtrack and the Barron Knights’ A Taste Of Aggro, and it came to me that it’s not my albums but my bookshelf that says something about who I am (in a contrived made up for a blog sort of way).

Actually, that’s a bit of a lie. It’s really my towering Raiders-Of-The-Lost-Ark-Warehouse stacks of comic boxes that say the most about me, I think but that’s a soul-baring insight for another time. For now, let us pretend that my first love is books, and proceed from there.

Here are the books that I have either just read in the last month or so, or are languishing in a composting pile by my bed, awaiting their turn to be read. This list is not only an insight into my reading tastes, but also into the tastes of people who lend me books, thinking I might like to read them. It is also a way of saying ‘Please God don’t anyone buy or lend me any more books for the rest of the year. Not even for next Christmas’. I know, serious or what.

So, let us proceed unto the beddal chamber (when I say we, I mean me. You stay right there, you saucy scamp) and return with my stack of books, thence to enwisen (new word) you with the great and varied panoply of my reading habits. We’ll start at the top of the pile, ostensibly the ones I’m going to read next, or possibly the ones that have most recently landed there. I know, not much of a system , but hey.

Can I just say ‘Ow, my back’ at this point? Nobody should attempt to pick up that many books in one go at my age. Important health & safety warning there for you, and probably a good argument for kindles and their kind, though not for me obviously (see ‘late adopter’ above).

Firstly, assume that the top few inches of the pile are inhabited by a liberal coating of comics from the local library or comic shop (yes, we have a comic shop in our county! It’s like the 90s boom all over again, tch…). These will have been gifted unto me, on a short-term basis, by my good friend and comic wrangler known to some of you as the Lion of Burcombe and others as Dr Foot, for reasons too geeky and obscure to go into here. Between us we account for the majority of the graphic novel lendage across all public libraries in a ten mile radius. God knows what we’re doing to their customer usage stats, but I suspect we’re both on some kind of register by now. We will gloss over this layer for today, safely assuming that Comics Always Get Read First, because I loves them so.

1. Fly By Night, by Frances Hardinge. Lent to me by a friend and thus one that I felt I ought to read as quickly as poss and then return before I lose it / bury it under all the other books / simply wreck its pristine spine and clean pages with my horrid paper-destroying paws (how do other people manage to read books without appearing to have even opened them at any point? Do they use special tools and tiny mirrors on sticks, like bomb disposal experts? I truly believe that people who lend you seemingly unspoilt books are doing it on purpose to shame you when you return it, red-faced and mumbling, in a spine-wrinkled, dog-eared state. It is, to quote a well-known admiral, a trap.) I rather liked this book, though the cover and main character have led me to suspect that it is aimed at younger, possibly brighter, readers than me. But I did eventually get into it. And it is printed in a fetching font. Or possibly typeface. Is there a difference? Printy people, feel free to educate me.

2. Is It Just Me?, by Miranda Hart. Christmas present. Very jolly, though it is a hardback, so tricky to slip into my bag when I’m out and about and in need of a book-like aid when sat in cafes on my lonesome. Yes, I probably should have a copy of Heat or Grazia instead, or sit there furiously scrolling through my non-existent iPhone, or just staring vacantly into space. Anyway, good old Miranda. It reads very much as she talks on her show, and a very infectious style of writing it is too, as this very article may attest, though the lingering after-effects of me having watched Charlie Brooker a couple of days ago may also be leaking through. I am nothing if not an unoriginal style-sponge.

3. Knightmare: Can You Beat The Challenge?, by Tim Child and Dave Morris. Lent by Mr J Twine of Sandybeds. What do you mean you don’t know this book? Knightmare? Children’s ITV, late 80s teatime? Treguard? Dire warning team? Spellcasting D I S M I S S? Oh, you young flibberts. I feel so old. This is the book of the kids’ puzzle/adventure show of the same name. A bit like Trapped or Raven these days, if I’ve surreptitiously surfed CBBC of a morning correctly. The first two thirds of this splendidly yellowing paperback make up a rather serious tale of the young hero Treguard battling across Norman England to reclaim his castle, taking on nasty fen-dragons and black knights. It’s actually not bad, considering it was probably knocked out as a quick cash-in. The last third of the book is a Fighting-Fantasy style choose your own adventure, which I have not as yet had the time to essay, but I look forward to riddling my way past stony-faced wall elemental Granitas (of legend).

