“The Trip To Echo Spring” by Olivia Laing (2013)

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“Here’s a thing.”

Earlier this year a friend let me borrow The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, which tells the stories of loneliness behind some of the greatest artists in history. A few weeks later, I stumbled upon an earlier book of hers – The Trip to Echo Spring – which focuses on authors and their reliance on alcohol. As a writer who enjoys a glass of wine or six, it’s a topic close to my heart. In this book, Laing travels with width of the United States to explore the places inhabited by six of America’s greatest writers and their struggles with alcohol – Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Berryman, Tennessee Williams, and the poster boys for drunk authors, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Combining biography, literary criticism, travel writing and a treatise on the effects alcohol has on the body, Laing builds up a picture of these six men and the struggles they went through. My immediate confession is that while I’m aware of the impact they had on the literary scene, I’ve only read two of them – Fitzgerald and Cheever. I know enough about them all to be able to appreciate who they were, however, and the book helps fill in a lot of their, often tragic, backstories.

Laing travels, usually by train, around the USA, taking in New York City, Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, St Paul, and Port Angeles, all places that meant something to our heroes. She explores their early lives, the relationships they formed, how they came to develop alcohol addiction, and which ones made it through the other side, and which ended their own lives over it. There are some poignant moments, including John Berryman struggling to come to terms with his father’s death, Cheever suffering from poverty in Manhattan, and Raymond Carver having marriage and fatherhood thrust upon him while still a teenager.

It is Fitzgerald, however, that shines for me. Perhaps because I know most about him and Zelda, but whatever misfortunes befall him, he can’t help but appear faintly ridiculous. Once, someone walks in on him in his room wearing several layers in an attempt to sweat out all the gin – while still drinking gin. Elsewhere, he drives around in a car with no roof in the rain until he decides he’s got pneumonia and has Hemingway take him to a hotel and promise to take care of his wife and daughter when he’s dead. Laing adds that a “few whisky sours put a stop to this nonsense”, and Scott and Ernest are out drinking again within hours.

Laing also uses personal experiences in the text, mentioning her mother’s lover Diana who was an alcoholic for many years, but has since become sober. Despite the humour of Fitzgerald, The Trip to Echo Spring is pretty sombre and a reminder that alcohol is indeed a poison and not to be messed about with. Like in The Lonely City, however, she shows how these people used their flaws and vices to create some of the greatest work in history, and she does a good job of exploring the relationships between alcohol and the written word. A thoughtful and interesting piece.

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“The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain” by Ian Mortimer (2017)

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“As you lie down on your feather bed on your first night in Restoration Britain, you will notice the quiet.”

The older I get, the more I wish I’d studied history beyond its compulsory years at school. At the time, I wasn’t that fussed, but now it’s easily one of my favourite topics to read up about. I’m not especially talking about the history of warfare, and I’m definitely not talking about the history of trade – one of the few subjects in the world I can’t get interested in is the textiles industry – but more about what life was actually like back then. Ian Mortimer is the king of this subject. This is a history book with a difference.

Mortimer has in previous books covered Medieval and Elizabethan England, and now turns his attention to Britain during the years 1660-1700: the Restoration. The Commonwealth is over, Cromwell is dead, the monarchy has been restored, and the theatres have been reopened. It is a time of great social, cultural and scientific change, with great leaps abound thanks to figures like Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Henry Purcell, John Milton and Robert Hooke. It also sees some enormous shifts in the landscape, as the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroys much of the old London and it is rebuilt from the ashes. But unlike most history books, there is little focus here on these great figures and what they did – this is a guide to ordinary life.

Think of this book, like his others, as a guidebook for history. This isn’t a potted history of the political landscape, but a very real guide to the era. If you were to wake up tomorrow and found yourself in the late 1600s, you’d hope to have this book alongside you. This book focuses on the ordinary people, and teaches you how to blend in: what should you wear, do, think, say, eat, play? Thanks to this also being the era of the first great diarists in figures like John Evelyn, Celia Fiennes and, of course, Samuel Pepys, the detail we have is rich and varied.

