“How To Stop Time” by Matt Haig (2017)

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“I am old.”

It was years ago when I first picked up a Matt Haig book, The Humans, thinking it sounded like a funny concept. I wasn’t prepared for what a profoundly wise and beautiful book it was, nor that he would become such an important part of my life, and the lives of countless other readers. I’ve plowed through his stuff since, and we finally now arrive at his latest offering, How to Stop Time. Everyone else seems to have read this a couple of months ago, so I’m a bit behind, but nonetheless, here it is. And it was worth waiting for.

Tom Hazard was born in 1581 and is still alive in 2017, although only looks about forty years old. He is an alba, a person born with a condition that means they age very slowly. It is a difficult life and one that involves having to constantly move around and change identity so people don’t notice that you don’t age, a task made all the more difficult by the modern world.

Tom works, reluctantly, with the Albatross Society who find other albas and protect them from scientists who would long to learn the secret of advanced lifespans, but he’s had enough and asks to be retired. He takes up a position teaching history at a London school, where he finds himself smitten with the beautiful French teacher Camille. But Camille is sure she recognises Tom from somewhere – somewhen – else, and Tom is reminded of the fact that any “mayfly” (normally aging human) who finds out about the albas tends not to have their lives cut even shorter…

One of the risks of writing books about people who have spent a long time in our history is the temptation to have them stumble across every major historical figure and befriend them. Haig resists this, and it is far more a story of the ordinary people. However, that’s not to say there aren’t famous cameos, but they are kept to a respectable minimum. Tom works for Shakespeare briefly, and travels to Australia with Captain Cook, but otherwise his interactions with history’s great and good are downplayed. He meets the Fitzgeralds in a French bar in the 1920s, and the Dr Hutchinson he meets in 1891 was a real man, but most everyone else is thoroughly normal.

In the same manner as the non-fiction series of history books by Ian Mortimer, history is brought to life by these interactions with the “ordinary people”. We experience witch hunts, plague, the jazz age, voyages of discovery and Elizabethan entertainment from the ground level, with descriptions that conjure up all the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone era. Haig paints an immersive, exciting world, and it’s an honour to be able to join him in exploring it.

As with everything Matt Haig writes, it’s phenomenally profound and beautiful with a lot to say about the nature of humanity, particularly with how we don’t change, loss, love and aging. It’s bang up to date, with mentions of fake news and Donald Trump, and Tom’s worry that the 21st century is just turning into a cheap copy of the 20th. Via Tom, Haig argues that humanity has not advanced in a straight line from idiocy to enlightenment, but that it’s been more of a rollercoaster, although there’s a fear we’re heading into a new Dark Ages, with new susperstitions and witch hunts under different names with different targets happening once again. There is, however, in there somewhere a sense of hope, and an exploration of why we should keep on living and trying to better ourselves. One line I adored, as a bibliophile, was, “Whenever I see someone reading a book, especially if it is someone I don’t expect, I feel civilisation has become a little safer.”

And with people like Matt Haig still writing, I feel the world is a little safer still.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“On Booze” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (2011)

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On_Booze“Perfectly respectable girl, but only been drinking that day.”

I always felt that F. Scott Fitzgerald and I would get on really well, if only because we both write, have drinking problems, and we’re both fond of jazz music and fiesty women. I’ve read a couple of his books and have a certain fondness for The Great Gatsby, which, while probably not the Great American Novel, is pretty excellent. I found this book in Hatchards, an amazing bookshop in the middle of London, and figuring that Fitzgerald and alcohol was a winning combination in any situation, decided to give it a go.

The book is various snippets and clippings from Fitzgerald’s notebooks from the twenties and thirties, as well as autobiographical stories detailing his life as he lived it, and throwing new light on what it was actually like to be living in the Jazz Age and acting out the stories he put onto the page. A review from the New Yorker said, “More than any other writer of those times, Fitzgerald had a sense of living in history.” I think that’s very true – the man knew that times were changing and was often saddened by those changes.

The book is split into six parts, each of them dealing with something different. One is a selection of letters to friends; another talks of his struggles with insomnia. A third tells us why he fell in love with New York and why he always considered the city his true home. It paints a picture of a world post-crash where everyone had time to party and there seemed to be little in the way of responsibility. My favourite section, however, is “Show Mr. and Mrs. F. to Number —–“, which details every hotel that Scott and Zelda stayed in between 1920 and 1933. Each hotel gets a paragraph or a couple of lines, revealing a few candid details about what the hotel looked like, who else was staying there, or even just what they had to eat or drink.

Despite the book being called On Booze and one having an expectation of all the stories being laced with martinis, there is very little actual drinking going on, although Fitzgerald happily acknowledges that it was happening, and indeed happening all the time. There is more here about his insecurities and perhaps what caused him to become such a drunk. It’s an interesting read (although not espcially sparkly or quick), but his fiction is better and there’s something rather disjointed about the whole exercise.

Probably the most valuable thing I found in the book, however, are the words I want on my gravestone: “Then I was drunk for many years, and then I died.”