Matt Haig (2017) How to Stop Time.

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I rattled through this book in no time. A simple story told in the first person voice of Tom Hazard who was born on the 3rd March 1581 and is now—I’m crap at arithmetic, so I’ll jump from page 1 to page 316, near the end of the book—and say Tom is around 439 years old. He’s done a lot of living. And his daughter, Marion, who is also over 400 years old, calls the American President ‘a motherfucker’. Wisdom comes with age.

Only it doesn’t. Look at Trump. There’s a shadowy character a bit like him called Hendrich, who is rich, but obviously not as dumb or he wouldn’t have lived to be near 1000 years old. He is the leader of a shadowy organisation, the albatrosses (or albs, for short) whose purpose is to preserve the lives of those that live to a Malthusian age. The albs help Tom change his identity every eight years and move on. That’s the optimum time before people begin to notice people like Tom don’t seem to have aged and begin to ask difficult questions like what kind of wholemeal diet are you on? Tom explores what it means to be human.

Tom and the other albs, or in medical parlance, ‘anagerias’ do age. ‘Just much slower…generally it is a 1:15 ratio. Think of dog years which are a ratio of 1:7, or Cher, who grows younger and gets a better figure every year. Tom admits to be a bit of a name-dropper (and Zelig) in his relative youth, after his mother was drowned in a ducking chair as a witch, he plays the lute in William Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and the Bard saves his life when the same the witch finder that snared Tom’s mother tries to arrest him.  By then Tom has responsibilities. He has met the great love of his life Rose, who is two years older than him, which isn’t anything, but remember that ratio. And remember in the seventeen century living to adolescence and not being covered in body lice was a considerable achievement. Rose aged quickly, Tom stayed the same. What devil is this? their neighbours asked

Each chapter from the past is interspersed with Tom in the present. He’s taken a job in Oakfield School in London’s Tower Hamlet territory. He’s the new history teacher. As you’d expect he’s pretty good at the subject. He watched Rose die in the great plague, was there in the great fire. But he’s not a stay at home. He was on the Adeventurer, sister ship of Captain Cook, when he discovered New Zealand. He played piano in Paris during the roaring twenties and congratulated F Scott Fitzgerald on his new novel The Great Gatsby. He had to reassure him and his wife Zelda that the book was indeed Great, before the infamous couple nipped off to have cocktails with others of the Parisian avant-garde such Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas.

Those who cannot remember the past, observed the philosopher George Santayana in 1905, are condemned to repeat it. And you only need to switch on the news to see the dreadful repetitions, the terrible unlearned lessons, the twenty-first century slowly becoming a crude cover version of the twentieth.

A life without love has no meaning. But it’s a bit like Fight Club. The only rule in Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club. The only rule in the albs have is you don’t pick up attachments. Not human, Tom gets a dog from Hackney Pet Rescue Services with sad eyes to keep him company and to take on walks in London Parks.  ‘History is people’, Tom tells his head teacher when she interviews him for the job.  But he’s not a real person, he needs rescuing from himself, because he’s not allowed to fall in love. ‘We are who we become.’ So, of course, he falls in love with the French teacher, Camille. Of course, he does, he was born into the French aristocracy all those years ago.

Will Tom or won’t Tom? We know he will. People are what they are. There’s wisdom here. Look at Trump, he could live to be 1000 and he wouldn’t learn a thing. He’s a monkey brain in long pants and painted on quiff. ‘All the worlds a stage, And all the men and women merely players, And one man in his time plays many parts…’

Read on.


Alan Warner (1998) The Sopranos

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The Sopranos is a cumming-of-age novel. Let’s start at the beginning. Page 1. Our Lady of Perpetual Succour School for Girls. Fionnula tells us the school motto, ‘Noses up…knickers DOWN!’ Warning, this novel contains a rape scene, but it’s wee Orla that’s doing the raping.