Mortimer captures with impressive ease the world from the ground up. This is a cold time in history – the Little Ice Age is in full effect, and Frost Fairs are held on the frozen Thames – and we see how clothing changes to reflect that. We see what people eat, and how, with cutlery, particularly forks, going from unusual to commonplace over the period. We get a sense of how much things cost, and how banking becomes a legitimate career path. We find out what people do for entertainment, what illnesses they get struck down by, and how they get from place to place – and, indeed, how far people can generally travel. It’s packed with interesting facts, one of the most surprising for me being that the iron has just been invented, but the mangle, clothes horse and even the ironing board are still in the future. From the peasants eking out a living to the lords and royals with enormous houses and lands, everyone is covered. Using historical records from death certificates to diaries, Mortimer builds up a living, breathing past, where we come face to face with our ancestors and fellow humans, not just statistics of a bygone era.

This is Mortimer’s gift, really. For the third time he brings history alive. It’s all well and good looking at these people as another species, but we are only here because these people were there first. Suddenly the mistreatment of women, the love of blood sports, and the high infant mortality levels become something else entirely when we realise that these were humans, just like us. We might think of this era as one of powdered wigs, new discoveries like chocolate, tobacco and champagne, and a scientific revolution, but it’s more complex than that. Women are still considered their husbands’ property, it’s possible to die of toothache, tensions between religious factions are as high as ever, and heads of executed criminals still sit on spikes on London Bridge.

If you really want to experience history, this is a book for you. It’s incredibly fascinating, richly-described, and in many places downright gory (Samuel Pepys’ bladder surgery will stay with me for some time), and well worth a read. My only advice is that if you are planning a trip into the past any time soon, I’d skip this century. It’s all about to get quite a bit better.

“Notes On A Nervous Planet” by Matt Haig (2018)

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“I was stressed out.”

The world is moving ever faster and sometimes it feels like a struggle just to hold on. With the constant bombardment of adverts, breaking news, tweets, social media updates and fear-mongering by anyone with Internet access, it’s no wonder that rates of anxiety, depression and mental malaise seem to have risen so sharply. Fortunately, there are people who are trying to make sense of it all and give us a way to speak out about it. Matt Haig is one of the best.

A couple of years ago, Haig published Reasons to Stay Alive, a frank and moving book about his own struggles with anxiety, panic attacks and suicide. Its success was instant and profound. People across the world thanked him for his words and putting to paper the feelings they’d been struggling to articulate, as well as giving his own tips on how to improve things – or rather, showing us how he did it. He is at pains to insist he isn’t a psychological expert by any means, and his advice is merely based on things he has experienced, but sometimes that’s just a good start.

Notes on a Nervous Planet is the wonderful sequel, this time focusing more on the speed of progress in the world, how the world seems to be working to keep us miserable and anxious (happy people don’t spend money), and how best to cope with things like Twitter and Instagram. We can all make changes to our lives that might alleviate some of the worst problems.

The advice is often simple, or at least appears so: charge your mobile phone outside of your bedroom; don’t stay on Twitter if you’re not enjoying it anymore; read more often; do yoga; go outside more often. Nonetheless, I feel that it all helps. As someone who has had his own issues with anxiety and depression in recent years, it was refreshing to read via Haig’s wonderful prose that I’m not alone. It’s also important to have people talking about these things, as the more we talk about mental health, the more likely the attached stigma will drop away. It’s particularly important, I feel, to have a man talk about it. I appreciate that we live in a world that seems to assume “straight, white male” is the default and people are bored to listening to them, but generally men are told not to express their feelings and to “be strong” all the time. Robert Webb covered this in his memoirs too. This stuff needs to be said – everyone is allowed to cry, and everyone is allowed to feel.

Haig’s book is short but full of profound and charming, lyrical sentences, as well as common sense advice. It’s also raw in places, as he recounts panic attacks and times when he thought he couldn’t carry on. I, for one, am enormously pleased he has, as he’s written some of my favourite books in recent years, including The Humans and How To Stop Time.

