Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Too Much Too Young


Book SlamOn the Book Slam website they describe themselves as follows:

Book Slam is London’s first/ best/ only literary nightclub, which features all the top writers, the finest live music and a semi-professional Serbian DJ. Our guests have included the likes of Hanif Kureishi, Dave Eggers, Adele, Nick Hornby, Kate Nash and many more. You should come. It’s fun.

I've never been able to think of writing as the new rock 'n' roll although, according to Google, it might as well stake its claim since so many less believable others (economics, knitting, bingo) have already nailed their faith to the sticking pole. So why not writing?

I got an e-mail a few weeks back from Book Slam's nice PR lady offering me a book for review. The book, a short story anthology, Too Much Too Young – Volume 2, follows on from last year's One For The Trouble – Volume 1. Seems like this is going to be an annual event. Both are collections of "specially commissioned, exclusive new stories from the event’s illustrious alumni". "[I]llustrious alumni", eh? Book Slam’s founder, novelist, Patrick Neate, had this to say:

Doing something a second time is arguably always harder than the first time around, so we’re hugely proud to publish such an excellent, diverse collection that so accurately reflects the Book Slam ethos – twelve authors, some you will have heard of, some not, and each writing at the very peak of their powers.

I didn't know a single name. But then I'm not good with names. I decided not to bother looking anyone up although when I got to the bios at the end I recognised the titles of several books even if the names hadn't stuck. I read the book, two stories a night over six nights. And they were good. They were real stories about real people in believable situations; modern stories too; slices of life. I like stories like that. I'm sure they all had beginnings, middles and ends but not so you'd notice. They weren't too short; they weren't too long. They were exactly my cup of tea.

It's hard to review a short story collection especially one containing twelve different authors. I've no idea how these particular stories were chosen but my suspicion is that they weren't. I expect the authors simply handed in their assignments and the editor was just very lucky to get eleven—there was one I wasn't too keen on—that work very well together.

Each short story is inspired by a song title. In 'Every Time We Say Goodbye' Ella Fitzgerald's songs are an integral part of the story but for most it wouldn't matter if you'd never heard of the song (or the band in my case) before. The whole book is loosely-themed around The Specials’ 'Too Much Too Young' although there are a few old people to be found in here, too. Maybe it's my age but they were my favourites.

I heartily recommend this book. I think the signed hardback for £20 sounds like a terrific Christmas gift. Below you'll find a few thoughts and excerpts for all twelve stories in order which makes this a very long post but I think it's only fair. I have my favourites and I say which they are but they may not be yours. And that's as it should be.


DavidNichollsA Little Soul (Pulp, 1998) by David Nicholls

This has been done before so many times. The Wonder Years, My So-Called Life, The Simpsons and loads others all have some variation of this trope: the new or substitute teacher who opens the protagonist's eyes. In this story we are introduced to young Douglas Miller:

In truth, Douglas Miller did not really believe in the beauty of the English language. The four hours a week he spent studying the subject were wasted time to an unremarkable boy of fifteen. Why study something that people used without thinking? At least with French or German or Italian, there was some knowledge involved, vocab and hard facts, but to study his own language was like studying chewing or standing up. Language was a tool. Books were what you read on the beach when the sun was too bright for the screen on your phone.

Mr Arnold, his regular teacher, falls ill and Douglas's salvation comes in the form of substitute teacher Ms Wisniewski:

Everything about Ms Wisniewski was different: the defiant buzz of the ‘Ms’ and the bundles of high-scoring consonants in her name as she spelt it out on the whiteboard, the way she perched on the edge of her desk rather than hiding behind it, the way her dark eyes took them in one by one, all of them, not just the poets and actors of the front row.

Okay so we really have two tropes at work here. Not only is Ms Wisniewski 'the cool teacher' she is also 'the hot teacher'. An added bonus. And Douglas falls for her in both ways.

He began by rolling up the sleeves of his blazer. He parted his hair this way and that, tried fat and skinny knots in his school tie and decided to go for skinny. He didn’t volunteer to read in class, he didn’t answer too many questions, he merely sat and assumed an air of charismatic intensity as Ms Wisniewski talked about sonnet form and iambic pentameter, alliteration and ambiguity, similes and metaphors. He discovered that Animal Farm was not really about a farm, that a word could have more than one meaning, sometimes many more, and that happy endings weren’t always as happy as they first seemed. He cried at Of Mice and Men, but in a quiet, manful way, not like Hugo Barrett, who practically had a nervous breakdown. That night, he surprised his mother by asking if she could buy him some alfalfa.

