Love Among the Ruins

I was trying to think of something to blog about when out of the woodwork comes National Library Week. Now I have a topic!

I hated libraries as a kid. The one I was forced to wander, like an invading infection, was in Llanelli. My parents dropped me off at the imposing building so they could do their weekly shopping at the all-new buying experience called Tesco.

The library smelt old and was perpetually cold, the radiators coughed and wheezed, and the windows were always rain-smeared. There were many, many steps to climb to reach the children’s section. One time, I wandered by mistake into the adult area and in the holy hush and under the vaulted ceiling of some industrialist magnate’s magnanimous vision, I stared slackjaw at the stacks of books. Then I ran as if the devil himself were after me — it was too much to witness.

The librarians back then in Wales (circa 1978) were wizened and mean and drank brackish tea and glared with icy contempt at my library card (chewed and inked). They also frowned and sneered at my choice of books and authors: Fungus the Bogeyman, the Adventures of Tintin, Asterix and Obelix, Evelyn Waugh, and Oscar Wilde. They fingered the books as if they were dead vermin. They checked them out with an hereditary scowl that could be traced back to zealots at a witch burning.

I loved the books I read. Loved them so much, I feared returning them to that bone-chilling prison. Which only made it worse for me when I did return the over-due books. Now the on-duty librarian had knives for hands and the condemning eyes of a priest. My teeth chattered as I approached with my small stash of Poe and Carroll and Dahl and the Dungeons and Dragons’ Monster Manual. I expected gargoyles to swoop down from the old stone and devour my liver. And I waited. Hoping for that grisly moment.

All that happened was that the librarian checked-out my books, stamping the cards with an end-of-the-world pronouncement and a the strong whiff of whiskey. (Note: Librarians drink no more or no less than ordinary folk.)

Ok, I know a lot of writers credit libraries as the birthing stool of their writing life, but I can never claim that a library nurtured my writing life. It was always the books, which just happened to come from a library. I was so much a happier sneaking into a library, getting my stash, and creeping out. Then I’d head to a graveyard or a park or a bus or the train or a friend’s house — any where but the solemn hush and the austerity of a library: I always wanted to read but hear the rush of life going by, I wanted to be near enough to that life that created those books I devoured like an orphan.

Actually my great dream as a child was to be saved from the library. I wished that some obscure relative, an aristocratic dowager with a big manor in Kent, would appear one day in our driveway in an old Morris Minor with two Mastiffs that growled at everyone but me, and she’d offer me to stay with her in the summer at her estate and she would have this huge library full of books. And I would sleep in the library on a fancy divan and have my meals there and be always surrounded by books and read them and not put them back, but litter the floor with them and place my empty plates and cups on the shelves and never be disturbed again until I was 18 and ready to write my first book….

My life with libraries has slowly gotten better, though, especially since my family moved to the States and my British aristocratic dreams have been replaced with the American reality of working for a living. In fact, I have now become a bona fide visitor of the Rockport Public Library in Maine, happy to go in and look up a favourite author or just randomly snag a spine from the shelf. And as I’ve aged, I have become just another regular, prudent, and levelheaded individual who loves the last bastion of democracy that a library represents. And now when I check out books, the librarian does it pleasantly with the occasional lifted brow as if communicating some shared imagination or else with a sagacious nod as if I am now a member of the lucky, happy few who knows a good book when they see one.

Fuck, how I miss that old Llanelli library!


When Life Intimidates Art

So I’ve been thinking about a character  for a book, one who’d be witty, subversive, and risqué. His tendencies would be exaggeration, irony, self-righteousness, and self-dramatization. And he’d also like certainty and clear, strong opinions as apposed to febrile, half-hearted, sitting-on-a-fence niceties. He’d be a tall man, too, with a humourous and combative glint in his eyes. And he’d love a bit of consternation, revel in it, in fact, as he provoked his subjects, looking forward to the sparring, to a verbal punch that he hoped would be met with a returning jab.

But, as in all memorable characters, he would need to have contradictions to his personality. He would be a wild fantasist but also a rational thinker; a conceited bragger who was also a solitary man who bred rabbits. A man who loved simple pleasure — like his family, gardening, reading, listening to music, making model aeroplanes — but was also fascinated with luxury trips abroad, expensive clothes, shoes, and haute cuisine. His tastes would be decadent, too, everything from paintings, books, furniture, cars, and music would be refined and subtle and, yet, he could also enjoy a night out at the bingo hall or a drink with the lads or a day fishing or a night watching Fawlty Towers and reading a magazine.

And before I knew it, I was describing Roald Dahl. And now I know I’m going to have to read Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock to hear how my character ends.

“Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.” Hemingway

That’s Fantastic, Mr. Fox

I’m reading Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox to my four-year-old daughter. She loves it, especially the enjoyable rhyme about the rotten farmers:

“Boggis and Bunce and Bean

One fat, one short, one lean.

These horrible crooks

So different in looks

Were nonetheless equally mean.”