The Sopranos are the elite of the ‘Hoors of the Sacred Heart’. These are the girls in the fifth-year school choir that can hit the highest notes. There’s Fionnula, Orla, (Ra)Chell, (A)Manda, Kylah, and, at a distance Kay Clarke. Kay Clarke is the snotty one that lives in the big house. Her dad is a consultant and she’s fee-paying and not a soprano, she’s only ‘Seconds’ in the choir. It could be worse, she could be a third, perpetual ever virginal, grouped with Fat Clodagh and Wee Maria. All of the girls have secrets. And you know when they leave the Port to got to the capital Edinburgh for a choral competition, drunkenness and debauchery will be like short skirts and push-up bras something they’ll change out of their school uniform and grow into.

‘It’s 1996’ Fionnnula says, ‘an this country can’t give its people a roof over their heads. It’s funny isn’t it! How in smaller towns folk won’t allow other folk to lie on the streets but it’s okay in the city’.

The good old days. Now, of course, we’re happy for people to live on the streets and queue for food but treat them as a type of pollution, like flapping pigeons begging for bread and shitting on park benches.

That aside, back to the story. The girls had a bit of practice on home ground. Anyone that has read Morvern Caller will recognise the port (I’m guessing Fort William-ish). Late in the book, inside the only club that decent boys and men from the subs go to, The Mantrap, Alan Warner sneaks in a wee mention of Morvern.

Aye, goes Michelle, Know how it is in here. Nothing like a new face on the mental scene to raise the sleepy cocks.

Who’s that again? goes Manda.

What, Scobbie MacIntosh?

Nah, no him, that guy on the far end on his own. Cute, See him about.

He’s spoken for. Bit of a quiet case, he lives wi yon Morvern from the Superstore, used to live up the Scheme.

Oh right he’s the guy; that’s a bonny bonny lassie.

And this is a bonnie bonnie novel. It didn’t have quite the kick of Morvern Caller, but that’s maybe because I’m an old guy that gets jaded quickly and can’t quite keep up. Great fun and a great read, nevertheless. Read on.


Adam Kay (2017) This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor.

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I loved this book. It should really be read in conjunction with Jed Mercurio’s debut novel Bodies. Yeh, that Jed Mercurio that writes scripts for the BBC, Bodies and Line of Duty. Adam Kay is following a similar trajectory, half way between the drama of Jed Mercurio and the upbeat chortleness of Harry Hill. You’re probably thinking why should the tax payer should spend all that money training junior doctors, indirectly subsidising the Australian and Canadian health services, which is bad enough, but now it’s a straightforward path –albeit a long medical apprenticeship—to write for the BBC.   The answer is going to hurt.

Simply, we are screwing the NHS into the ground and junior medics are on the front line. That’s always been the case, but the pressure is more intense. Aneurin Bevin talked about needing ‘to stuff the consultant’s mouths with gold’ in order to get a National Health Service. Consultants then were treated as a rung below God. Not much has changed. In a note Kay sent to a GP, 21st October 2010,  as a Registrar in Obstetrics and Gynaecology wrote, ‘if  you have any questions whatsoever, please do not contact me.’ It was a typo, what he meant to say was don’t hesitate to contact me, but it worked. The GP didn’t contact him. Kay had this to say about Prof Carrow, theoretically ‘on call for the labour ward.’ But ‘as much use as having a cardboard cutout of Cher’. ‘You don’t see Professor Carrrow during the day, you don’t phone him at night.’ Like a mighty liner navigated by junior staff, which changes every six months, when they change secondment, they learn on the job by that old maxim, see one, do one, teach one. Kay started 14 years earlier as a fresh-faced student and was a veteran of muddling through. So when Prof  Carrow appeared during the day Kay wondered what the occasion was. No doubt when David Cameron’s children were being treated there would have been a consultant monitoring every NHS bed the Prime Minister passed as there was for an extremely wealthy Saudi family. Here it was quite simple. A documentary camera crew was following behind Prof Carrow as he did a ward round. On camera Prof Carrow tells Dr Kay, ‘Sounds like you’ve got it under control Adam. But if you’ve any problems at all during the night, just call me.’ When the camera crew stop recording he acts more like the typical consultant, telling Adam, ‘Obviously, don’t.’

