“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.

“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.

“How We Got To Now” by Steven Johnson (2014)

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“Roughly 26 million years ago, something happened over the sands of the Libyan Desert, the bleak impossibly dry landscape that marks the eastern edge of the Sahara.”

The march of progress rarely proceeds in a straight line. We take the technology of today – smartphones, the Internet, cars, even flushing toilets and electric light – for granted, never much giving any consideration for the things that our ancestors would have found remarkable. Sometimes it takes millennia for ideas to produce tangible results – rarely do changes happen overnight – and it often takes a lot of people to make something happen. Take your watch, for example. That’s not just the product of a watch scientist, or something like that. The fact that you have a reliable timepiece on your watch is thanks to people working in the fields of computing, electromechanics, chemistry, dynamics and astrology. Steven Johnson takes a look at some of the greatest innovations in human history in this astounding book, How We Got to Now.

Johnson explores the six inventions and discoveries that revolutionised humanity: glass, artificial refrigeration, sound recording, germ theory, clocks and the light bulb. Each of these innovations helped the human race progress in truly extraordinary ways, changing the world over and over again. Many of history’s best and brightest also show up here including Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Charles Babbage, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Galileo Galilei, as well as several others that time has unfairly forgotten such as Frederic Tudor who was the first person to transport ice to the Caribbean, or Charles Piazzi Smyth who all but invented flashbulb photography. While some of the stuff seems simple, there are some things brought up that I’d never really given much thought to but seem obvious in retrospect. For example, fire was pretty much the first human “invention”, or at least the process of creating fire. And yet, despite fire being a key source of heat and light, we didn’t manage to take control over cold temperatures until well into the Industrial Revolution, and there was little more advanced than a candle to help us see at night for millennia.

The book’s real beauty comes from the fact that Johnson reveals how certain technologies had ripple effects into other areas of humanity’s development. The discovery of germ theory would eventually lead to both Coronation Street and the bikini; it could be said that air conditioning led to the election of Donald Trump; the invention of the mirror allowed the Renaissance to happen and changed people’s ideas of their place in society; a swinging altar lamp in an Italian cathedral would begin a path that led to Sputnik; and radio would chart a course to both the civil rights movement and Hitler’s fascist regime. The book notes that many ideas come into existence at a certain time because it’s just time for them to exist. Often the same invention or discovery will be announced by several different people at the same time. Edison didn’t invent the first light bulb, but he helped perfect them, and Darwin was one of several scientists who had worked out evolution and natural selection within the same decade or two. New ideas spring from old ones. For example, a person living in 1650 can’t conceive a refrigerator because the associated technologies aren’t available, but once they are, it seems almost inevitable that it would happen.

Johnson appears to be a natural weaver of true stories, and the writing, while occasionally heavy on the science, never feels too out of reach for the layman. The tales are engaging, fascinating and the sort of thing that make you want to instantly go up to other people and say, “Did you know…?” Even things that you might at first think could be dull topics, such as the chlorination of swimming pools, or how fibre optics are made are incredibly interesting, given what they then led to. It’s a very interesting guide to the most important ideas in science, and I for one am incredibly enchanted.

And while only a little thing, one of my favourite discoveries was that Captain Birdseye was a real person – his first name was Clarence.

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. The project is over a 80% of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“This Is Going To Hurt” by Adam Kay (2017)

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“The decision to work in medicine is basically a version of the email you get in early October asking you to choose your menu options for the work Christmas party.”

Touch wood, I’ve never had much to do with hospitals personally. My family, on the other hand, have all had more than enough experience on my behalf. My dad had two hernias before he was thirty, my mother has apparently had every possible organ removed at this point (sometimes twice), my grandparents are all held together by metal, and when she was twelve, my sister’s leg fell off. (Ask me about that last one sometime; I’m not really even exaggerating.)

Adam Kay is a comedy writer and singer now, but for several years he was a doctor. His parents appear not to have forgiven him for changing. A couple of years ago, while the UK was undergoing massive trauma relating to the treatment of junior doctors under the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (possibly the only man who is also the rhyming slang for what he is), Kay dug out all the diaries he kept during the six years he spent on the wards, mostly in his role in obstetrics and gynecology.

The entries are sporadic, so I can only assume he has picked the most interesting ones, but my god do they deliver. Firstly, the book is absolutely hilarious. I worked with the public long enough to know that they can say the most ridiculous things, but apparently putting them in hospital turns their lack of sense off completely. From the man who complained he’d never found a condom big enough to fit him (because it turned out he was trying to fit his testicles into them as well as his penis), to the woman who claimed her breast pump was bugged and someone was spying on her, there rarely seems to be a week that goes by without something hilarious happening. Many stories straddle the border between hilarious and horrifying, such as the young man who managed to deglove his penis (degloving is exactly what it sounds like) to the woman who returned from a Caribbean holiday, having had so much sex and catching such a virulent strain of gonorrhea that she was “producing purulent monsoons from both her Trinidad and her Tobago”. The humour is undoubtedly black, there’s no question, but Kay has such a mesmerising way with language that even the most disgusting aspects of the job are somehow still a delight to read.

More importantly, however, Kay doesn’t shy away from the absolute horrors of the job. He is speaking out on behalf of all junior doctors who simply don’t have the time to do so. He makes no bones about the fact that, as a doctor, you will never leave your shift on time, you will have to cancel dates, weddings and holidays with a moment’s notice, and you’ll hardly ever be thanked, and certainly not paid a decent and fair wage. He talks to giving medicines to anorexics who have eaten more than him in the last twenty-four hours, or trying to reduce the blood pressure of people he has higher blood pressure than. He emphasies the strain the role puts on his relationships, both romantic and platonic, and how tiresome it is to be asked by friends and family at every social occasion, “Can you just have a look at this rash?” And yet, even these appalling circumstances are still discussed with humour.

But, naturally, this is sometimes life and death we’re talking about, and Kay knows full well when to roll back the laughter and be serious. He deals with some situations that many of us would find utterly unthinkable, and the final entry in his diaries is one of the most heartbreaking, harrowing things I have ever read, hammering home how much we should respect and praise our medical men and women. Indeed, it is the events of the final entry that cause him to quit.

Don’t let that put you off, though. It is a very important book, an expose on what it’s really like at the medical front line. It’s not all tweed elbow patches and rounds of golf in the afternoon. It’s being splattered with blood and other fluids on a daily basis, performing complicated surgeries when you haven’t slept in thirty hours, removing Kinder Eggs from vaginas, trying not to confuse the Punjabi words for “hemophiliac” and “hermaphrodite”, and being eternally short-staffed. I’ve even more respect for the NHS staff now than I did before and it’s vital we protect them. They are superheroes.

Everyone should read this book.

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. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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