Friday 19th June 2020
Q1) The first book you ever loved
An anthology of children’s stories and poems – I can’t remember the title (if I ever knew it).
My Nan, I’m told, was born into a wealthy family of industrialists. Her dad, however, being a drinker with a temper, was cut off abruptly without a penny when she was small. As a result she found herself in pre-1900 Glasgow making secret visits to the soup kitchen. Somehow, despite on occasion having to go without shoes, she got herself an education, learned to write in copperplate, and for a while nursed the childhood Robert Graves.
By the time I came along she was well in her seventies, a widow, and living with my mum and dad. Every night she read to me from a book that must have been an anthology – Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Aesop’s Fables – poems and stories that formed an amalgam in my mind. To this day I confuse Lear with Carroll.
The thing is she never got bored with them, and always laughed in the same places. Because of this I grew up thinking that books were things that by their nature caused delight. It’s my profound hope that my Nan’s voice is there to be heard somewhere in the stories I write now.
Q2) The book you've read more than any other
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog – Dylan Thomas
As a habitual re-reader I can’t honestly say which book I’ve read most, but I think this must be the book I’ve been most obsessed with for the longest time. In his letters Dylan Thomas once described it as a pot-boiler, which must be the most misleadingly self-deprecating thing an author has ever said.
I first read it as a teenager, and you could call it a young person’s book, perhaps especially a young man’s book. Thomas was only in his mid-twenties when he wrote it, his childhood and adolescence were still vivid, and the ‘young dog’ in question is Thomas himself, not even thinly disguised. But the acute observation, the ability to bring a scene or character to life with the lightest touch, the sense of the author’s presence as you read, have never diminished for me. I pick the book up, I read a page, I’m lost to the world.
It’s a book that only a poet could write, but also one that could only be written by a great relisher of life and of humanity, with all its contradictions and foibles. It will give you the most vivid picture you could ask for of Swansea between the wars, but like any great writing it transcends the specifics of time and place. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I would place it alongside his best poetry. It’s the book that made me want to write short stories.
Q3) A book that you despise
Dark Lies the Island – Kevin Barry
Q4) A book full of beautiful writing
Collected Short Stories – John McGahern
I’m not pedantic about how prose should be written, although in that respect I sometimes feel in a minority: some of the dictums I come across on Twitter remind me of those schoolteachers whose hearts could only allow them to find merit in one style of writing. Having said that, I do look on John McGahern as some sort of exemplar in the craft of the short story.
A contemporary review of A Shropshire Lad once described Housman’s poetic style as ‘the sort of hard writing that makes easy reading’, and so it is with McGahern. Clear, fluent, uncluttered – if you hadn’t tried yourself you might think there was nothing to it. Except that when you do try you quickly understand what a Herculean task it is to distil perception and expression to that level of refinement. But that’s not all. Every now and again he elevates a line, a paragraph or a passage to a higher style, and with devastating effect, although it never feels forced or out of place.
McGahern doesn’t flinch from describing the truths of the human condition as he sees them, and in that respect I’ve come to feel that the main function of his style is to act as a vehicle for his honesty. In The Summing Up, Somerset Maugham described what he’d come to see as the three most desirable characteristics of good writing: lucidity, simplicity, and euphony, in that order. For me McGahern exemplifies that approach as well as anyone.
Q5) The book you've been meaning to read for years, but haven’t
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – Edward Gibbon
My father, for most of his life, was a renegade autodidact, anarchic in his interests, a free and joyful reader, relishing the books he chose and accumulating a fair amount of erudition as a by-product. That was before, in a fateful moment in his seventies, he decided it was time to work his way through the classics. Thereafter, as far as I could tell, the act of reading allowed him no more pleasure. I watched him groan his way through the likes of Trollope and took note of his misery.
Before all this happened there was one book he always returned to, especially when archaeologists started a Roman excavation less than a mile from our home. Dad, whose didacticism was not confined to his own learning, never seemed to understand why a seventeen year old, fixated on music and sport, might not want to share his obsession with the Holy Roman Empire. This obsession found its purest, most focussed form in the writing of Edward Gibbon. Dad would eulogise the prose, the irony, which only acted as a further deterrent.
