Category Archives: Nicholson, Geoff

The City Under the Skin by Geoff Nicholson

“But there are two kinds of power, as I see it. There’s one kind where you can make other people do what you want. That’s what most civilians think of as power. But there’s another kind, where nobody can make you do anything you don’t want to do.”

Let’s say I heard an audio reading of The City Under the Skin but I missed the part where the author is identified. With that scenario, I would have recognized this book as the work of Geoff Nicholson, one of my favourite British authors. Just to be clear here, I didn’t hear an audio version–I had this book on pre-order the moment I heard there was another Nicholson novel in the pipeline. These days, the author lives in America and maintains a fascinating blog where he explores his fascination with the landscape (urban, ruins, you name it), but back to the darkly humorous novel which has all the classic elements of Nicholson mania–obsessives, collectors, quirky misfit characters and a quest. Throw in cartography, an assassin, urban decay, sinister gentrification, and just a touch of kinkiness and here’s another Nicholsontopia.  

the city under the skinThe main piece of the puzzle in The City Under the Skin is the abduction and subsequent release of young women by some deranged and not particularly talented tattooist.  In another author’s hands, this might turn into a lurid crime novel, but since this is Nicholson, the emphasis is, instead, on the weird.

Zak Webster is the unassuming hero of The City Under the Skin, and as with many of Nicholson’s heroes, there’s a lot more to Zak than meets the eye. Zak is the sole employee of Utopiates, a shop that sells “cartographic antiques–maps, atlases, globes, navigation charts, the occasional mapmaking instrument, folding pillar compasses, snake-eye dividers.” Zak, a cartography expert, is a man whose talents are in low demand; he thinks of himself as “map nerd,” Feeling lucky to have this job and the apartment upstairs that comes with the small salary, Zak fantasizes about being “a curator or custodian of some magnificent, highly specialized, and possibly clandestine map collection.”

Zak steps into the mystery of the tattooed women inadvertently when he is at work in the shop one evening, and a naked woman, covered in rags, appears asking for help:

Her back looked less naked than the rest of her. It was marked with tattoos: wild incomprehensible lines and symbols that Zak first read as a meaningless accumulation of ink, a savage scribbling, and yet there was something compelling about it, something that suggested it wasn’t entirely haphazard. He wasn’t sure, but he thought it might just possibly be a kind of wild ramshackle map, but the glimpse was brief.

Moments later, a “battered metallic-blue Cadillac” stops, a man gets out, shoves the woman in the car, and drives off. The strange scene witnessed by Zak is over in a matter of seconds, and perhaps Zak’s involvement would have gone no further, just another one of those weird things you see in the city, but an intrepid, assertive young woman named Marilyn also witnessed and photographed the incident.

As he drifted he kept trying to make sense of what he’d just seen, unsure whether there was any “sense” to be made. It was puzzling, but hardly one of the world’s great mysteries. Strange women got into strange cars with strange men at any time of the day or night, every day, every night. People had all kinds of weird stuff tattooed on their backs. People lived incomprehensible and desperate lives. It probably meant nothing: things only meant what you decided they meant. He would probably forget all about it in a day of two.

Zak, is a typical Nicholson hero–a loner who’s liberated from that state of inertia not exactly against his will, but not exactly by choice either. Wanting to impress Marilyn and hopefully get laid in the process, Zak teams with Marilyn to solve the mystery of who is tattooing these women, who is making them disappear from the street, and what the maps, tattooed so badly on their backs, represent.

But The City under the Skin isn’t just about 2 people trying to solve a mystery–it’s also about places in a city slated for “speculative urbanism.” The city is in a state of flux, and those impending changes are the white noise surrounding the mystery of the tattooed women. As the plot unfolds, Nicholson shows us the complex connections between three sets of parallel worlds: the criminal underworld and the surface world of the everyday working people, the worlds of urban decay and gentrification, and the architecture of childhood and the remnants which remain in adulthood. All these worlds co-exist, collide, and merge in The City Under the Skin.

Since this is a Nicholson novel, there are plenty of references to architecture and landscapes seen through the characters who inhabit various spaces. Do the places we live in define us, or do we define those spaces? Ex-con Billy lives in a trailer on a parking lot which is as bland, boring, and anonymous as you can get, but this blankness seems to be intentional. Wrobleski: a sinister real estate developer, crook and map collector lives in a walled compound while retired tattoo artist Rose lives in a “personal museum” stuffed full of tattoo “memorabilia” from a career in Ink. Marilyn, a woman of many talents, and many faces, lives somewhere extraordinary, rather as you’d expect.

The Carnaveral lounge said sixties all right, though it spoke in a stuttering, muted fashion. There were plastic pods and blobs, white egg-shaped chairs, though the plastic had crazed and developed  a yellow patina. On the floor, the carpet showed a pattern of stars and planets, seen through a veil of plaster dust. The walls were decorated with memorabilia that looked authentic enough: tattered flags and banners, portraits of alarmingly youthful-looking astronauts, sections of charred rocket fins and satellite housings. There was a map that Zak, even in his present state, recognized as a lunar landing chart for the Sea of Tranquility, still visible through cracked glass that had developed a thin film of mold.