Kay, ad-libs, that one of the problems he faces is that patients don’t really see doctors are being human. His points about low pay and overwork are valid. He looks to his cohort, people he went to school with making six-figure salaries, while the parking meter in the hospital grounds makes more money than him. He suffers burnout (post-traumatic stress) when one of his patients dies. He’s not god, only human and a doctor advises him by the time he’s finished there’ll be a bus full of patients, who have died on your watch. It’s the nature of the beast. He moans about having to take a sideways or backwards step and retrain in another speciality. It would mean a loss of income.

That’s where I’ve less sympathy with Kay. Life seems sharper and speedy when you’re younger and full of seismic spasms, but it recedes like male-pattern baldness no matter how you try. Both his parents are doctors and he tells us his sister has accepted a place in a medical school, but let’s not forget middle-class parents,   getting their kids into medical school is a status thing and a mercenary operation that would make King Herod look like a lightweight.  Working class kids have more chance of playing for Barcelona than being a junior doctor. The moneyed middle-class expropriation of the means of education is a given without the need for banner waving, what Herbert Marcuse called ‘repressive tolerance’.

No meritocracy here. Kay jokes the ideal entry for medical school has A grades and plays rugby, ideal candidates such as Harold Shipman.  I’ll not bother googling how much a senior registrar gets paid. Kay should look below him, try living on the split shifts and gig economy of the hospital cleaners. His joke about the public not thinking doctors are human applies equally to those that have nothing and can expect not much more. Grenfell Towers taught us that. The NHS is staffed by the low paid, so I’m not buying into that the parking meter in the car park makes more money, poor me, I’m skint argument.

His open letter to The Secretary of State for Health is a walk in my shoes argument, ‘you, or your successor should have to work alongside junior doctors’. He makes an analogy ‘If the President wanted to press the big red button and kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people, then first he’d have to take a butcher’s knife and dig it out of a volunteer’s chest himself; so that he realizes what death means first-hand, and understand the implications of his actions.’

Absolutely, but the moron’s moron in the White House isn’t really like that. He’s got flunkeys to do that kind of thing. Draft dodger Trump guilty of having a spurious bone spur on one of his feet and now with the biggest arsenal in human history, we have a spurious President Tweeting policy on the hoof. A no-brainer, reality is no obstacle to his egotistical whims. A straight choice between blowing up thirty million Koreans and starting an apocalyptical nuclear winter or being seen as being a weak-fall guy that doesn’t get bogged down in too much (or any) detail, then it’s goodbye world.

Poor people don’t really exist for him and his ilk. The NHS is an aberration and abomination because it doesn’t work for them. Nicholas Timmins wonderful book The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State sums it up, the Americans used to run to us and try and work out how through cooperation and not competition we could provide such an efficient and low-cost service, now we run to America and look at  model that doesn’t work. Cannot solve the problems they create and in the hunt for revenues calls for more of the same, more privatisation, more trickledown economics and taking money from the poorest in society and gifting it to the richest. State subsidies as opposed to handouts for the poor. Adam Kay has nailed it, privatisation is a sham. It costs around £15 000 to deliver a child in the private sector, but when something goes wrong they use public resources. Let’s call it public theft by private means that enrich the already wealthy. That makes me mad. I’m not laughing.

