Swing Time – Zadie Smith

This is an incredible book: well plotted, rich, wise and gripping.

It’s the story of the first three or four decades of the life of the unnamed narrator, a black girl from Willesden Green, and her relationship with close childhood friend Tracey, her Mum and the people she meets in her job as a personal assistant to Aimee, a Madonna style superstar.

Both the narrator and Tracey adore dance as young girls and are inseparable, but have very different lives as they grow up. Tracey tries to become a dancer, getting bit-parts in shows but never really making it, ending up a bitter single Mum with four kids and no money. The narrator doesn’t follow her dancing dream, goes to university and ends up working as a personal assistant to Aimee, flying around the world to make Aimee’s life easier and, in particular in the book, to an unnamed country in Africa where Aimee is paying for a new school to be built, Bono philanthropy-style.

Apart from the great writing and characters, to whom there is real depth and complexity, the book explores some strong and clear themes:

Class. Both Tracey and the narrator grow up on the same estate, but one of them stays there and the other leaves. Are they still the same class, of different? Tracey certainly thinks the narrator has changed and got posh. The narrator’s Mum saw Tracey’s family as a different class in the first place. Maybe they were never the same, or class is not the only determinant of life chances.

Upbringing. Whereas Tracey’s Dad was in prison and often missing, the narrator’s Mum is an aspiring intellectual and politician. Not always focused on her daughter, she inculcated a sense of interest and broad aspiration in the narrator that Tracey never had. Hence she went to university while Tracey stayed in Willesden.

Race. the narrator and her family are black, as is Tracey, which is a source of discrimination in her younger years. When she spends time in Africa with Aimee, though, the whole question of race, belonging, nationality and ancestry becomes pertinent. The narrator feels English and is perceived as such, and her experiences there make her question her identity in new ways.

Ambition. There’s a nice contrast between Tracey and the narrator. Encouraged by her Mum, Tracey follows her dream of being a dancer, but ultimately fails and has nothing to fall back on. The narrator doesn’t follow her dream but instead gets a broader education and drifts a bit, leading to more success. Contrasted with the super ambitious and successful Aimee, both are an example of what most people will do.

Early adulthood. What the book does really well, I think, is capture the lack of awareness of self and others people often have in early adult years. The narrator drifts through university without really making the most of it, stumbles across a job with Aimee and fails to notice how ill her Mum is.


“And after all, if a family can grow all its food for free off a piece of land which is no more than a family’s fair share of the land surface of its country, and have some produce left over for other people, and still have time to do other work, it is in a very sound position and nobody can say that it is not pulling its weight.” 

John Seymour, Fat of the Land

Ian McRay’s Writings on Psychogeography: vol 1

To be frank I’ve never fully understood what psychogeography means, but Ian McRay’s collection of his writings helps.

This small book contains exerts from his books and longer articles. It largely focuses on the areas of East London, especially Dalston, though covers London more widely and branches out to rural New Forest in the final chapter.

Psychogeography is the exploration of the way that geography – the city and buildings in particular – shape the way we think. It comes originally from the ideas and actions of Debord and the Situationists in 1960s Paris. It offers a way to critically analyse the city and a way to get a different perspective on the consumerism and conformism it reinforces.

At the heart of psychogeography is the ‘derive’ – a walk without purpose, spontaneous, that allows you to see things you wouldn’t normally see, defy the consumption and homogenous behaviour the city inspires, and transgress the private property rules that abound.

Some of this book is just history on a super micro level, but it also mixes in the critical theory of Walter Benjamin and extensive discussions of dance culture and how that challenged the norms of work-leisure time and building usage, but struggles to do so know as the mass media and the city appropriate the radicalism of dance and youth culture in order to commodify and control it. In this way it’s sociology, anthropology, history, critical theory and more.

In doing this McRay highlights a range of phenomena I’ve not noticed before, most interestingly I think about Radio 1. He points out that Radio 1 plays a role in containing youth, insofar as it constantly reinforces serious work time – Monday to Friday afternoon – and party time at the weekend, encouraging people to party but only at the right times for the good of social order – a clear contrast with the dance culture of rave.

The book also contains a fantastically erudite put-down (of a work called Transborderline)!