“You really live here?”

“Sure,” said Marilyn. “A view property.”

“Why?”

“Who needs a reason?”

“Isn’t it like living in a  Kubrick movie?”

“The Shining or 2001?” Marilyn suggested. “Or were you thinking Spartacus?”

While this is a novel about discovering the mystery of the tattooed women, through the various characters we see that The City Under the Skin is also about finding one’s way in life which, after all, comes with no instructions, no landmarks, no maps. And part of making one’s way in life is making choices and decisions, taking a moral stand. Rather interestingly, Zak’s hobby, urban exploration, a seemingly odd activity, proves to be incredibly useful, and again there’s that subtle idea that our lives are defined by incidents that are not random. The novel argues that our lives are maps with one incident leading to another, and pathways are created by recurring patterns. The city that exists under our skin is our personal map, dotted with significant events and experiences that explain, connect and predict our choices.

“Urban exploration: investigating the city, creative trespass, going where I’m not supposed to, getting into abandoned structures, factories, closed-down  hospitals derelict power stations. You know?

“So you spend all your workdays dealing in representations of places, and you spend your free time exploring actual places.”

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Female Ruins by Geoff Nicholson

Another entry in The Year (and a bit) of Geoff Nicholson. This time it’s Female Ruins–also known as the author’s “architecture novel.” I already knew, from Everything and More, that Nicholson had a fascination with buildings, and then there’s his blog of course. But in Female Ruins, Nicholson gets to the heart of the matter with “The Architecture of Impermanence.”

Kelly Howell leads a marginal life working as an under-employed cab driver in the small Suffolk town of Carsham. She receives a call, in the middle of the night, from an American tourist who claims he’s stranded at the train station and needs a taxi to get to his hotel. With expensive luggage and a fancy cane for a damaged leg, Jack Dexter says he’s off-the-beaten-track for a little tourism, and he hires Kelly to be his driver and guide for his two-week holiday. Reluctantly, Kelly agrees–although she’s not particularly comfortable with the arrangement which entails, for one thing, a relationship of sorts, and Kelly, who prefers drunken one-night-stands to soulful exchanges, would rather not have a relationship of any kind whatsoever. Hence the taxi cab job: she can work when she wants and there are no strings attached.

female ruinsWe could call Kelly anti-social–it’s a label that fits this young woman who’s never quite recovered from the life and death of her famous father, Christopher Howell, an enigma, a cult figure of sorts, the “greatest modern English architect never to have built a building” who wrote three books: Watch it Come Up, Buckminster Fuller’s Bedspread, and The Ruins of Pleasure. Kelly’s father died when she was 13, and she remembers that “he seemed desperate to create buildings, real buildings, not just flights of fancy,” but then just how well did she really know the man who was “up and gone” before Kelly’s birth?  Over the years, the stories about the “(disputed) genius” of  “speculative architecture,” and Christopher Howell have become more elaborate, and it’s impossible to pick apart the truth from the myth. His drawings were unique and varied and included “pyramid-shaped buildings, some on stilts, some resting on the ground, or on water, some just floating in space.”

The story was that her father never found a patron, indulgent or otherwise, and since he couldn’t make his ideas concrete, he’d decided to make them as abstract as possible. He became a sort of architectural philosopher, a propagator of ‘speculative architecture’, a genius figure to some, almost a guru to one or two.

Some of the people who appreciated her father’s work said that the impracticality of his ideas, the essential unbuildableness of his buildings, was the whole point. Their beauty, they said, lay in their impracticality, their lavishness, their irony. Some just said they were works of art, poetic inventions. Kelly was very happy with this view.

Other critics said that, even though he’d done his training at the Architectural Association, her father had never really intended or wanted to be an architect. They said his self-assigned role was to act as a sort of philosophical whetstone, someone against whom students and scholars, and even architects, could hone themselves and their ideas, thereby becoming sharper and more cutting edge.

Kelly is still firmly under her father’s shadow, and while she has no aspirations to continue in his footsteps, neither can she decide exactly who she is or what she should do with her life. In some ways, Kelly’s life seems suspended and with a “string of ruined boyfriends,” she’s unable to move forward. She is, in fact, a bit of a female ruin.

Female Ruins is initially structured around Kelly and Dexter’s day trips to various tourist spots. Naturally architecture is rooted in all their sightseeing trips, so they visit some lesser known sites including a church in Dunstan, The House in the Clouds at Thorpeness, ruins at Monkwich, and even a miniature golf course. The trips are interposed with excerpts from essays written by Christopher Howell, which include hints of an unknown life. In one essay, Christopher discusses the destructive urges of  Puritan William Dowsing, and Howell imagines unleashing this destruction on “every cosy English domestic interior.” Another essay discusses “ergotopoeic buildings,“–a style of structure that “reveals its meaning by its look.” One such example is Christopher’s assertion that nuclear power stations should be built “in the shape of giant mushroom clouds.” And here’s an quote from the essay Motel America in which, amongst other things, Christopher discusses Bates Motel & more importantly the philosophy behind the architecture of motels:

As far back as the 1940s, in a more or less deranged article that J. Edgar Hoover wrote for a magazine called the American Nation, he claimed that motels were places where criminals hung out, where illicit sex was freely available and where it was easy to buy drugs. The simple response to this is ‘only if you’re lucky’. But in motels you do have a tendency to get lucky.