Rangers 2—3 Celtic

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It all went as planned – kinda. Ten-man Celtic won the league and we didn’t need a Murdo McLeod rocket to set up a championship party. The big talking point before the game was no Dorus de Vries and Scott Bain in goals. There was a sense of jubilation about this. I’ve never seen Scott Bain play in goals, but having seen Dorus was enough. That was a good start for Celtic and a bad start for Celtic. Two absolute howlers from Dedryck Boyata the first of which Josh Windass pounced on after all of three minutes had the Ibrox hoard believing. An absolute classic from Tom Rogic restored parity and then another Keystone Cops moment with Morelo holding off Boyata to allow Daniel Candeias to score from six yards had Rangers looking as if they would have a half time lead. Moussa Dembele, despite the Keystone Cop’s defending, had the last laugh, rolling Cardoso and slotting home.   And at the end, the very end, when ten-man Celtic looked like holding out and Alfredo Morelo – once more—contrived to miss from four yards and Bain smothered the mishit on the line, well we might well have put up a statue of Bain, but de Vries is statuesque enough for us to be going on with.

If Boyata was having the howlers of all howlers, Jozo Simunovic was having his usual test of invisibility scrutinised. Usually, it’s him wearing the dunce’s hat at the back. He kept it simple here, putting his first pass out for a shy and, ten minutes into the second half, raising an elbow up to Morelo’s face and getting sent off. It was an easy decision for Willie Colum to make, everything up to then had favoured the home team. The sending off was no different, at best a yellow card. He flashed red. Rangers are at their weakest when they have to attack, because quite simply, they don’t have the quality players for it. Celtic bring on their third-choice striker  Odsonne Edouard and he comes up with the goods to make it 3-2 with twenty minutes remaining. Rangers huffed and puffed, but never looked like scoring, until that miss. There’s no defence for that Celtic defence. Rip it up and start again, the league is over and I too was cheering when I heard we’d Rangers in the Scottish. A boggy Hampden park will suit Rangers better and if Celtic give them gift-wrapped goals then sure the Gers can win. But, really, all those stupid pundits, Rangers are miles behind.

Maggy van Eijk (2018) Remember This When You’re Sad.


I don’t know Maggy van Eijk, but I’ve read her poetry on ABCtales. It’s memorable because it’s amazing. But don’t ask me to tell you the names of any of her poems. Often I can’t remember my own name. What stands out is her loopy ability to juxtapose two images that makes sense. I’d like to give you an example, but I can’t be arsed looking. I had her down at one of those exotic younger women that had pretty much everything and jam on top. Remember This When You’re Sad’suggests that I wasn’t looking very hard. I wasn’t looking very closely. I don’t know what I’m talking about. Well, that makes sense.  Most of us don’t, even when we do.

I hate that ‘brave’ description, but like the wee drawings. Maggy isn’t brave, but she’s honest. If you can’t tell me how it is honestly then you can just fuck off.  I won’t read your work and I won’t ‘like’ your page. Maggy tells us that by 2030 one in four of us will experience mental health problems. I’m pleased with that because that means I’ll still be alive in 2030.

I didn’t read Remember When You’re Sad in one go. I nibbled at it, a couple of pages at a time. It reminded me a bit of Christine Hamill’s B is for Breast Cancer. I also remember Hamill’s prototype on ABCtales Harry Hill, something or other, that metamorphosed into The Best Medicine.  I claim credit for both books because as Maggy reminds us the internet has been created for the singular purpose of telling whopping lies. Instagram pictures of Maggy, for example, out partying and enjoying herself she tells us also show a bandage on her arm where she had cut herself or burned herself with a cigarette. I find that sad.

It also enrages me. Maggy recognises our glorious NHS is underfunded and falling to bits. I’ve long know that there is a pecking order in the NHS as there is any other organisation and mental health is aligned with old-fashioned geriatrics (care of the elderly) where those in medicine that can’t quite cut it in the elected fields of surgery all the way down to the fields of urology, general medicine and paediatrics are all better funded because mental health is where losers go –literally.   Remember This When You’re Sad reminds us that such demarcations are stupid, but the resources attributed to other specialities make it real. There’s no them and us. There’s only us. Humans (and sad Tories).

There are bits of the book I didn’t quite get, but that’s a generation thing. I remember about two years ago in the Horse and Barge somebody said I hadn’t friended them on Facebook. My phone is old fashioned. It doesn’t take pictures. It doesn’t do all that other stuff.  A phone call costs more than my phone.  My response,  who gives a flying fuck about Facebook just about covers that exchange. Maggy tells us she worked for BuzzFeed, she mentions the angst of Instgram, Reddit, blah, blah, blah, that’s just noise to me. Negative noise.