Okay by the end I might not have felt like standing on my desk and declaiming, "O Captain! My Captain!" but it was enjoyable and I related to the protagonist. Unfortunately in my case our substitute teacher looked like Ginsberg and we chewed him up and spat out the pieces but, hey, we're Scottish; we take no prisoners.


DianaEvansAnother Saturday Night (Sam Cooke, 1963) by Diana Evans

Lorraine is on her way back from the theatre one night; she boards a crowded train going south at London Bridge and once settled in her seat notices someone watching her.

He was sitting in one of the booths straight ahead, wearing a black raincoat, his face round and weathered, breaking towards middle age. It took her a few moments to realize who it was. It was Eddy.

I doubt there's one of us who hasn't wiled away a few minutes thinking what-if or if-only. People grow up, grow apart, move on, forget to call, lose touch and then, every now and then, we run into one of them, can see immediately that they're not the person they used to be and realise right after they're thinking exactly the same about you.

The change in Eddy is significant, though, because this is what he used to be like:

The thing about him was that he was sensual. He was not handsome like Steven [Eddy's cousin], but there was a heat and a wisdom inside him that brought people near, as if to warm their hands. He looked at a woman as if she were wax and he flame. His wide, cushiony, curvaceous chest and the thick, embracing arms, there was a notion of elasticity in him, that he could contain many loves, many promises, and therefore belong to no one. By birth he was Guyanese, though he thought of himself as African. He wore a Nefertiti pendant on a black leather cord around his neck. He was serious about most things, but there was always a hint of a smile at his lips.

Most of the story is told looking back—we readers have a lot of catching up to do—but once we're up to speed and Eddy asks for her phone number the question we want answered more than anything else is: Can you just pick up things where you left off?


JeremyDysonHave Some Madeira, M’Dear (Flanders & Swann, 1956) by Jeremy Dyson

Dyson's was the only name in this list I thought I might have known. I should have because I'd got a book of his through the post the day before to review which shows you how bad I am with names.

The illustration that goes with this story—each one is preceded by a black and white doodle—was of a space shuttle (more like a Star Trek shuttlecraft than a NASA one) and so I wondered if we were in for a wee bit of science fiction here but we weren't. Marshall is eleven—nearly twelve (which is an important distinction at that age)—and has a bit of an imagination; a cardboard box can still serve as the shell of a spacecraft.

That box was heaven. It became his own spaceship: he had only to climb inside it and he was hurtling through the blackness of space, safe inside, the most exciting adventure imaginable just beginning. He had spent hours there.

He's on holiday in Madeira with his parents and his older (and archetypal) brother Howard who insists on calling him "Sport" although Marshall doesn't get the joke; he doesn't get a lot of things. Marshall is, to be honest, a wee bit gullible:

‘What does it mean, then?’ said Howard, smelling Marshall’s ignorance.

Marshall looked down at the wooden box of Lego, hoping he could disguise the sudden flash of shame at his own lack of worldliness.

‘It’s all right – I’ll tell you what it means.’

Marshall looked up, hopeful. Howard was capable of occasional acts of generosity, passing on prized knowledge like a gift. ‘It’s when you sit on the toilet, thinking.’

‘Yeah,’ said Marshall, trying to digest this.

‘You know, when you’re sat on the toilet, thinking about stuff.’

‘Yeah,’ he said again. He did know. He did like to think about things when he was pooing.

‘Well, that’s called wanking. Having a wank.’

‘Ream,’ said Marshall, taking it in. Later, he glowed with the acquisition of this knowledge. It was something he could take away with him to Funchal.

You can just imagine how that's going to play out and after it has Marshall decides he needs some time alone and decides to go for a walk along a path that leads up a mountain to what he thinks at first is an old church.

Are they trying to disguise something? Maybe there was a lift inside. Maybe it led to some kind of secret underground base, hidden inside the mountain. Wouldn’t it be guarded? He would have to proceed very carefully. Looking over his shoulder, searching behind the bushes, he checked there was nobody outside. Then he crept, as silently as he could, up the rest of the hill.

He gets caught away with his childhood fantasies and then witnesses something that he wished was every bit as far in the future as space ships Things, events, people have been pulling at his innocence for a while now. He's been clinging onto childhood for dear life. People say that it's best to rip off a plaster. Marshall wouldn't agree.