I, needless to say, think it has something to do with the moral dimensions of architecture. The best motel architecture looks not merely playful but actually trivial, as though to say this place is unreal, what you get up to here in this fun house doesn’t really count, it’s outside your real life. You won’t be held responsible for what happens here. And so you’re free to have illicit sex, to take drugs, to consume beer and potato crisps in bed, to watch mind-numbing television. You are free to behave like a sleaze.

A couple of superb scenes capture Kelly’s relationship with her mother, a woman whose house is a monument to  “mundanity” which is in total contrast to the “grotty little bedsit” Christopher Howell lived in, in Kennington. The walls were white, and Kelly’s father said he saw them as a “blank canvas.”

He told her he’d started to doodle on the wall beside the bed, a doodle he’d immediately seen as a sort of road map showing a long broad thoroughfare with many junctions and side streets. But then the doodle began to have a life of its own. That first main street led to other roads, to roundabouts, dual carriageways, motorway flyovers and tunnels, and he’d drawn all these in. This had led to the creation of rivers, railways, canals. The map had spread from one wall to two, to three, to four, and it had risen up the ceiling where the separate wall maps had converged around the ceiling rose. From certain angles it resembled an elaborate spider’s web.

He hadn’t drawn every single building in detail but he’d sketched in symbols that might be looked at as strange ground plans: a cinema shaped like a movie camera, a school in the shape of a saxophone, a swimming pool shaped like a brain, a drive-in restaurant in the shape of a coffin. Her father’s tastes did not run to the whimsical and although he had created an imaginary kingdom, there was nothing fey or childlike about it. There was a suicide bridge, and an area of space called ‘Killing Fields.’

Then there were some dark jokes: nuclear reactors positioned next to hospitals, prison for sex offenders that overlooked girls’ schools. There were housing developments that encircled toxic waste sites.

Was Christopher a fraud or an untapped genius ahead of his time? This question gnaws at Kelly, but unfortunately she will never know the answer. Or will she? What if her father did build some incredible building? Would it fulfill Kelly’s expectations or would it be a disappointment?

Female Ruins has an implied underlying poignancy that is absent for Nicholson’s other novels. Yes, this is yet again a story of obsession–a story of the destruction of one man who pursued perfection beyond the practical, but it is also the story of a daughter’s obsession with her father.  Growing up with the myth and unable to shake it out of her head, unresolved daddy issues have left Kelly, a tough, independent character. Nonetheless, she’s a ‘female ruin’ damaged by her father’s absence, underemployed and unable to sustain a meaningful relationship. Will the truth, whatever that is, about her father, liberate Kelly from the chains of memory? Fathers occupy mythological status in the lives of daughters and the toppling of those monumental assumptions doesn’t necessarily solve anything.

Those interested in architecture will pick up more from the novel than I did. There are references to Frank Lloyd Wright and the novel also tips its hat to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Geoff Nicholson seems very comfortable with the subject matter, but then again, he’s a polymath who creates intensely intelligent novels disguised with humour.

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Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson

After reading several novels  written by Geoff Nicholson for  a Year of Geoff Nicholson (which is extending into a Year and a Bit), I’ve thought a great deal about obsession. The driving force behind Nicholson’s characters is obsession in one form or another, and  I’ve begun to wonder if being an obsessive is necessarily a bad thing. After all if nursing an obsession saves you from going around the bend or blowing your brains out, then what’s the problem?

The three main characters in Nicholson’s brilliantly funny novel Bleeding London are all obsessives, all people on a mission for one reason or another. There’s Mick, a bouncer whose stripper girlfriend, Gabby, a hard-as-nails, “taut redhead,” claims she was gang-raped by six men, “in-bred toffs,”  following a performance for a private stag party in London. Armed with a list of names, Mick travels from Sheffield to London on a mission to hunt down the offenders and deliver painful, humiliating punishments. Sounds fairly straightforward, right?

Bleeding LondonThen there’s Judy who works in a bookshop and is obsessed with having sex in every London location possible. She has a map hanging on her wall marked for each event, and after quizzing each of her lovers, she creates their maps of past sexual adventures for comparison. The men in Judy’s life have a range of responses to her enthusiasm for sexual geography: they find her hobby exciting, erotic, and puzzling. Judy relentlessly pursues her obsession, and yet at the same time feels an emptiness. No wonder she calls late night radio chat shows to discuss her sex life.