It’s a rhyme worthy of being sung by Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon.

Dahl is a fantastic writer. He knows how to flip the adult world on its soft head and with a big, brash show announce, “Look at our wonderful and absurd antics.”

And Wes Anderson’s film is right on. I think Dahl would have loved it. Anderson likes to portray the dynamics of dysfunctional families and the beauty that lies within those crazy cracks and faults, and Dahl’s Mr. Fox and his family was a perfect choice.

There is something fantastic about a wild and wily fox outsmarting greedy and slothful humans. And the simple as well as annoying act of stealing chickens reminds me of the myth of Prometheus, stealing back fire from Zeus.

And it feels so right that Ted Hughes, sickened by the strictures of his English degree, encountered a figure with the body of a man and the head of a fox who put a bloody paw on his papers and said, “You’re killing us.”

And if ever there was a trickster, it had to be Roald Dahl.

I remember when I first read James and the Giant Peach, I pestered my parents to buy a peach tree for our back garden in Wales. I must have been desperate to have talking insect friends and to sail away over Carmarthen Bay, heading toward the Emerald Isles or farther, maybe, into the land of Tir Na n’Og.

My parents ended up getting pear trees. Which I now see as a fantastic adult prank.


The Phantom Tollbooth. This has been called a contemporary Alice in Wonderland. And it is. Norton Juster writes like a madman who can’t get enough of the shape, the sounds, the taste, the meaning, the history, the wonder of words. And he does so much with so little: A bored young boy.


Love Hysteria by Peter Murphy. The Lord of Goth’s finest solo album. Murphy moves through each song like a snake shedding its skin. It’s a hypnotic album for late-night listening when the house has that deep-set silence that seems inexhaustible, but isn’t.

Go Away White by Bauhaus. Yes, I’m having a Goth relapse. But Bauhaus, along with the Smiths, Japan, and Echo and the Bunnymen, and Joy Division, put the “kick” in my teenage self. This album is on par with The Sky’s Gone Out and In The Flat Field.  And as is to be expected, it mixes elements of Murhpy’s solo work with Love and Rockets. I want to go and unearth my Anne Rice and drink from the cup of solitude. Or listen to Bowie’s Scary Monsters.

This One’s From the Hip

I am easily impressed, but I’m also hard to impress. This may sound like it’s contradictory. It’s not. Live with it a bit and you’ll see why.

What is it about some writers who have more to say about the state of the literary nation in regards to technology than they do about the art of writing or even a story itself? They’ll spout all kinds of wonderful predictions about the future of books and the springing tiger called ebooks. But they’ll say nothing about a story well told.

When I read Dickens or Philip Pullman or David Mitchell or Jeanette Winterson or Roald Dahl, I don’t think, damn, wish they had more gadgets. I’m bowled over and feel like I’m staring my atoms in the face when I read their work. Because it’s the story, not how it is presented that makes me feel my heart thump in my chest.

For all we know, technology may reach a point where if you want to read a book, you’ll swallow a pill and as it dissolves on your tongue the words will pop into your brain and that’s how you’ll experience a book. But the point is, it’s not the way it gets presented, it’s the way it is told. The lasting taste will not be the pill, sugar-coated as it most likely will be, but the lasting taste will be the writer’s use of language; the story that sinks in like a new life; the way the story makes you re-imagine the world around you and you in it; the richer emotions, ideas, and dialogue that makes you try harder to feel, think, and speak.

This is what it’s all about when it comes to books: the story and how it makes a life with you. It’s not about the gadget that brings it to you.


A best-of collection of Frank Sinatra. Can’t beat Frank and spring, windows open, forsythia spread thick like golden butter, and the leaves on the trees feathered for flight.

Down The Rabbit Hole

I was dubious about going to see Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.  To begin with, I was worried that Burton would ruin it like he botched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — which was a crass interpretation of a Dahl classic.

But I enjoyed Alice. A Burton spectacular. His vision for Wonderland was visually stunning, I wanted to munch on my Raisinets and be there among the bright fungi.

It was the right mix of faithfulness to Carroll (although it’s not the Alice story, but a weird hybrid) and inventive entertainment.

The actress Mia Wasikowska who played Alice was super, and Bonham Carter and Depp were good. Although Depp’s portrayal of the Mad Hatter as a fey, carrot-haired campy clown with huge chartreuse eyes really got on my nerves. I understand that the mercury hatters used to make hats made them go mad, but eyes like that? Annoying.

All in all, though, a fun flick. Nothing ground shattering or mind enhancing.

But Alan Rickman’s voice as the caterpillar and Stephen Fry’s as the Cheshire Cat were definite stand-outs. And the Mad Hatter in a kilt and wielding a Scottish claymore was a treat.

And one of the best lines was by Crispin Glover about the bloodhound (voiced by Timothy Spall): “Dogs believe anything you say.”

So was it worth going down the rabbit hole for? Yes, but not entirely.

If you still want weird and wonderful and nonsense, read Carroll. He’s the master.