MarinaLewyckaNot Exactly (Deadmau5, 2008) by Marina Lewycka

A man, Foster, goes for a job interview and, unusually, is told he's got the job there and then. He rushes home, suitably delighted, to tell his wife who narrates this tale for us.

I’d put a bottle of bubbly in the fridge this morning in anticipation. This job – so much depends on it. It means we can move out of this crummy basement studio into a place of our own. We can settle down and spread out. We can start a family. In my imagination I can already see a spacious modern flat, sunlight flooding in, a kitchen gleaming with high-spec appliances, open doors leading on to a leafy garden; Foster and me sipping a glass of wine together; he’s got a dog (Foster loves dogs), a big, hairy, good-natured mongrel, lounging at his feet. There’s a smell of blossom and babies in the air.

So what exactly will he be doing? That's not exactly clear.

If we're talking tropes here then the closest I could come up with would be 'Deal with the Devil'. The more Foster tries to explain what he expects to be doing the more concerned his wife becomes. What has her husband got himself involved with? To try to simplify matters Foster talks about the employer’s Aunt Valerie's unique approach to running a restaurant.

“Val’s Value Eaterie. Nothing over a pound.” Great concept – a low-cost, no-frills restaurant where nothing on the menu cost more than a pound. Proper food, too, better than the café. Big juicy steaks, fresh fish, golden fries cooked in sunflower oil, plenty of sauces, great creamy desserts, that sort of thing. The way he described it, I was nearly salivating.’

‘So how did it work?’

‘Brilliant concept. You place your order. Everything is so cheap, you order more than you really need. It seldom comes to more than a fiver in total. Great. Then they ask, “Would you like it cooked, sir?” That’s extra, of course. Cheaper if it’s cooked by a trainee – more for a qualified chef. You don’t want your steak ruined by a trainee, do you? Obviously if you want it brought to your table, rather than fetching it yourself from the kitchen, that’s extra, too. And they ask if you want to eat off the table or hire a plate to put it on. And you can also hire cutlery to eat it with. Tap water is free, of course, but you have to hire the glass – and you pay for the sauces, salt and pepper, bread. It all adds up. And if you want to use the loos at all during your meal, well, that’ll set you back several quid.’

Well, his new job is going to work along those lines. Only not with food.

This is pure satire. And a timely story too. It's already happening, people paying to jump queues or to get better service. And there are always hidden extras. Nothing is ever all-inclusive. Would you like to extend your warranty? Just bought a new car? Lovely! Would you like a number plate with that? Where will it all end?


EmyliaHallMe and Bobby McGee (Janis Joplin, 1971) by Emylia Hall

Every other Wednesday Robert met Linda, his only daughter, at The Falls. It was half pleasure park, half discount superstore, and it lay equidistant between their two homes; as good a place as any to share a cup of tea and pass the time of day. Robert enjoyed the interruption to his routine, even if that interruption had itself become as comfortable as his old moccasins. After each meeting, Robert suspected he ought somehow to feel rejuvenated, or at least thankful, but what he actually felt was increasingly decrepit. Linda had an unconscious way of eroding his energy. She would steer him by the elbow whenever steps loomed, and fret lines would furrow her brow if he ever paused in his search for the right word. To prove his continuing competence, to himself as much as his daughter, Robert strove for a well-spruced appearance and punctuality. He’d never got the hang of ironing, and invariably his chequered shirts were curled at the collar and creased at the cuff, but he always made sure they were tucked neatly into his jeans and his belt buckle was polished. He trimmed his beard and dabbed cologne and arrived on the button of three o’clock.

I meet my daughter for lunch like this. Our place is a nice restaurant off George Square in the centre of Glasgow and as much as we'd like it not to be I can't help feeling like it's a bit of an interview for each of us. I'm not as old as Robert but I will be one day and so I related strongly to this. I'm also a man who is fond of routine. It's safe.

After the regulation two hours Robert gets in his car, waves goodbye to his daughter and heads off home.

He didn’t see the girl until he almost hit her. She appeared in the gloom of the lane like a wood sprite. He jammed on the brakes, the car skewing slightly as it sought purchase on the wet road. Robert breathed deeply, relaxed his grip on the wheel and turned to stare at her. At first, she appeared to be made only of legs. They were long and slender and pale as milk and ran on and on. But then he noticed the boots she wore, caramel suede, fringed with tassels and dark with the rain. He didn’t think people went about in boots like that anymore, in magazines maybe, but not in the real world. She gave him a thumbs-up and mouthed something Robert couldn’t catch. He wound down his window. Outside the rain roared and a waterfall of drops fell from the trees like jungle splatter.