Brilliant, beautiful, wise, and important.

“Bleaker House” by Nell Stevens (2017)

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“This is a landscape an art-therapy patient might paint to represent depression: grey sky and a sweep of featureless peat rising out of the sea.”

I seem to have an unfortunate attraction to books about loneliness. They have in the past caused my own feelings to become exacerbated, but occasionally they do the opposite and make me feel less alone. Bleaker House is definitely one that falls into the latter category.

This book – which I first picked up thinking it was fiction – follows Nell Stevens to the Falkland Islands in her quest to become a writer. Convinced that if she spends six weeks on the remote Bleaker Island (human population: two), she will have enough time and freedom from distractions to pen the novel she’s been meaning to write forever and finally become a writer. The twenty-something sets off, packing up rations for the duration and is convinced that this is the answer to her problems.

However, once there, she realises just how remote the islands are. With nothing but some penguins, sea lions and a potato for company, she begins writing. But more than that. She begins to learn who she is when no one is around. She analyses her past and explores her mistakes. And, most importantly, she learns that plans don’t always work out the way you expect them to.

The narrative is haphazard, but in the way that one’s thoughts do skitter about with snooker balls in a hurricane when you’ve no distractions or company, and it adds to the mania that pervades the premise of Nell’s situation. Chapters alternate between talking about her experiences on the Falkland Islands (particularly Bleaker, but also visiting briefly the capital Stanley), her times back in London and Boston, and her own fiction, either excerpts from the novel-in-progress or previous short stories. I saw one reviewer complain that the book seemed only to serve as a vehicle for Nell to publish stories that had otherwise been rejected, but I disagree. The stories are great, and a vital part of the narrative. After all, it would be almost cheating to send a writer all the way out to the edge of civilisation and then not see their work.

Nell is a comforting, compelling narrator who has by all accounts lived an interesting life. Before her journey, she travelled and tried to be a good person, taking up positions teaching in war-torn nations or helping – as best she was able – a boyfriend with depression. She does, however, have a knack of always being right in the middle of some of the most dramatic moments in the last ten years, including the Boston Marathon bombing, the London riots of 2011, and the shelling of Beirut by Israeli forces. It’s frankly a wonder she’s as balanced as she seems – and for a writer that’s not bad going, as none of us are that balanced – or perhaps it was all the horror she got caught up in that caused her to vanish to the remote wilderness.

As I said at the top, some books about loneliness make me feel lonely. This one did not. It was curiously comforting, honest and beautiful. Frank Turner sings in his song “Be More Kind”, “When you go out searching don’t decide what you will find” and that feels apt here. No matter how excellent your plans seem, there is never a guarantee that they’ll come to fruition. Or, at least, maybe not in the way you expect.

“Grinding It Out” by Ray Kroc (1977)

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“I have always believed that each man makes his own happiness and is responsible for his own problems.”

Ray Kroc’s name is perhaps not one that comes immediately to mind when you’re thinking about the most influential people in history, but there’s no denying he belongs in the list. He may not have discovered gravity, or come up with the theory of evolution, or invented the aeroplane, but he changed the face of the planet in such a way that there is no doubt at all that you’ve come up against his business at some point in your life. That’s because Ray Kroc is the man who made McDonalds.

Born in 1902, it wasn’t until Kroc was in his fifties that he moved into the fast food industry. Having heard rumours of a Californian restaurant run by two brothers, Mac and Dick McDonald, he jetted out to visit them and was so impressed by what he saw, he convinced them to let him begin opening franchises across the country, with the first one opening in Illinois in 1954. It was, almost immediately, a success. This book, written in 1977 and thus only really detailing the first twenty-five years of the business, is Kroc’s own story of how it happened.