Sometimes as Maggy points out, we all need a holiday from ourselves. I once used that line in a story I wrote. I quite like the bit about Maggy loving dogs. My partners like that about most animals too. I guess it’s an energy thing. I keep my distance. But I like kids because they haven’t got any distance and they’re funny. Maggy tells a story about when she was a cocky thirteen-year old in Oman or some other Gulf State coming back from a teenage party and falling backwards into the pool in her party dress. It would be foolish to declare that’s when it started to go wrong or right, because it’s not a morality problem, it’s not a mental health or medical problem, it’s just life, in the raw. Remember that when you’re sad. Honesty is truth. Maggy’s got that cornered.  I wish her well.

George Saunders (2017) Lincoln in the Bardo.

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Usually, I know what I’m going to say, although I’m not quite sure how I’m going to say it. I guess I’ll start with the author, George Saunders. He’s won a stack of awards and a litany of  writers—Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Thomas Pynchon, Jennifer Egan, Junot Diaz, Lorrie Moore, Hairi Kunzru and Tobias Wolff—are stacked like library cards to testify to his originality and brilliance.

I find Saunders hard work. And I don’t like reading to be work, because I read for pleasure. I’m shallow that way. I did kinda enjoy Lincoln in the Bardo or I wouldn’t have finished the 343 pages and the bit about the author afterwards telling you how brilliant he is.

343 pages sounds a lot, a hefty tome. But if I skim through the book from the back and get to chapter LIV this is how it reads.

Had we—had we done it?

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It seemed that perhaps we had.

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That’s a chapter finished. hans vollman and roger bevin iii are ‘shades, immaterial’. There is different shades of meaning and understanding as there as shades of ghosts. They enter President Abraham Lincoln’s body and brain to remind him that he still had the key for the white stone house, the crypt, where his twelve-year-old son lies dead and he’s no longer sure if he locked it or left it open. Doubt is the key.

The voices of demons and angels are heard and heaven and hell are present in each shade. The reverend everly thomas reaches the gates of heaven and goes inside to await judgement. He has two companions with him. One wearing a pair of swimming trunks is asked to speak honestly about his life by a Christ-like figure and his heart is weighed.  There is rejoicing throughout heaven and angels sing as he is found to be one of the elect. His companion’s heart is a shrivelled thing and demons come to collect their due. When the reverend’s heart is weighed, there is a dull note and he runs from that place, expecting to be pursued, but is not and expecting to understand, but does not. He only knows his existence is marked by the boundary fence of the graveyard and he must rest in his ‘sickbox’, his body, during the day and at night he may roam, mingle and intermingle with other shades. None can be forced from that place seems to be a rule, but they must voluntarily give up that existence. Their going is marked by a state of bliss and unravelling of self into what was, is and would have been, each person existing as the shade of a multiverse.

Their staying –or overstaying – such as Willie’s refusal to move on because his father the President said he’d come back to visit causes an unpleasant stink and allows demons to enter and wrap the shade to the spot. Willie, quite simply, is in the Bardo and he should have moved on to heaven. His pure soul staying is a catalyst for change. I’m not sure if that makes sense.

Juxtaposed with the voices and backstories of the various shades inhabiting the graveyard are other voices, commentators on the social scene and what President Lincoln is doing, or not doing, or should be doing. Their voices mirror the voices of the shades, often contradicting each other and petty and vindictive as the modern-day media.

Chapter XLVII, for example, reads.

Young Willie Lincoln was laid to rest on the day that the causality lists from the Union victory at Fort Donelson were publicly posted, an event that caused a great shock among the public at that time, the cost of life being unprecedented thus far in the war.

In ‘Setting the Record Straight: Memoir, Error and Evasion,’ by Jason Tumm, “Journal of American History.