‘Good brakes, Grandpa,’ she said, bending down to him. ‘Thanks for stopping.’ Her lips formed a fearless grin.

He ends up giving her a lift and chiding her about the dangers of hitchhiking; taking her where she wants to go even though it’s miles and miles out of his way. She talks, he talks and the next thing you know he's waving goodbye to another girl—albeit one young enough to be his granddaughter.

This was a lovely character-driven story and I really thought it would end up being my favourite but that was still to come.


NikeshShuklaSafe from Harm (Massive Attack, 1991) by Nikesh Shukla

For me this story had too many characters. I'm sure younger readers won't struggle as much as I did but I got lost. Amal, Resham, Kai, Rana, Sabha, Dilip, Sunny, Anil, Nita and Kalip all blurred into one amorphous mass. In some respects that's the point because they were all part of the pack. That's how the narrator thinks of the group too:

The Year of the Pack Animal came while I was living in Toronto for work. I missed the crew so much. They kept me safe from harm. They were all mine. That year I was placed in one of the great party cities in the world and I lived between two computer screens – my work laptop that carried all my designs and html codes and ideas, and my home computer with my home email streaming social invites to events I wasn’t around to attend, photos of nights I hadn’t seen the back of, and email round robins instigating new in-jokes I’d never be party to.

I watched the group from the outside. I watched Sunny’s photography take a darker approach towards women. He would scrawl ‘I fucking love you’ with a compass on every new image before rescanning it, reappropriated with his reignited love for Kapil’s sister. I watched Rana leave his safety job as a management consultant to pursue music. His Twitter and Facebook streams told me everything about his life: he downgraded from ‘in a relationship’ to ‘single’, posted up pictures of all the drinks he was imbibing and geo-tagged himself at every club in our ends. As a spectator, I found it easy to piece together my friends’ lives from emails, MySpace messages and Facebook photos. Kai sent me videos of the crew singing my favourite songs to me. At the start of the video, you’d hear her voice instructing everyone to get into place, synchronize harmonies and start at the same time before bellowing out the choruses from the corner of whatever pub they found themselves in. Nita was always the most tuneful. Dilip was always the one laughing.

I have hung around with others in large groups in the past but they generally disintegrated into smaller, more manageable friendships; I never really got the whole Friends gang thing and that's really what we have here. We get to watch this group over several years as it expands and contracts—as it breathes—like a living thing, as it goes through good times and bad. This is how things end:

The whole crew met that night … We joked that it was because we Indians needed to stick together. We had all come from similar beginnings. Kai, as we danced in a circle, said we felt like a family. Everyone laughed but I felt a tinge of something, a yearning for this to be home. We were drunk and delirious. We were dancing in unison. The family that danced together stayed together. It was the most perfect night I ever spent. Safe from harm.

It's not the end though. It's just end of the story which happens to revolve around British Asians but it's a far more universal tale. Everyone grows up.


JesseArmstrongLife During Wartime (Talking Heads, 1979) by Jesse Armstrong

The Minister of State for Defence gets a hand job from his special adviser. These things happen. Just ask Bill Clinton. It doesn't take much to start a war. Just ask the ghost of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. What harm is there in a little light relief before looking "at the possible media fall-out associated with a reduction of RAF personnel on the Ascension Islands from a sabre-rattling seventeen to a less blood-curdling twelve"? Well the Minister of State for Defence soon finds out.

After being interrogated by his wife—just why did he feel the need to clean the shower and then put on a dirty shirt?—he escapes on a pretext, "a department thing":

On the street with a file under his arm, Leigh Fife was suddenly what he hadn’t been for a very long time: someone without anything to do. There was no ministerial car, of course. He began to walk, quite quickly, up the street. But to where? To where does one walk? What is a likely place for a person to walk unto? He breathed in deeply, attempting to convince himself that he might be enjoying a moment of calm in a busy life. But, fuck, that wasn’t a good interview he’d given his wife in there. Hot bastard shit motherfucker, he thought.

If you've ever sat there and watched any politician waffle on and on and never give a straight answer to a straight question and just wished someone would come along and ask that one question which would shut them up forever then this story is for you.