4. A weekend magazine about films. Courtesy of my mum, who likes saving me things from the papers that I might like to read. I never quite find the time to read them properly, but do try to flick through a bit, absorb a couple of facts from the main articles and then return it to her with thanks, thus unwittingly encouraging her to lend me more such periodicals in the future. If you are my mum reading this, ignore the previous bit – I do read them all thoroughly, thank you very much. Actually, this has turned out to be a good way for my mum and I to bond, mainly through a shared appreciation of certain weekend magazine columnists, though I’m not sure if she loves Caitlin Moran and her lovely mad huge hair as much as I do.

5. Warcraft: The Day Of The Dragon, by Richard A Knaak (probably an orcish name). Lent by Herself, who is going through something of a ‘read every single Warcraft tie-in book’ at the moment. As a fellow Warcrafter (WoWer? Sad geek?) I am of course a prime target for receiving this sort of book, but they’re not all written terribly well, so this one is languishing in the pile somewhat. I have managed three or four Warcraft books so far, sympathising with the poor authors like Christie Golden who have to work out the tortuously convoluted timelines of this ever-changing game world. Still, at least they’re not trying to make sense of several decades of Marvel or DC comic continuity.

6. The Humorist, by Russell Kane. Christmas present. He’s the one that did Britney Spears for Comic Relief, right? Or is he the one that does that Good News comedy show on BBC3 with the awkward unfunny segment about someone nice at the end? I’m not sure. Either way, I’m sure Russell is British, so why he spells Humorist like that I don’t know. Perhaps the main character is American. As soon as I get down to reading it, I’m sure I’ll know.

7. Bond Girls: The Good, The Bad, The Dangerous, by Alastair Dougall. Christmas present, I think. It does get a bit blurry sometimes, especially if someone happens to lend you a book around December time. I could end up keeping it for years before they eventually tell me, somewhat embarrassed, that it was a just for lenders. This is one of those pictorial reference books that I do tend to accumulate, though usually about Doctor Who monsters or the history of the X-Men. The cover feels funny, slightly rough, like a pumice stone or (shudder) the plastic bag of tiles from a Travel Scrabble set.

8. World Of Warcraft: The Shattering (Prelude To The Cataclysm), by Christie Golden. Lent by Herself. Well you can’t fault the gravitas (as opposed to Granitas of legend) of its title. I’ve tried on three occasions to get through this tale of orcs and trolls and minotaurs – sorry, taurens – but it’s just not grabbing me. This it has slipped halfway down the pile, despite its fetching cover of a whacking great warhammer hitting the ground. I wonder if Christie Golden is one of those authors that lives with cats? The bio at the back doesn’t say, but she looks like the type.

9. Blacksad: De Hel, De Stilte (A Silent Hell), by Diaz Canales and Guarnido. What is this, I hear you ask? Why, the adventures of John Blacksad, a hard-bitten Californian detective in the 50s or course. Except that Blacksad is an anthropomorphic cat, and everyone else in the story is an animal too. No, come back, it’s really good. Look for one of the English versions in your library, like Somewhere Within The Shadows or Arctic Nation. This one’s in Dutch. No, I don’t speak or read Dutch, apart from Dank U and Alstublieft. But I was in a Belgian comic shop a couple of years ago, and got so excited to see a new Blacksad on the shelf that I momentarily glossed over the fact that I can’t read a word of it and snapped it up. As far as I can tell, the story’s got something to do with goats and voodoo in New Orleans. It sure does look pretty though.

10. Grand Anciens (The Great Old Ones): La Baleine Blanche (The White Whale), by Jean-Marc Laine and Bojan Vukic. Also bought by me during a madness-fuelled comic shopping trip in Belgium. This hardback graphic novel has a great painting of the titanic behemoth Cthulhu lurking just beneath the waves as a sailing ship (I have no idea what sort, it has lots of sails. Let’s just agree that it’s a clipper and move on) passes serenely overhead. Unlike the Dutch Blacksad, I do at least stand a chance of following the French in this tale, and indeed I have already - just two years later - managed to work out that it’s a mash-up of Herman Melville and HP Lovecraft , with Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab taking the Pequod out into the ocean in search of the aforementioned tentacular Great Old One. In an act of sheer folly, I decided I would actually sit down and translate this into English, for my non Francophone friends. So far I’m up to page 15 of 48, with the second book to follow that. Surprisingly, Google Translate is not as helpful with 19th century French whaling terms as I had hoped.