Then there’s Stuart who founded a walking tour business called The London Walker. Business was limp at first until Stuart met and married Anita. She’s transformed the business into a phenomenal success, but in the process Stuart has become superfluous. Anita calls Stuart’s tours  “a little recherché,” and he’s eventually moved to a management position while Anita creates London walks designed to appeal to tourists.

At first he continued to lead walks. But Anita had been right. His knowledge of London was detailed and profound, his love of it real, yet as the years went by he had an increasing distaste for the obvious. He genuinely wanted to reveal London to the people who came on the tours but he was bored with its more obvious features. He wanted to show its eccentricities and unknown quarters. Rather than take them to the Tower of London he’d have preferred to take them to the abandoned Severndroog Castle near Oxleas wood. For Stuart it increasingly wasn’t enough to tell a few old anecdotes and point out a few sights and locations. He felt the truth was more profound in the obscure corners than in the grand sweeps. And on a good day he would find these corners, even while ostensibly showing the punters the more orthodox aspects of London. His tours became increasingly abstract, free form, improvised, often turning into a sort of mystery tour. A crowd that had signed up for a canal walk might be treated instead to a tour of sites connected with leprosy. There were a few complaints, some dissatisfied walkers who demanded their money back.

If pressed to tell the truth, Stuart was happy with his small business, but that’s swept aside by Anita’s drive, efficiency, and emphasis on “cash-flow forecasts.”

For a while he conceived of his consultative role as thinking up new and original ideas for tours, but this was not an area where novelty and ingenuity were particularly welcomed. The Henry VIII walk and the Jack the Ripper Walk were always likely to do better business than Stuart’s fancier inventions such as the Thomas Middleton Walk, the Post-Modernist Walk, the Anarchists’ Walk. In fact it was a guide in her first week with the company who came up with the idea of the London Lesbian Walk, which for a while was one of the most popular tours.

Driven to despair and a feeling of uselessness, he falls into an affair that is now over. Depressed and withdrawn, Stuart, decides that he needs a “Big Idea” as a “reason for being.”

Once it had arrived there was an inevitability about it, something undeniable. he was sitting in the coffee bar of the Museum of Transport in Covent Garden thinking how much he disliked buses and tubes when the idea finally struck, and the moment it was there he couldn’t see why it had been so long coming. It felt so completely right. What he had to do was utterly clear. He was going to walk down every street in London.

Armed with a A-Z book of London, Stuart takes off every morning exploring London in a way he’s never explored it before, and we get some of the stranger less-well known episodes of the history of London with an emphasis on sexual tourism.  Naturally, since this is a Geoff Nicholson novel, all three characters, each with a different version of London, collide with tangled connections of sexual obsession. Bleeding London is a very funny book with Mick delivering his creative, humiliating punishments to the men on his hit-list, Judy trying to find meaning in her life by plotting geographical markers of sexual encounters, and poor Stuart who is dazzled and amazed by London even as he realises that it’s a city that is greater than a sum of its parts. Once again Nicholson explores the pathology of obsession in this story of characters whose raison d’être is obsession–characters who finally understand that obsession, a harsh exacting mistress, can never be satisfied. Once down that rabbit hole, you’re a goner.

Geoff Nicholson, by the way, has a blog called The Hollywood Walker.  Which makes perfect sense if you think about it.

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Everything and More by Geoff Nicholson

Another entry in my Year of Geoff Nicholson project, and this time it’s Everything and More–a Nicholson novel I loved for its originality and sheer compressed scope–you’ll see what I mean later. The novel, with a few minor exceptions, is set inside Haden Brothers, a vast, seemingly endless London department store (“including 12 different eateries,“) designed as a replica of Brueghel’s Tower of Babel & built in the 1930s by “maverick visionary” Edward Zander, the architect who mysteriously disappeared once the project was completed.

However, Zander’s building has few of the rhythms, repetitions or classical form of its supposed model. Rather it suggests a series of multiple codings, elements of Russian Constructivism, Italian Renaissance and stuccoed Baroque. It is decked, as though at random, with crenellated parapets, pantile roofs, ogee arches, steel balconies, oriel windows and flying buttresses. Carved into the fabric of the building are angels, putti and mythological beasts. There are gargoyles, caryatids, mosaics, expanses of Moorish tiling and some magnificent stained glass. Zander had envisioned a menagerie on the ninth floor and wanted the whole building to be painted blood red, but he was talked out of these schemes.