“This is bargain basement radicalism that reveals the paucity of meaningful ideas at the heart of so much contemporary art. As the art critic Peter Fuller once warned, ideas alone do not make great art, and this isn’t even a very good idea.”

The honest melancholy of Sian Hughes’s The Missing

This is poetry unadorned and raw. It hardly feels like you’re reading verse, so different is Sian Hughes’ collection The Missing from common views of poetry as flowery or difficult.

Rather than dealing in similes and metaphors, Hughes’ writing is direct, almost prose-like if it weren’t so effective. In just a few short lines of everyday language she can nail descriptions and encapsulate emotions.

Like the evocative Fireworks on Ward 4C, so vivid you can picture the scene and almost feel the disappointed desire and sadness in the room:

The lights are out in the playroom
where gathered at the windows
on flimsy metal legs a small crowd
of saline drips and monitors
send out quiet illuminations
in response to the distant trees.

Only the rockets reach us here.
A series of explosions at ground level
do no more than colour the sky dark green
as we wait for the next high-pitched yell
to descend into a whining thump
and a spray of pink and yellow stars.

The themes of the collection are around the death of a child, grief, soured and dysfunctional relationships. Many of the poems have glimmers of humour, but what is strongest throughout is an honest melancholy.

This, from the most famous poem in the collection, The Send-Off, for example, which documents the death of a baby:

No, you don’t need a bottle, cuddle,
special rabbit, teddy, bit of cloth.

You don’t even need to close your eyes.
They were born that way, sealed shut.

You are a hard lesson to learn,
soft though you are, and transparent.

There’s a mark on your forehead –
the simple flaw that separates
the living from the dead.

It looks like I dropped you downstairs.
I didn’t. I promise. It was like this:

somebody did some counting
and when they added you up

they found one part of you didn’t match.
It’s supposed to come out even.

Grief is the thing with feathers – Max Porter

Grief is the thing with feathers is astonishing: part poem, part novel, part collection of aphorisms; it is funny, intensely sad and wise at the same time.

It’s a simple set up, describing how a father and his two young sons cope – or not – with the death of the much loved wife and mother. It alternates between the perspective of the Dad and the Boys, with short often poetic descriptions of episodes or feelings, taking them chronologically from the early days to reflections many years later.

What the approach reveals are some stark truths about loss, the often very different perceptions of the Dad and the boys of the same things, but also the closeness that the three of them feel for one another despite the hard experiences of loss they are going through.

That alone would be enough, but what gives the work an extra dimension is the appearance of a human size crow which comes to live with them after her death.

Crow is part of the father’s imagination and, it seems, represents grief. Crow is a foil, a practical joker, an ear, a guide, a protector and much more to the Dad. Crow does all those complex things that grief does and, because the feeling of grief seems so solid and tangible and immovable, the recalcitrant presence of a wild bird seems fitting.

Why a crow specifically? In part I assume because a crow, with its viciousness and wildness and blackness, is a fine representation of grief (a murder of crows is, after all, the collective noun). But also because the Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar. If I knew Hughes’ writing better I would, I guess, have seen countless references throughout Porter’s book.

And Crow is funny. The boys’ passages often lighten the mood, but not as much as crow’s. He is crude, cruel and a joker some of the time. After a few years the Dad has sex with someone for the first time since the wife died, for example. It’s a tender section, very poignant and raw, but then ends with Crow… ‘When I came down Crow was on the sofa impersonating me pumping and groaning.’

This is a short book with nearly every page containing some insight into love and loss. It is the kind of book to read more than once, to keep coming back to for more.

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is a fantastic story about Richard, a young office worker who, because of a random act of kindness, slips into ‘Under London’, a parallel world that exists in the sewers and underground where all the misfits and weirdness of London has fallen.
Part steampunk, part mystery, part straight-out fantasy, this is a fun and readable story.