11. Doctor Who: The Time Traveller’s Almanac: The Ultimate Intergalactic Fact-Finder, by Steve Tribe. One of those lovely-to-look-at tie-in books that Dorling Kindersley do so well, this one is of course a BBC publication, and jam packed with all sorts of Whoey facts and photos, like the names of all the Abzorbaloff’s victims (OK, not a good example), a feature on the Dalek Sec’s humanoid form (right, another bad example, hang on…) and a lovely shot of when the Doctor got all aged into Dobby from Harry Potter (I give up). No really, it is jolly well produced. But maybe it’s time to pass this one on to a deserving recipient, like the local library. I like to visit the library occasionally and check out my old books, now sporting swanky hard-wearing transparent covers and little ‘stampy lending sheets’ (I don’t know the proper term) inside. It’s like giving away a pet but still being able to visit.

12. Sew What! Bags: 18 Pattern-Free Projects You Can Customize To Fit Your Needs, by Lexie Barnes. A present from Herself, having listened to me bang on about how the Perfect Bag does not exist once too often. A lovely little hard-wearing ring bound number, much like a book of recipes, this book features such memorable sections as Reversible Tote, Ditty Bag and City Satchel. Such fun! (I told you I’d just read Miranda Hart). The idea was obviously that I would read this book, work out how to create my own Perfect Bag, and shut the hell up about not having enough inside pouches for my memory sticks and lip balms and keys. What actually happened was that I flicked through, got intimidated by the thought of having to actually make a bag with my own ape-like paws, and promptly hid it under the French and Dutch graphic novels in fear, hoping that maybe one night the elves will magically make the Perfect Bag for me. So far no joy. Doing And Making books are buggers really – you idly mention that it would be nice to, I dunno, draw better, and then out of the blue you receive a whacking great book on anatomy and probably a set of pencils and a pad of paper too, as if to say OK bitch, let’s see you put your money where your mouth is and get drawing. The pressure. It’s awful.

13. A dictionary of grammar, by some people. A tiny wee book I rescued from my mum’s chucking out pile, when I was half-serious about being a professional proof-reader or copyeditor. Then I read through it and remembered how god-awful bonkers the English language is and why couldn’t the Germans have at least invaded our dictionaries back in the war. Ostensibly I am the owner of a grammar book and thus supposedly qualified in all manner of apostrophes and adverbials, but in practice, reading a darn dictionary of linguistic rules is horribly like schoolwork, so I have instead determined to ensure that as long as I give off the impression of being better at written English than those that I carefully choose to swap words with, nobody will ever catch me out. Journalists, professional writers and adults educated over 40 years ago reading this may disagree.

14. Following The Detectives: Real Locations In Crime Fiction, by Maxim Jakubowski. A gift from the parents. Another one of those popular reference books I seem to have acquired, this one being a guide to actual cities and towns that fictional crime fighters frequent. So we have Morse’s Oxford, Rebus’ Edinburgh, Cadfael’s Shrewsbury and so forth, with handy maps, author biographies and such. All well and good, but the bloody book is massive, the very opposite of a guide book in fact. It should have come as a ring bound folder, to save me lugging the redundant 95% of it along with me on holiday as I traipse around VI Warshawski’s Chicago (lies, I haven’t been to Chicago) and Wallander’s Sweden( also lies). Consequently, it languishes near the very bottom of my bedside book pile, along with…

15. Obsessed With Marvel: Test Your Knowledge Of The Marvel Universe. 2,500 questions on the minutiae of Marvel comics from seventy years of publication. I picked this up for about a fiver at one of them cheapo bookshops you get in shopping centres, where everything’s piled up really close and you can’t get down the aisles because there’s a mum and a kid in a pushchair blocking the way leafing through an outsized book of Cheryl Cole photos. I then took it to show a similar comic-loving friend who promptly interpreted it as a gift and accepted it with gratitude. Ever the cool customer, I said nowt and just got myself another copy the next week, hoping that the mum and pushchair had eventually dislodged themselves.

So that’s it. My entire bedside bookpile. And this doesn’t even include the fresh intake I received at Christmas which haven’t made it into the bedroom yet. This new batch, still neatly arranged in what I call the Living Room Christmas Pile, includes a book about Alan Partridge (actually from the Christmas before, the shame), a book about secret London, a book about I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, a book about superheroes, an anthology by popular fantasy authors (for that oh-so hard to find Game Of Thrones short story), and a book about animals that received medals for bravery which is too sad for me to read (alas brave Simon, hero cat of HMS Amethyst).

All in all, quite enough to be getting on with for a year or two.

If you must comment on this article, please make it brief as I have several million words to get through before next year. Thanks awf.