 This story is the perfect vehicle for Nicholson’s frequent themes of collection and obsession, for after all, doesn’t shopping encompass both of these neurotic pastimes? And what better place for the compulsive shopper to hang out than Haden Brothers–the 400 department emporium that boasts that it sells “everything and more,” where shopping is an experience rather than a mundane activity.

everything and moreEnter two eager job seekers: Vita Carlisle and would-be artist Charlie Mayhew. Charlie applies for a job because he’s an unwelcome guest sleeping on the sofa of the only friend who’s still talking to him. Vita has a boarding school & university background along with an impressive resume, and while her determination to work at Haden Brothers seems a little odd, her professionalism and apparent fanaticism about the workings of the sprawling shopping metropolis really can’t be faulted or penetrated. Vita could obviously do a lot better than Haden Brothers, but she insists that she’s in love with the place and working there is her dream. Both Charlie and Vita are employed on the spot by Derek Snell, who’s officially head of personnel and unofficially, the pimp for the reclusive owner of Haden Brothers, Arnold, the last of the line. Arnold lives in the penthouse suite, accessible by a private lift, on the very top of the Haden Brothers building, and he hasn’t stepped into the outside world for years. Derek Snell, a rather sleazy character, has an eye for the sort of women his boss prefers, and since he is, in essence, the pimp for the king of Haden Brothers, he has a position of some power:

Derek Snell was no fashion victim, or at least he had been victimized in about 1975 and had never entirely recovered. He wore a brown Viyella suit with wide lapels and deep turn-ups, a chunky knitted wool tie, a shirt with a flapping collar and a pattern of tiny veteran car motifs. He was a toothy, slim-chinned man, about forty-five with a lot of gingery hair that curled round his head like a tarnished halo.

Vita becomes part of the so-called Flying Squad–a sort of troubleshooter, and here she is in the toy department with “raw, lean, adrenalin-driven, toy buyer,” Carl:

On Vita’s first day in the department he took her aside and told her, ‘We sell a lot of merchandise here on the basis that we’re educating the little fucks, stimulating their imaginations, fostering hand-eye coordination, that kind of crap. The truth is, what we’re struggling to do here is sedate and socialize a generation of would-be Adolf Hitlers.’

Vita looked at him uncertainly but still managed a smile.

‘The thing to remember is this,’ Laughton continued, ‘all children are thugs, fascists and megalomaniacs. There was a time when they wanted scaled-down versions of the real world; toy animals, toy soldiers, dolls, building blocks to make miniature cities. Then they pulled the eyes out of the animals, tore the dolls limb from limb, massacred the soldiers, razed the cities.

‘These days, they play with computer games, and they can play at destroying whole life forms, whole planets and galaxies. They take to it like ducks to water. It all comes perfectly naturally to them. And they genuinely believe that when they grow up they’ll be able to do all this stuff for real. But when they do grow up they discover, with one or two important exceptions, that they don’t get to blow things up at all, and that really hurts them. It’s a discovery nobody ever quite recovers from. I know I haven’t.

‘That’s why toys are so attractive to adults, why they carry so much nostalgia with them, because they remind us of a time when we were power-mad, conscienceless dictators.’

While Vita moves from department to department as part of the elite Flying Squad, poor Charlie becomes a furniture porter. The subliminal messages piped out over the sound system geared to make shoppers and employees alike behave don’t seem to work on the porters who take the example of their subversive leader, Anton, and spend most of their time devising elaborate ways of not working. This means hiding when there’s work to be done, spending hours quibbling over payroll deductions in the accounting office and engaging in “extravagant pilfering.” What’s so interesting is that Vita is involved in the day-to-day activities of ensuring that Haden Brothers runs smoothly, while Charlie becomes snared in the subversive shadow life of Haden Brothers, the bomb threats, the mysterious graffiti that appears periodically on the shop’s windows, the hidden, fully operating miniature railway, and the secret passages down deep in the basement. Only the Head of Security, Ray Chalmers seems to recognize that there are elements undermining the efficient day-to-day operations of the huge department store, and since everyone connected with Haden Brothers seems to lose all sense of proportion, Chalmers declares war on the subversives:

I’m not trying to say that it’s like Vietnam out there, but in a sense it is. It’s a jungle. The enemy’s hard to spot. The terrain is difficult and we don’t always get the backing we need. There are goons. There are traitors and double agents. There are men from our side who’ve abandoned discipline and gone native. At least in Nam they were allowed to use defoliant, napalm, cluster bombing. I wish we could do that at Haden  Brothers. That would shake the buggers up, flush them out so they could be punished with loads of prejudice.

The newest furniture porter seems like a suspicious character to Chalmers. After all, what’s his first name?

Initially Charlie isn’t thrilled with his job, but over time he becomes entranced with the fabulous exotic extravagance of the building as he begins to note “strange faces and African masks carved into the woodwork, wrought iron archways with swastikas and pentagrams, staircase finials that looked like simple spheres but turned out to be intricately carved globes of the world.”

While on the surface, Haden Brothers is a monument to shopping and materialism, there’s a lot of peculiar goings on, and Charlie begins to be aware of just what some of those peculiarities are even as the unfathomable Vita becomes increasingly involved in the surface management.  One of my favourite scenes takes place when a customer lodges a complaint and is summarily whisked off to a seductive paradise hidden away in the secret corners of Haden Brothers. And here, in exotic hypnotic luxury, the half-dazed customer, is grilled:

He wanted to be cooperative  but he was too entranced by the room in which he now found himself. The carp pool was undoubtedly the most imposing and unexpected feature, but then he had not been expecting the Persian tapestries either, not the ornamental fountain, not the parakeets on their perches, not the bejeweled mirrors and tables and fireplace, not the ornately carved golden couches on to one of which he was now being guided. It was impossible to sit on these with any degree of formality and he found himself lying back, reclining like some Roman hero.

