Christ but it’s awful. Between the more-inappropriate-then-ever exhortations to excessive consumption (“Battery turkey? You tasteless plebeian fiend, simply everyone’s having rare-breed Guinea Fowl with Nigella’s gingerbread-and-rollmop stuffing this year,” fuck off why don’t you, don’t you know there’s a recession on?) and the terrible music everywhere (and how much must it suck to be Jona Lewie? 11 months of the year, nobody knows who you are, then for one month EVERYONE knows EXACTLY who you are, and they all think you’re a cunt), and the pubs being full of godamned amateurs (“Oooh, is it that much for a gin and tonic?” Yes, yes it is, as you’d be well aware if you’d BEEN IN SINCE FUCKING BUDGET NIGHT, and by the way, I’ve been keeping this place going and wearing my own personal arse-groove into that barstool these past 11 months, get out of my FUCKING way and take your novelty waistcoat with you, you nebbish) and…well, you need something to counteract it all. Literature is, as always, your friend, and what you specifically need is some good, bleak stuff you can get morose and gloomy over. And that’s what I plan to give you, good and hard.
1. Martin Amis, Night Train
An unlikely source, Amis Jnr., as he normally leavens even the weightiest subjects with dextrous, scabrous comedy in a perfect mix of the broad-brush and the filigree (some other time, try Money, London Fields and Success for some of the finest comic writing of the 20th century), but this brief yet absorbing novella (partially inspired by David Simon’s Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, The Wire fans) abjures laughs for terse, cold, hard boiled meditations on murder and suicide as responses to being alone in a godless universe.
KEY QUOTE: “You key the mike and you get the squawk that no one wants: Check suspicious odor. I have checked suspicious odors. Suspicious? No. This is blazing crime. Fulminant chemistry of death, on the planet of retards. I’ve seen bodies, dead bodies, in tiled morgues, in cell-blocks, in district lockups, in trunks of cars, in project stairwells, in loading-dock doorways, in tractor-trailer turnarounds, in torched rowhouses, in corner carryouts, in cross alleys, in crawlspaces, and I’ve never seen one that sat with me like the body of Jennifer Rockwell, propped there naked after the act of love and life, saying even this, all this, I leave behind.”
2. Neville Shute, On The Beach
Being Shute’s second most famous novel after the heart-warming, life-affirming A Town Like Alice, it gives me a schadenfreudegasm to think of all the people who followed that work with this one, and what a slap in the psyche they must have experienced. OK, from the outset it’s clear this isn’t going to be a barrel of laughs – the whole premise is that a nuclear war has destroyed the northern hemisphere, and backwoods, distant, late-50s Australia, with it’s colonial, repressed, provincial natives and a few accidental refugees, is the only habitable place left, and that only until the weather brings the poison south – but the sheer relentlessness of it, the way Shute refuses to offer any salvation or escape, just calmly narrates a group of basically decent people’s journey to a horrible, inescapable fate, adds up to one of the most despairing books ever, which will reduce even hardened cynics to tears.
KEY QUOTE: “He undid the little carton and took out the vial. “This is a dummy,” he said. “these aren’t real. Goldie gave it me to show you what to do. You just take one of them with a drink – any kind of drink. Whatever you like best. And then you just lie back, and that’s the end.”
“You mean, you die?” The cigarette was dead between her fingers.
He nodded. “When it gets too bad – it’s the way out.”
“What’s the other pill for?” she whispered.
“That’s a spare,” he said. “I suppose they give it you in case you lose one of them, or funk it.””
You wouldn’t think that a comic book about robot men, psychic superheroes, alien invasions and so forth would fit into this kind of list. You’d be wrong. Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol is full of self-aware post-modern fun with the conventions of the spandex-and-fighting genre, but is bookended by two issues which redefine grim, bleak and pitiless.
4. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Slow, elegaic, fatalistic…a lot of people seemed to miss the point of this book – a quasi-sci-fi tale of clones, bred to provide organs for donation, and doomed to an early and grisly death – asking “why didn’t they rebel and run away?” To me, it’s an extended meditation on the fact that the defining characteristic of humanity is that we don’t run away from our fate, or scream in alarm; whether in Srebrenica, Sobibor or Surbiton, we accept the hand we’re given and make the best we can of it, and support each other down the long, cold, final road.
KEY QUOTE: “Perhaps we’d have been happy if things had stayed that way for a lot longer; if we could have whiled away more afternoons chatting, having sex, reading aloud and drawing. But with the summer drawing to an end, with Tommy getting stronger, and the possibility of notice for his fourth donation growing ever more distinct, we knew we couldn’t keep putting things off indefinitely.”
5. Derek Raymond, I Was Dora Suarez
Any of Raymond’s works would have filled this slot, especially those from the Factory series, pitiless police procedurals that make Ian Rankin at his gloomiest look like an episode of Midsomer Murders. This one edges it (beyond He Died With His Eyes Open and How The Dead Live – yeah, he didn’t mess about disguising the bleakness, old DR) just for the endlessly grim, hopeless, despairing tone, they way even our nameless cop anti-hero can’t kid himself he’s saving the world, he just wants to save some last vestige of his own belief in truth, if it’s – and it probably is – the last thing he does. If you want a thoroughly depressing musical accompaniment for all this, hunt down the author and Gallon Drunk’s part-audiobook, part-soundtrack-to-a-film-that-could-never-be-made album. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
KEY QUOTE: “Writing Suarez broke me; I see that now. I don’t mean that it broke me physically or mentally, although it came near to doing both. But it changed me; it separated out for ever what was living and what was dead. I realised it was doing so at the time, but not fully, and not how, and not at once…I asked for it, though. If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up” – Derek Raymond, The Hidden Files
Confession first: I haven’t seen much Shakespeare.
Lots of people have probably seen less, but they’re probably not very bothered. I feel like I really should have.
I’ve studied English Literature at post-compulsory level off and on for over two decades (although admittedly without getting any meaningful qualification), got to the semi-finals of Mastermind twice, and been quite willing to argue with people about Shakespeare and quote him. I’ve got a sort of Roger Craig type knowledge – I can identify all the most famous quotations, probably even give you a precis of the plots of most of them, but as far as ACTUALLY HAVING SEEN them, on stage or screen, as far as I recall I’ve ticked off:
Midsummer Nights Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Taming Of The Shrew
And that’s it. Maybe they were all bluffing it as well, but I’m sure most of the people I’ve done Eng Lit courses with had seen more than that. Christ, I’ve never even seen Othello, or Merchant Of Venice, or Romeo and Juliet (I got about half an hour into the Baz Luhrman thing before metaphorically putting my foot through the screen and sending him the bill). Romeo and Juliet! There’s undiscovered tribes in Papua New Guinea who’ve seen three versions of Romeo and Juliet, for Christ’s sake. I’m pretty sure I’ve written essays on others not on that list, and got fairly good grades, but I’ve not actually watched them. Maybe excerpts, but not all the way through.
This has to change.
So – and this is basically me muscling in on one of the entries on my wife’s “Things to do before turning 30” list, which gives us a deadline of 4th January 2015 – we’re going to watch it all.
A few ground rules:
1. Only original text versions. Obviously there’s much dispute about what the original text even is, I’m not going to get excessively anal and insist on unabridged first folio versions or something, but no modernised language versions, or “based on an idea by” stuff. There’s some excellent stuff of that nature – I saw a really good Othello update set in the Metropolitan Police with Christopher Ecclestone a few years back, and Neil Gaiman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is pretty damned peerless, but you’ve got to have rules. Start letting Throne Of Blood in and next thing you’re counting Ten Things I Hate About You, and before you know it you’re ticking off Hamlet because the child watched The Fucking Lion King – AGAIN – while you were in the room.