Penned as something of a cross between an autobiography and a business manual, Grinding It Out explores the tenacity of Ray Kroc and his insistence on doing things right, not skimping on quality, and the sheer enthusiasm and passion he shows for whatever he may be working on. He was at times a pianist, a door-to-door salesman and even joined up to help in World War One, finding himself in the same company as a quiet cartoonist called Walt Disney, no less. He eventually began selling paper cups, and later milkshake machines, and it turned out he had a natural flair for salesmanship and business. Seeing McDonalds as something that could become enormous, he made a deal with the brothers and set about turning it into the behemoth that we know (and many of us love) today.

Being an autobiography, Kroc surely skips over some of his less pleasant traits, although it’s clear even from his own narration that he’s rather arrogant, pig-headed, and while he’s not always against admitting he’s made a mistake, he would rather everyone just did as he told them. He was married three times, but with the first two he ensures his ex-wife is left with a large alimony that can keep her comfortable for the rest of her life. Towards the end of the book, the company begins doing a lot for charity, in particular setting up Ronald McDonald House, and he’s not backwards in coming forwards and telling you about what a gracious, generous soul he is. Nonetheless, for all the faults he seems to have and hide, he’s a thoroughly engaging narrator. It is said that “even his enemies agree there are three things Ray Kroc does damned well: sell hamburgers, make money, and tell stories.” It’s true in spades. He’s in turn funny, charming and while you know he’d probably be a nightmare to meet, he certainly knows how to keep your attention.

Given that the book was written in 1977 and Kroc died of heart failure in 1984 (although it is said he worked right up until the end), this is only the beginning of the McDonalds story, and therefore the last forty years are entirely absent. This means that while we learn about how the kitchens were set up and see the introduction of the Big Mac and Ronald McDonald, there are no mentions of McNuggets, Happy Meals, or salads. Nonetheless, we do get to learn about how exactly the Filet-O-Fish came into being, why the Hulaburger failed, and where the Shamrock Shake had its genesis.

Love McDonalds and Kroc’s work or hate it, you cannot deny that he was certainly influential, and it’s fascinating to learn more about the man behind the company.

Pass the McNuggets.

“How Not To Be A Boy” by Robert Webb (2017)

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“If I get this right, Tess Rampling will definitely want to have sex with me.”

Over the last few years I’ve read a number of books with a “how to” premise. In theory, I now know how to find love in a bookshop, how to talk to girls at parties, and how to stop time. Before beginning this blog I even read a book called How To Bag a Jabberwock, just in case one ever reared its head across the hills of southern England. But now it’s time to turn the concept on it’s head. It’s time to learn how not to be a boy.

Robert Webb is, in my humble opinion, one of the funniest men working in television today. Peep Show is incredible, and whenever he pops up on a panel show – which is much less often than his comedy sidekick David Mitchell – it’s always a delight. His life, however, was not always so cheerful. Webb struggled from a young age with society’s expectations. Boys weren’t supposed to cry, or talk about their emotions. Men were meant to like football and beer, and not take themselves too seriously. Therapy was for girls, boys were meant to be brave, and it certainly wasn’t OK to fall in love with other boys. Before he was even eighteen, he had to deal with an abusive father, the death of his mother, and people who expected him to be something he didn’t want to be.

In his memoirs, he explores his life through the lens of gender stereotypes and explains how toxic the culture of masculinity is. There’s a reason that so many men kill themselves, and maybe having hundreds of relationship books published that treat men and women as two different species hasn’t really helped humanity. As Webb grows and explores both his internal and external worlds, he discovers love, hope, tragedy, comedy, loss, battles he never asked to be involved in, and William Wordsworth. Determined and precocious from a young age, he decides that if he has any hope of being happy, he needs to be famous and that involves getting into the Cambridge Footlights.

The topics of gender, sexuality and the stereotypes surrounding each seem to be on the mind of the zeitgeist quite a lot. I think part of this has come from the fact that mental health has also become a huge topic, and it has revealed the startling statistics behind suicide, depression and anxiety. Men are told, generally, from an early age that it’s “unmanly” to express their feelings, and so they get bottled up and often converted into anger. Webb frequently points out throughout the book that the emotions that he – or any of the men he knows – display are quickly transmuted into anger and, sometimes, violence. Indeed, the phrase “man up” is surely soon to be retired. The book is a refreshing breath of air in its openness of the topic.