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Still Life with Volkswagens by Geoff Nicholson

“You don’t think there’s something eye-catching about jack-boots, Nazi uniforms, death’s head insignia?’

Another entry in my Year of Geoff Nicholson, and this time it’s the second volume of the author’s Volkswagen trilogy: Still Life with Volkswagens. This follows Street Sleeper, and there are so many repeat characters with continued history that readers should begin with the first book and then read on. In Street Sleeper, Barry Osgathorpe aka Ishmael, the Zen Road Warrior, bought a battered old VW Beetle, dumped his long-suffering girlfriend, Debby, and took to the road to ‘find himself.’ Along the way he met Fat Les, a VW mechanic, who converted Barry’s junker into Enlightenment, a loaded Beetle that is the envy of those who see this gleaming machine, and together with Enlightenment, Ishmael had many adventures and met the woman of his dreams–even if the feeling wasn’t mutual.

still life with VolkswagensBack to Still Life with Volkswagens which finds Barry (yes, back to plain old Barry) dossing in a caravan in Yorkshire. His short-lived days of adventures are over, and Enlightenment is permanently parked and covered due mainly to Barry’s current obsession about the planet, greenhouse gases and global warming. He’s considering forming a club called the Green Beetles for those committed to never driving their cars:

They may clean and polish them once in a while, even sit in them from time to time with their friends and families. The important thing is; they will never drive them. They will leave their cars parked next to their house or caravan, never start the engines, never pollute mother earth with their deadly fumes.

Debby is still in Barry’s life, and she’d still like to travel a bit but Barry defensively argues that he “never want[s] to go anywhere or do anything.” Problems begin for Barry when Volkswagens mysteriously begin exploding all over England, and banking scion Carlton Bax, the world’s “foremost Volkswagen collector[s]” goes missing. Involved whether he likes it or not, Barry is forced to abandon his inertia. Not only is Barry a prime suspect for both crimes, but the love of his life, Marilyn, now a weather-presenter on television, reappears in Barry’s life and begs for his help. Marilyn suspects that her father, Charles Lederer, recently released from a mental asylum may be responsible  for the war against Volkswagens and the disappearance of her lover, Carlton Bax. (If you’ve read Street Sleeper, you’ll remember both Marilyn and Charles Lederer, and it’ll also make sense to you why Lederer hates Volkswagens).

Since author Geoff Nicholson developed some many great characters in Street Sleeper, it’s wonderful to see them back for the second part of this trilogy. After all, why waste characters by only using them once? So Fat Les reappears–now the proud owner of a “clean and flawless Volkswagen emporium” near Southend. It’s in this building, an “exhilarating piece of Odeon-style seaside deco” called  ‘Fat Volkz Inc,’ that Fat Les runs his very lucrative VW business.  According to humorless Detective Inspector Cheryl Bronte, Fat Les is yet another suspect in the disappearance of Carlton Bax. Also making a re-appearance is Marilyn’s nymphomaniac mum, Mrs. Lederer who gets her “revenge”  on her neglectful husband by offering her body to cab drivers which is a bit difficult when a man she mistakes for a cab driver is driving a custom Beetle.

Add to this crazy list, Phelan, a sicko, cunning neo-Nazi who likes to be whipped (amongst other things) by leather-clad dominatrix Renata Caswell (who also appeared in Street Sleeper). Phelan’s master plan is to organize a gang of yobos or as he describes them: “A band of supermen, roaming this great country of ours in chariots of fire, by which I mean Volkswagen Beetles.”

Naturally Still Life with Volkswagens is full of Nicholson’s brand of dark humour. Here’s Barry having a conversation of sorts with Phelan:

“You’re like me Barry. You look at all these people and what do you see? Do you see your equals? Do you see creatures made in god’s image? I don’t think so Barry. I think you see a lot of useless clutter. Don’t you think a lot of that clutter could be tidied away?”

“I’ve never thought about it,” Barry says.

“Oh, I think you have,” Phelan says insinuatingly. “Haven’t you ever thought to yourself that the world would be a much better place if only there were more people like you in it?”

“I suppose so.”

“I’m here to tell you Barry that there are more people like you in the world than you might think.

Take a drive around the M25 Barry. What traits are displayed by your fellow man? Aggression, selfishness, bad temper, competitiveness, madness brought on by stress. that’s not what the world ought be like, is it?”

“No,” Barry admits.

“When Adolf Hitler conceived of the idea of the autobahn that’s not what he had in mind at all. He saw long straight fast motorways uncluttered by riff raff and deviants.”

“What?” says Barry.

“You’re a good citizen, aren’t you Barry? You’re law-abiding, moral, politically middle of the road, not sexually or socially deviant. You’re male and you’re white.”