JackieKayEv'ry Time We Say Goodbye (Ella Fitzgerald, 1956) by Jackie Kay

Let's say you're a married woman and have been having an affair with another woman and want to finish things—do you not think that the last place you'd choose to do it would be at a "residential philosophy course at a house in Wales by the sea"? And yet that's exactly what happens here. People break up in all sorts of ways. Quick and painless isn't always the best way either.

We’d decided, in that illiberal lesbian way, to have rules about our love too early. Right from the beginning, we were already strict. How often were we allowed to see each other? Who could know about us? Whether we could tell our mothers. Whether we could ever go on holiday. Could we allow ourselves to watch Wallander? (The crimes were mainly against women.) And now, six months later, we were not much better. We had timed our break-up to fit in with the last episode of The Bridge .

This reminded me of an assisted suicide. Everyone knows it's coming—where, when and how—and although it's sad, knowing that you don't need to worry about it until x o'clock on y day must take the pressure off. There is time to say the things you want to say but never wanted to say until the last possible moment and here now you can because you know precisely when that moment is coming. Here's a nice representative passage:

We were lying in the dark, playing Ella over and over. We’d reached the slice of the night when we were heading for morning, and now we had only two nights left. We were trying to lengthen our time by getting just three hours’ sleep a night. We were light-headed, grief-struck, and a little hysterical. ‘What good is sitting alone in your room?’ I sang to you, preferring to quote lyrics than Confucius. ‘Have you heard the one about the dyslexic agnostic philosopher?’ you joked. ‘Stayed up all night wondering if there is a dog.’ ‘That’s an old one. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive you for this,’ I said. ‘I’ll want revenge.’ You preferred Confucius: ‘Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.’ You smiled gravely. ‘You’re becoming really quite infuriating,’ I said. ‘Less lovable maybe?’ you said. ‘Is that your game plan?’ I said. ‘Oh, my God, it is! You are deliberately trying to alienate me so that it will hurt less!’ I shook you. ‘When anger rises, think of the consequences,’ you said, between fits of laughter. I hit you with my pillow. You hit me with your pillow. We indulged in a massive-childish-wind-blasting pillow fight. I gave you a thrashing. You were still trying to quote philosophy over the thumping of the pillows – ‘You … thwack … can discover … thump … more about a person … bop… in an hour of play than in a year of conversation’ – when one of the philosophers knocked on the door and asked if we could keep it down.

A lovely story about love.


CraigTaylorMaster of Puppets (Metallica, 1986) by Craig Taylor

This was the story I didn't take to. On reading it a second time I see what the problem was: there's more than one person speaking:

I seen her at the Staples near Woodgrove Mall.

I actually saw her just recently when I was out with my husband. I hadn’t thought of her in years. We were walking down by the harbour. It was his first time down near the marina. I grew up here; he didn’t. We’d moved back to my hometown. We just passed her by. No biggie.

Me? I almost literally ran into her. She was like hey man. I think that’s what she said. It was in some parking lot. One of the parking lots downtown.

Yeah I’ve seen her in town yeah. I’m a guy you know what I mean.

You know what the thing is with her? I’ll tell you. And the boys we used to know would say the same. She’s totally touchy about prom. Touchy about all that time we spent in the smoke pit behind the library, just touchy about everything high school. Just generally the past is like a no. Those nights at the Wastelands? She was touchy about them when I was talking to her. Who would be touchy about the Wastelands?

Knowing that helps but if struggled with half a dozen character names you can just imagine where my head was after a couple of pages of this. Now if Craig had indicated who was talking

FRED: I seen her at the Staples near Woodgrove Mall.

BETTY: I actually saw her just recently when I was out with my husband.

I would have been a lot happier. Too much hard work for me although I like the idea.


PatrickNeateWeaves and Magazines (Netsyi, 2009) by Patrick Neate

This story is told from the point of view of an old Zimbabwean, Gabriel. At the time of writing he's working for the Custers but there have been a number of families before them.

Thirty years ago, when I had already been in this line of work more than a decade, I used to say I was in a service industry. I said this only to amuse those I served. I responded to each and every request like this: ‘No problem, boss. After all, I am employed in a service industry.’ I then allowed my eyebrows a little skip to ensure we were all complicit in my joke.

They turned to their friends and said things like, ‘Christ! But the garden boy’s too clever, hey?’