2. The list I’m using is this:
All’s Well That Ends Well
As You Like It
Comedy of Errors
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Measure for Measure
Merchant of Venice
Merry Wives of Windsor
Midsummer Night’s Dream
Much Ado about Nothing
Taming of the Shrew
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Henry IV, Part I
Henry IV, Part II
Henry VI, Part I
Henry VI, Part II
Henry VI, Part III
Antony and Cleopatra
Romeo and Juliet
Timon of Athens
Troilus and Cressida
I know there’s others attributed, but that’s what I’m going with. It seems generally accepted and lets face it the world’s not going to end if I’ve missed one. 3. “Watched” means that. It can be stage or screen, amateur or professional, but it has to be watched, radio versions don’t count. Why this will be of interest to anyone is beyond me, but there it is. We currently have David Tennant’s Hamlet, Al Pacino’s Merchant Of Venice and a Globe version of Othello on the TiVo, any recommendations welcomed but not necessarily followed. BRING ON THE BARD.
Every week, one of our writers will be given five tracks – they could be unsigned, they could be international superstars. Any genre could be included, and the writer gets one week to give their verdict on each song in under 100 words. This week, Nick Duffy takes his turn. If you like what you hear, click on the band names to visit their website, and if you want your music to be included in the future, send an MP3, picture, short bio and link to firstname.lastname@example.org.
SINEAD O’CONNOR – Wolf Is Getting Married
It’s easy to take the piss out of Sinead O’Connor, so let’s get right on with it. “Wolf Is Getting Married” is presumably the first in a series, the next ones being “Wolf Is Getting Unmarried A Few Days Later”, “Wolf Is Tweeting About Bumsex Again” and “Wolf Has Checked In To A Clinic Suffering From Exhaustion”. The song itself is thoroughly meh – take away O’Connor’s admittedly fantastic voice, and it could be any Radio 2-friendly, mid-tempo rock-lite waster. Like Morrissey, she’s far more interesting as an interviewee than an artist these days.
SAM SPARRO – The Shallow End
Likeable enough hipster-friendly disco-funk that never quite gets to the big chorus you feel must be along soon, instead veering off into an ill-advised sax solo (as if there’s such a thing as a sax solo that isn’t ill-advised). Probably destined to soundtrack a few hen parties which think they’re too good for Abba, and the tamer sort of gay bar over the next few months, but unlikely to match the success of “Black And Gold”.
IO SECT – Sneaker
I’m sure the editors put this one in just to watch me make an arse of myself. They know I know bugger all about dance music. That said, I know what I like, and I used to be vaguely up-to-date about a decade and a half ago, which by a happy coincidence seems to be where this lot take their inspiration from – this would have fitted in quite happily between Daft Punk and LTJ Bukem back when I knew where to buy drugs and my knees didn’t hurt when I danced. The Kids – and indeed my kids – will probably think it’s shit, but there you go.
THE KNOCKS – Midnight City
I was liking – honest, I do sometimes like things – this electro’d up cover of the M83 song, which if nothing else, doesn’t have the sax solo which blighted the original. Could easily imagine being driven through a city under the influence of substances and this sounding like the best song EVAR, but then it hit me: guest vocalist Mandy Lee sounds like a combination of Ellie Goulding, and whatsherface from The Cranberries. And there aren’t enough substances in the world to remove that kind of bad taste in the mouth. Shame.
GRAEME CLARK – Kiss Of Life
KIDS! Do you want steamhammer beats clashing with buzzsaw rock guitar? The sound of alienation sliding into euphoria with vodka and amphetamine coursing through it’s veins? The new sound from far out? DO YOU?
Well, better luck next week, because Graeme Clark doesn’t do that. He does earnest, beardy, easy-listening singer-songwriter filth. I daren’t read the press release, because I’m sure at some point it’ll use the words “heartfelt” and “craftsmanship” and I shall be violently sick. Will somebody tell him they stopped making Cold Feet years ago, so they don’t need any more soundtrack for it?