“Well, to an extent,” Barry stutters.

“Why deny it Barry? Why be ashamed? You don’t want the world left in the hands of extremists and perverts, do you? Of course you don’t. In your heart of heart you’re just like me, just like us. You know Hitler was right.”

“About motorways?”

In this tale of the battle of ‘good’ vs. the forces of evil, Geoff Nicholson’s humour knows no taboos, so he’s just as ready to poke fun at neo-nazis as he is at any type of extremism–be it perversion, obsession and collectors (all favourite themes for this author), so it should come as no great surprise that while the book includes a fair amount of trivia about Volkswagens, somehow or another, various Volkswagen drivers and collectors are mentioned: Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Hitler and even the Fabulous Elvis also find their way into these pages. And for anyone who plans to scream in outrage at the very idea, let me say that Nicholson’s black humour diminishes Manson and Hitler into the pathetic, sick human beings they were, empowered by people misguided enough to sign on for their madness (and no I’m not comparing Manson to Hitler. They just both happen to appear in the book). Who knew so many weirdos were attracted to Volkswagens, and what does that say about me? Oh never mind.

Not only does the author show some of the weirder aspects of the Volkswagen enthusiasts, but by interjecting fact into his fiction (there’s even a bit of the author’s own life in these pages), somehow the craziness blends, and neo-Nazis of the Apocalypse and Volkswagens exploding nationwide just don’t seem that far-fetched:

Manson starts to live out more of his fantasies. He sets up a production line behind the Spahn Ranch, which he calls the Devil’s Dune Buggy Shop. Volkswagens are stolen from town, taken to the ranch, stripped down, converted into vehicles of the Apocalypse. Some of them can be bartered for drugs and weapons, and he hopes they’ll be useful in some of his other fantasies, like kidnapping busloads of schoolgirls, raiding a military arsenal, murdering a few rich pigs.

Pride of the fleet is Manson’s own command vehicle. It is one Hell of a dune buggy. It looks both futuristic and ancient. There is a ‘magic sword’ sheathed in the steering column. locks of human hair tied around the roll bar, a sleeping platform, armour plate, a machine gun mounting, a fur canopy. It has been recently resprayed, then desert sand thrown onto the paint while still wet, to form a kind of camouflage.

When the whole shooting match is over, this Command Vehicle will be displayed at a car show in Pomona, California, and get a lot of admiring attention from the custom Volkswagen fraternity.

Charles Manson Family Dune buggy graveyard Spahn Ranch Dec. 27, 2011 Santa Susana Pass Road

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The Errol Flynn Novel by Geoff Nicholson

We both deserved more, something more difficult, more special. How much do you know about sadomasochism?”

Another entry in my Year of Geoff Nicholson, and if you didn’t know already, it’s Geoff’s 60th birthday next month. This read-a-thon is a way for me to say ‘thanks’ to one of my favourite authors who’s given me a lot of laughs over the last few years. Always grateful to authors who make me laugh and if they throw a little obsession and perversion into the mix, well so much the better, right?

the errol flynn novelThis time, I’m writing about The Errol Flynn Novel, a book I first read a few years ago and a book that was rather difficult to track down at the time. I loved it and immediately recommended it to several people who didn’t like it at all. So take that as a warning for what it’s worth. One of the complaints I read about the book is that it isn’t really about Errol Flynn. Actually, while that isn’t strictly true, I can see why this book, in common with other Nicholson novels didn’t get the right audience. Other readers appear to be offended by what is written about Errol Flynn. Well you can’t please all the people, etc., so suffice to know that I thoroughly enjoyed this strange tale.

So what’s it about?

The story concerns a failed actor named Jake who’s all but given up the idea of ever making the big time. This explains why he’s working in a photocopying shop when the story opens. Jake admits that he “wanted excitement, drama, money, love” so this is one of those ‘be-careful-what-you-wish-for’ scenarios. By the novel’s conclusion, Jake has far more excitement than he wants, lots of drama and some strange sexual encounters. Shortly after the novel begins, Sacha, an attractive girl from Jake’s drama school days walks into the shop. She’s making a career out of edgy art films, and Jake is initially not thrilled to see her as his loser life is in stark contrast to her acting career which seems to be a series of good moves. Jake is then rather surprised by Sacha’s offer to introduce Jake to Dan Ryan, an American who’s making a film about the life of Errol Flynn. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and if Jake weren’t so desperate to have that elusive acting career, he’d probably have smelled a rat at this very first meeting:

“Look,” Ryan continued, “this is not going to be an expensive movie. we’re only talking about a few million dollars or so. Okay, that means we won’t be hiring Robert Redford, but it also means we can be free in a way Hollywood never dreamed of. We can be outrageous. We have the freedom to be weird. It’s important that you know what kind of director I am, Jake. I’m not a David Lean. I’m sure as hell no Dickie Attenborough. I’m more Andy Warhol meets David Lynch meets Peter Greenaway. Is that okay by you?”