Not only is it one of the Very Important Books for today’s society (see also, Animal by Sara Pascoe and Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig) it’s also very moving and very funny. Webb has overcome things I can only imagine to become who he is. He is frank and honest about his life and the decisions he’s made within it. He is incredibly candid regarding his relationships, sexuality and failings, and it makes him all the more likeable.

As someone who, like Webb, struggled with the concept of masculinity, this book is a tonic and vital. I was a kid who cried a lot. I cry less now, but for years I didn’t cry at all. I’ve always been more comfortable with girls and women as my friends, have no interest in football, have always loved books, and was never particularly bothered about what other boys thought of me at school. It’s important, I feel, for people to know that the gender stereotypes are rubbish. Women are strong, men like pink, and both can be utterly useless at expressing their feelings. This is important not only for the next generation coming up and their descendants, but also for those who have been struggling with unfounded expectations for so long. A really wonderful book.

“The Lonely City” by Olivia Laing (2016)

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“Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building.”

Like many readers, I am in many ways an introvert, happy to spend a fair amount of time by myself indulging in particularly solitary activities – reading, writing, watching series on Netflix that no one else wants to. However, while hell may be other people, sometimes they’re necessary and there’s no denying I’m no stranger to loneliness. I often seem to find myself draw to books on the topic, which is often accidental. It also crops up as a central theme in my upcoming novel, The Third Wheel. A friend of mine recommended this book to me, though, suggesting it might help me understand things a little better and see that I’m not the only one suffering.

Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties and quickly found that loneliness had taken her over in a city that was too big and where she knew no one. Rather than wallowing, she decided to use the time to explore this emotion through art, taking a look at some of the artists who have struggled with loneliness in one way or another. Through Laing, we meet – among others – Edward Hopper, whose paintings such as Nighthawks show a raw form of loneliness; Andy Warhol, who seemed married to his tape recorder and struggled in social situations; David Wojnarowicz, who survived an intensely abusive childhood to create some remarkable pieces of work; and Henry Darger, who locked himself away and only after his death was it revealed what a prolific artist he had been.

Each story is laced with pathos and true emotion, and there are powerful lines on every page that finally describe ways you’ve been feeling without being able to put words to them. When talking about how impossible it is to explain how loneliness feels to someone who has never experienced it, Laing says:

Loneliness, in its quintessential form, is of a nature that is incommunicable by the one who suffers it. Nor, unlike other non-communicable emotional experiences, can it be shared via empathy. It may well be that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness.

She’s also honest about people choosing to ignore rather than help, after speaking to a homeless man on the street:

What is it about the pain of others? Easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Easier to refuse to make the effort of empathy, to believe instead that the stranger’s body on the sidewalk is simply a render ghost, an accumulation of coloured pixels, which winks out of existence when we turn our head, changing the channel of our gaze.

There are discussions here not only on loneliness, but also loss, pain, acceptance, privacy, technology, the AIDS crisis and, of course, art. I’m not someone who is particularly interested in art or knows much about it, but it was interesting to learn a little more about some of these painters and their work. I knew some of Hopper and Warhol’s work, of course, but I don’t think I knew anything about them personally. Warhol to me was just a tin of Campbell’s soup and a bad wig – I didn’t know he’d been shot and spent most of his life wearing medical corsets to stop his organs, basically, falling out. The other artists mentioned I’d never heard of at all, but they’re all fascinating beings, their work often bizarre but somehow compelling.

It’s a brave book, and an important one. Loneliness is often seen as shameful, and it’s refreshing to see someone hold it up to the light and examine it for once, rather than skirt around the edges. A vital read for anyone who wants to know more about humanity.

I leave off here with another line from Laing herself:

We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.

 

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