And, knowing my wit was well-received, I smiled, childlike and ingratiating.

Since then he has learned his place and the dangers of being seen as too clever; of even having an opinion since it will likely be the wrong one, if not right then, then sooner or later. The Custers have a staff of three in additional to Gabriel—Samson the cook, Albert who helps Gabriel in the garden and Beverley the maid—and everything is ticking by nicely until the Custers decide to hire Kissy as a nanny. That this is set in a foreign country doesn't really change anything. What we have here is an Upstairs Downstairs scenario and these usually work fine as long as everyone, downstairs and upstairs knows their place. So the story as it unfolds here is not a new one—I'm pretty sure Upstairs Downstairs had a storyline dealing with it (Downton Abbey certainly did)—but it's interesting to see Gabriel's take on things. So this is a bit like seeing Shakespeare performed in modern dress.


SalenaGoddenMilord (Edith Piaf, 1959) by Salena Godden

This was not an easy read. Like all the other stories really it's simply a slice of life and we don't find out how everything plays out but we don't need to. We just need to spend enough time in Beatrice's shoes to get the point.

The prison cell in the back of the Gare du Nord is dark and small. There is one thin plastic mattress and no window. She is being detained. She’s not sure why or for how long. At least they took the cuffs off – she is thankful for small mercies. Her arms ache, her wrist bones are raw with welts and bruises. She rubs them, wincing with pain, flinching with humiliation and shame. The back of my hand is not supposed to reach the back of my neck. She shakes her head, seeing the flesh punctuated with mauve thumbprints. I always did bruise easily, but I sure won’t find handcuffs sexy again.

What the hell could she have done? Is this a murderess? Is she a drug smuggler? Maybe a terrorist? Nothing remotely like any of these.

Where are you? Paris. I’m in a police cell at the back of the Gare du Nord. Why? Because I got on the wrong Eurostar and … fuck … it’s too fucking stupid. Why won’t they let me take a piss? I’m not in fucking Midnight Express. Shit! Am I in Midnight Express Fuck! OK. Stop. Calm yourself. It’s not like they’ll kill us. It’s not like they’ll disappear us. They just want to scare us, to take us down a peg or two. Maybe they didn’t think we could afford first class. We were too big for our boots and they’re waiting for us to stop asking for luxuries, like lawyers and toilets. It’s a game of patience. Fuck patience. I want a cigarette. Where’s Hector?

Where the fuck is Hector?

That's it. She's got on the wrong train. This might be set in some totalitarian future. It's maybe not set today but, reading in between the lines, it could be set tomorrow. The author adds a note of explanation at the end of the story:

It is spring 2012 and Marine Le Pen, representing the far right Front National party, has just polled 17.9 per cent in the French presidential election. The result has been greeted with ‘surprise’ both in France and around the world. However, for right-wing supporters, Le Pen’s success represents ‘an explosion’ and ‘a major breakthrough’. That election result has compounded my desire to complete this story and share it with you as faithfully as I can.


ChrisCleaveWe’ll Meet Again (Vera Lynn, 1939) by Chris Cleave

This was by far my most favourite story. This was the one once I'd finished the book I had to tell my wife all about. Since she has elderly parents—both creeping up on ninety—and both a little demented (in more ways than one) she could relate completely with what happens here.

The story, such as it is, is a simple one.

My grandmother wasn’t going anywhere. She was the tooth that wobbled but wouldn’t let go, and time worried away at her with its tongue. It was an unequal struggle but I was on her side, if we have to pick one.

In her ninetieth year I thought it would be nice to get my grandmother online. I’m not the first grandchild who has begun such a project. It’s a favour my generation bestows on hers: we hook them up with the mess we’ve made. I arrived at her house with an inexpensive laptop that I’d bought before I left London, we set it up in her little front room, and she put out an antique lace mat for it on the beeswaxed occasional table.

She asked if the computer used the ordinary electricity, and when I confirmed that it did, she connected the power to the socket where she normally plugged in the Hoover.

The best Carrie's been able to manage with her folks is to set up a printer for her dad’s camera and something called MailBug which only sends and receives email. It is lovely, though, seeing how this visit plays out from the initial visit by the engineer to sort out the cabling to her grandson setting up e-mail accounts for her family plus one for her late husband of course. Dementia is a horrible thing and yet, somehow, Chris Cleave makes it sound beautiful:

I’d carefully planned the operation to get her online. I’d made arrangements for a cable connection ahead of time. On the installation day I’d spoken with the engineer on the phone, from the back of an airport taxi. I asked him how he intended to route the cable: would he run it along the top of the skirting, or the base? Really I was worried about his muddy boots on my grandmother’s carpet, and that she would be confused when he came.