The details of the losses were communicated to the President even as young Willie lay under embalmment.

Inverness, ibid.

More than a thousand troops on both sides were killed and three times that number wounded. It was ‘a most bloody fight,’ a young Union soldier told his father, so devastating to his company that despite the victory he remained ‘sad, lonely and down-hearted.’ Only seven out of the eighty-five men in his unit survived.

Goodwin, ibid.

President Lincoln’s loss of his son is magnified a thousand fold, his grief mirrored by thousands of others and yet it is and can only be a private affair. Whatever way the President turns in public or private he will be found wanting.

I guess I’m found wanting too. I don’t hold with the elitist nonsense and with what W.B. Yeats termed ‘the fascination with the difficult’. But in quoting Yeats I align myself with somebody well known and give myself kudos. The truth is if I’d picked up this book and read a few pages and didn’t know the author I’d have put it down and left it unread. Saunders’s added value and the weight of other author’s praise made me read on. That’s shades of shallowness in anyone’s language. But equally in another multiverse if an unknown had presented this same book to publishers I doubt without the publicity and heft of positive praise associated with Saunders’s name that it would have been published. Read on.


Alan Warner (1995) Morvern Callar

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In my smug way I thought I’d read  Morvern Caller before and been unimpressed. I vaguely remembered a film of Alan Warner’s book starring Ewan McGregor. I was reading an interview director Lynne Ramsay gave to The Observer. I had another look at the book and realised I hadn’t read it, there was no film with Ewan or any other McGregor and I loved it’s in your face style. It’s the kind of people I know. Quite simply, Morvern Caller talks like us.

She doesn’t say no, she says ‘nut’. And the opening it a cracker.

‘He’d cut his throat with a knife…’

‘He was bare and dead face down on the scullery lino with blood round. The Christmas tree lights were on then off. You could change the speed those ones flashed at…’

‘I started greeting on account of all those presents under our tree and Him dead. Useless little presents always made me sad.’

She’s not sad because her boyfriend has killed himself. Later we get the backstory. He was twenty-one, she was sixteen, but working in the local store since thirteen for a few extra bob. He bought her the biggest box of chocolates. We don’t find out his name. He’s left an unpublished novel and tells Morvern to send it away so he can be someone in the afterlife. Morvern is a smart girl, He’s got his own place and bit of cash. She sends it away but puts her own name on it as the novice novelist. It’s accepted and Morvern is to get an advance on the book. A more pressing matter for Morvern is what to do with the body. She doesn’t do anything. Steps around at and goes to work in the superstore, one of the few employers in the small Scottish town that’s not seasonal.

‘For the sake of something to do I tided away all the presents for Him, Red Hanna, Vanessa the Depresser and Lanna.’

Here’s the main characters. Listen to their names. It tells you everything you need to know. Red Hanna is Morvern’s stepdad and her girlfriend is Vanessa the Depresser. You don’t need to say who is she?  Her name tells you. Lanna is the one that Morvern is closest to, physically and emotionally. They’re about the same age, work in the superstore and after work go to dance together at The Mantrap, which is, you’ve guessed,  a local dive. All the guys fancy Morvern because she’s beautiful, like an angel, but Lanna isn’t bad either, although both plot their lives around working out how bad they can be and how far they can stretch their bodies in the little hole in which they live.   They get absolutely blitzed when the can and make the most of their life. But Morvern doesn’t tell Lanna about Him. She was going to, but never. Nut. She chops up his body and hides it on the surrounding hills.

There’s a cleave in Morvern and Lanna’s friendship. She’s also got a secret, but it’s just a wee thing compared to Morvern’s secret.

Studded throughout the book is track-listings compilation tapes of music that Morvern uses to pick her up and help her like booze does to get through the day and live a life. Morvern’s twenty-one and wants something from life, she’s just not sure what. I guess you could call it a coming of age novel, but who gives a fuck? It’s a brilliant first time book. All I can say is well done you.