Perhaps ten years after he died, and bearing in mind the book belonged to his freer, rather than more enslaved reading period, I decided to have a quick look. I couldn’t deny he was right: fabulous writing – pellucid, fluent and strangely modern. I didn’t proceed, but now those two or three pages haunt me. It’s only a matter of time till I succumb.
Q6) The book you're reading currently
Swing – Georgia Hilton
I first came across Georgia’s poetry when I read The Parson and Ruth Cook in Prole Magazine. The poem, with its shared narration, was exquisite: two biographies in miniature, each compelling, each with its own contrasting perspective. I was also struck by the poetic voice, detached but intimate, compassionate yet vehement, with the result a deeply moral poem that felt no need to mention morality. It transpired to be an excerpt from a forthcoming publication titled Swing, a much longer poetic narrative telling the story of the Swing Riots, which took place in Southern England in the 1830’s.
Once I had the chance to read Swing in full my initial impressions deepened. Clearly this was a poet who got right inside her characters, who inhabited, almost channelled them in the way Charlotte Mew was once said to have done. And yet the view the book offers is panoramic – sweeping across nearly two centuries, encompassing the social, the political and the historical. Perhaps it could best be described as a series of interrelated sketches, all drawn with an immediacy that gives coherence to the events they describe and the span of time over which they took place. To quote one of the characters: ‘The older I get, the closer the past appears.’ As a reader, wherever the narrative takes you, you feel you’re right there.
Swing is a book of great richness, deeply empathetic. I’ve no doubt I’ll be reading it for the rest of my life. If I could write poetry I would wish to write it like this.
Q7) Your favourite short-story
The Story of Mats Israelson – Julian Barnes
During the time I worked as a therapist one philosophical issue that kept presenting itself was the conundrum between determinism and free will. How much are we owned by our circumstances and to what extent if any can we break loose? In the space of twenty-three pages, Julian Barnes, a writer I idolise, explores this dilemma with all the wisdom, precision and humanity you might expect from such a profound chronicler of the human spirit.
The story is set in a small industrial town in nineteenth century Sweden. The community is self-enclosed, inward looking and stiflingly conventional. Standards of propriety are rigid and enforced by prying and gossip. In this unpromising setting two people, both by their own admission unimaginative and in many respects unremarkable, fall deeply and unexpectedly in love. They are each married to other people. As Scott Fitzgerald once remarked, there is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind, and Barnes tells their story with a simplicity of style that both reflects the tone of their inner turmoil and belies the minute subtleties he manages to tease out in their conflicted situation. It’s intensely clever writing in which all the cleverness is hidden, so that what remains is the tragedy of ordinary lives offered a glimpse of the heavens but predestined to be nothing other than ordinary.
Q8) Your all-time favourite novel
A Month in the Country – J.L Carr
A book I love everything about. Two ex-servicemen find themselves in a Yorkshire village in the aftermath of the First World War. One is tasked with restoring a medieval wall painting in the local church, the other finds himself digging around for some relic no-one much cares about. One is absorbed into the local community while the other remains an outsider.
It’s a deceptively simple story that works on several levels and contains many facets: the things that men convey to one another in friendship but don’t actually say, the healing power of an all-absorbing task, the restoration of spirit through normal human interaction, and perhaps most lastingly the way that brief and unconsummated love can leave a lifelong imprint. The narrator, gradually shedding the trauma of war, becomes aware that he has entered an idyll that, because of what he knows of the world, can’t possibly last. This realisation, and the way it is expressed, gives the narrative enormous poignancy and depth.
It’s also the work of a writer who is unmistakeably his own person. His publisher said you can’t use the same title as a great Russian author. He said yes I can. And he did. ●
Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His stories Breath (Fictive Dream) and Blurred Edges (Lunate Fiction) gained Pushcart Prize nomination. His story The Homing Instinct (Confingo), was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, was published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. /// t: @polyscribe2 /// w: www.polyscribe.co.uk