The likelihood was that on the day he knocked, she would be living in another decade. For her, the year was a four-digit setting on a combination padlock and she had her thumbs on the tumblers, cheerfully trying out numbers and hoping for a click. If she opened the door one morning and found a sci-fi future out there, with the sky full of personal giro copters, with cold fusion reactors where her bedding plants used to be, she would afford the visitor no outward sign of her confusion. If the doorbell sounded and it was my grandfather, home from the war with his duffel bag, she wouldn’t be a bit surprised and they would simply take it from there.


He’d set up the Wi-Fi unit on the telephone table in the hallway. She’d waited until he was gone, I should think, before slipping a doily under it. At some point during the installation process, it’s likely she told the engineer that she ran the kindergarten from this house and that the telephone number was Lowestoft 8. He would have smiled indulgently, already knowing the eleven-digit number of her landline

This story does have an ending. (No, the old girl doesn't die.) It's a lovely ending too and if you only read one story from this collection—I believe they can be TooMuchTooYoungpurchased individually as e-texts—then this one is worth the 79p or whatever but as the whole book is only going for £1.99 (or £2.99 complete with audio) I'd go for the whole thing. The limited hardback for £20 which I mentioned at the start, signed by all the authors, doesn't sound actually that bad a price either.


Anonymous said...

Hi there

I wanted to address something in your review that upset me a little bit. I'm not commenting on my writing because I recognise my own flaws only too well and know I could be better, deeper, and the rest of it. I wanted to pick you up on the point about 'Indians'.

Just to say, it's reductive to refer to the characters in this story as Indians. India is a country. These are British Asians. They count Hindus, Muslims, Bengalis, Farsis amongst them. It's sad to see them reduced in such a way. Also, this isn't a story about race so I was alarmed to see a comment that infers that despite their 'Indianness' they have universal experiences. There's a particularly nasty air in literature that ethnics are only allowed to write about ethnicity and any story featuring someone non-white is automatically about ethnicity, culture, identity, race. It's not. 'Indians' have normal lives too where they love, fight, hurt, hate, fall out with each other and other people, not because they're Indian, but because they're human.

I don't want to be one of those idiot authors who goes round commenting on people's reviews of their work. I completely understand any reservations you may have had to the stories. You're entitled to your opinion. About the race stuff? I'm not so sure. This is exactly the kind of thing I've had to fight against for years so forgive having my tuppence worth.


Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for your comment, Nikesh. I’ve changed ‘Indians’ in my review but not in the quote from the story where you yourself refer to this group as ‘Indians’. For the record I have no bias against any ethic minority. Glasgow has a large Asian community and we have no issues with them. We’d be lost without their cuisine for starters. I’m afraid though all my life the term ‘Indian’ has been used and I think nothing of it. My wife, who is an American, was appalled when I suggested going for a Chinky not long after she first arrived here. I’ve nothing against Orientals but, again, all my life that’s what we’ve said; I intended no offense and so never imagined any would be taken.

That doesn’t mean that’s Scots don’t discriminate. All my Primary School years, despite the fact I’d been born in Glasgow and had virtually never been out of the country, I was called “English Bastard” because, for some strange reason, I’d not picked up the local accent; I spoke with a slight Lancashire twang because that’s where my parents hailed from. Also I was a different religion from most of my peers and although they didn’t give a toss about religion whatever makes you different is something they’ll slag you about. Thankfully I had red hair so I at least blended in.

As for your story you’re perfectly entitled to chip in your tuppenceworth. I wish I’d enjoyed it more but the problem was more mine than yours. I write books and stories that focus on one or two characters and that’s what I like to read. I don’t mind TV shows about groups but, come the end of the show, ask me anyone’s name and I’ll probably come up blank. I’ve just tried to see who I can remember from Downton Abbey and I came up with ‘Hudson’ and ‘Rose’ who were, of course, two of the mainstays in the original Upstairs Downstairs. Had your story been a novel rather than a short story then I probably would’ve fared better but it was all over too quickly; in the end they were just names on a page and I couldn’t differentiate one from another.

Ping services