The plot centres on Richard who, after helping a girl on the street called Door who is able to create and unlock doors to different worlds, falls into Under London. They embark on a voyage to help door find justice for the death of her family and, through the journey, meet a host of people and creatures and visit amazing places: Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar the assassins, the Marquis of Carabas, Old Bailey the bird, the angel called Angel Islington, Hunter, former protector of the Atlantis, the floating market …

The book compares, interestingly, with China Mievelle’s Unlundun, which also uses the device of an underside to London. Both are fantastical, and both use the ordinariness of the person from London to explore the strangeness. of its other. Both are clever books, with Gaiman’s perhaps a little straighter – both in the sense that it’s not quite as wacky, and in the sense that it has fewer obvious critical theory references.

That said, there’s a brilliant line from Door in Neverwhere, hinting at the way there is even an excess of time:

There are little bubbles of of time in London, where things and places stay the same … There’s a lot of time in London, and it has to go somewhere – it doesn’t all get used up at once.

How to be both – Ali Smith

Read July 2015
As always it’s easy and hard to read Ali Smith – easy as her writing style is no natural and flowing, hard because it’s unconventional and doesn’t always follow standard punctuation and patterns.
Anyway this book was great. Part I focuses on the 15th century artist who was largely unknown and had a mixed sense of gender, and looks at what it is to be an artist and to find your way in the world. Part 2 is about a teenage daughter of an academic / activist who is trying to find her way after her mothers death, whilst discovering whether or not she is gay. 
I found the second story most gripping because the dialogue and the insight into the daughter’s mind is powerful. The earlier story was tougher going, it actually makes a lot more sense and you see new elements having read the second one.

Capital – John Lanchester

john lanchester

Read September 2014

Like other Capitals (Marx, Picketty) this is massive and, in fact, left-leaning in its politics. It’s described as a state-of-the-nation novel and a London-novel in its blurb and reviews. Written in 2012, it touches on the big issues facing Britain – and London in particular – in 2008, as the financial crash was about to happen: house prices, the banking industry, debt and consumerism, legal and illegal immigration, terrorism, Islamophobia and work.

It’s a story about the people living on, or connected to, one street in London – Pepys Road – and how their lives pan out. There are no main characters; instead, it’s a book about roughly 15 people: a Senegalese footballer, a banker and his family, an artist, a Polish builder, a Hungarian nanny, a Pakistani family and so on.

By telling the individual, occasionally overlapping, story of each of these characters what we don’t get, I think, is a depth of feeling for any of them: there isn’t enough time to tell each person’s complex story in-depth, so you come away not caring for all the characters and not having explored them at a level you might like to. And, I’m not sure about this, but there’s an occasional feeling that their characterisation is so thin that you’re really reading stereotypes (the banker who’s got in too deep, the immigrant who wants to work and have a better life, the artist who knows how to play the anti-consumerism game, and so on).

But, even if you don’t get the depth, what you do get with this broad range of characters is a great cross-section of the London that this book is about; we see the fate of the super-rich and the struggling immigrant, the old and the young, and so on. It’s this, and the way it tackles Britain’s biggest topics, that makes it an astute – and very readable – state-of-the-nation novel.

Un Lun Dun – China Mieville


Read Feb 2014

An incredibly imaginative story of a girl who discovers an alternative London populated by  bizarre people and creatures. She ends up helping save Un Lun Dun from an evil smog that is trying up destroy it. What’s fantastic about the book is it’s creations and it’s imaginative ideas. It’s fun to read and very intelligent with references to post-structuralism, language and philosophy at various points. But it does lack characters you can identify with and care about. And in the end the plot is a girl reluctantly saves the world from an evil genius.

Sarah Waters – The Little Stranger


Read February 2014

The story of rural post war England, an aristocratic family in a large house and estate, and a doctor whose family had once worked as servants in the house. The doctor visits the house and become more and more involved with the family, who are struggling to keep things together as England becomes less easy for the aristocracy. The house, though, appears to have some kind of malevolent spirit that is tormenting the people there. First the brother goes mad and leaves, then the mother is tormented and eventually commits suicide, and in the end the woman (Caroline) who the doctor is to marry dies too. It becomes gradually clear that the ‘little stranger’ is a dark part of the doctor that is obsessed with the house and the family and gradually destroys them.

It’s an incredibly well written book, very well placed, more gripping than tense exactly. The characters are incredibly well described, and as people have said, it’s the house that it is in fact the central character in the book.