“That’s fine by me,” I said.

” And look, in the end it may not be a movie about Errol Flynn at all, not the Errol Flynn who actually lived. It may be about ontology and iconography, and sensuality, and fame, and myth, and, of course, death. And you know what it’s going to be called? The Errol Flynn Movie.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d be a bit nervous about that speech–a speech which rather uncannily is a mirror image of the novel itself. Jake certainly is a little uncomfortable with Ryan, but he’s also never been in a film before. Perhaps all directors are nuts. While his concerns are mostly silenced by a large cheque, Jake does have the wit, however, to ask to see the script. There isn’t one. Well, at least not yet, but Ryan’s harried, slightly neurotic wife, Tina is desperately trying to produce one. To Jake’s astonishment, he lands the leading role, and armed with Errol Flynn’s biography, film stills, videos, recording and a gossip mag, he begins to ‘discover’ the man he’s supposed to portray in the film.

Naturally since this is a Geoff Nicholson novel, things go downhill from here. Ryan not only wants to make a film about Errol Flynn’s life, but he seems determined to live parts of it. As the film is made, things spiral increasingly out of control until… well … until they devolve completely.

One of the frequent themes in Nicholson’s novel is obsession, so in The Errol Flynn Novel, we see a multi-layered obsession with Errol Flynn. Director Dan Ryan is so obsessed with the exploits of this iconic star  whose life is wrapped in myth, scandal and rumour, and Ryan wants to make the ultimate film, an ‘interpretation ‘of Flynn’s life, yet where does fact and fiction end? And where are the demarcations of reality and fiction in Ryan’s head? Can Ryan be so gregarious, such a larger than life personality that his actions mask  … insanity?

Throughout the making of the film, Jake of course must act and dress like Errol Flynn, so this involves no small number of costumes and feats of daring (which are very funny if you’re not Jake). Jake has researched his subject, and so the novel is full of Errol Flynn trivia as well as Jake’s inevitable comparisons with his own pathetic life.

No don’t get me wrong. I’m not some sort of sexual inadequate. I have had my fair share of sexual partners, although you could debate whether or not it was a fair share. I am not one of those men who feels he has to make a lot of conquests, and I certainly don’t see why you would want to have sex with someone who didn’t want to have sex with you, and I’m definitely liberal enough to believe that women are entitled to say no and be believed. On the other hand I do wish that rather fewer women had felt free to say no to me over the years than actually have.

Nicholson excels in creating these peculiar situations that spin out-of-control and morph into total whackiness, and in this humorous novel, a film that’s supposed to be a bio-pic of Errol Flynn becomes a formless homage of the very worst aspects of Flynn’s life and a vehicle for Ryan’s obsession. Insane scene after insane scene is shot by a devoted cast while Tina, Ryan’s harried wife attempts to churn out a script. Eventually Jake sniffs that there’s something fishy afoot, but he has no idea just what he’s got himself into….

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Footsucker by Geoff Nicholson

I’m not demanding the full-blown romantic love thing, but in general I don’t think you can love a person just for their feet, much less for their shoes.”

Another entry in my Year of Geoff Nicholson, and this brings me to Footsucker, a novel, which I freely admit, is not for everyone. But first let me say that I knew a footsucker–the correct term being Foot Fetishist, I believe. Yes, it’s true, I knew a man who appeared to be perfectly normal in every way, and yet he managed to get himself arrested for frenziedly sucking women’s toes. In public. Without their permission. Was I shocked or surprised? Well yes, sort of. I’d noticed that he really paid a lot of attention to the feet of women passing by. He always noted painted nails and well-tended feet while I tended to be oblivious. After his arrest, I considered why he hadn’t been able to find a consenting partner, and asked myself if the illicit nature of his obsession was part of the fun. I suppose that knowing that man led me to be very interested in Geoff Nicholson’s novel, Footsucker–because the author really seems to get his facts right, and he could have been writing about the foot fetishist I knew. Not that I’m an expert or anything.

FootsuckerI’ve mentioned before, that Nicholson seems to find obsessives interesting subject matter–curious really as obsessives in real life can be rather boring people–always rabbiting on about the same thing. In Footsucker, the narrator is a man who’s obsessed with women’s feet. When the novel begins, he has organized a nice little scam (again not unlike the true case I just mentioned). He hangs about on the street, looking respectable in a suit and a tie, and pretending to be “attached to a fashion PR company,” he carries a clipboard that is just a prop for the ‘market research’ he professes to gather. In reality, this is a way to stop women, ask them about their shoes, and if he’s lucky, snap a few photos he can drool over later. He often hangs about outside of shoe shops, and most women go along with his little scam until he starts asking whether or not they wear shoes during sex. That question is usually the deal breaker. Then one Friday, he meets Catherine, a tall, attractive American woman wearing an unusual pair of shoes, “spike-heeled, zebra-skins“:

I approached her. She stopped willingly enough and when I asked how many pairs of shoes she had, she said about two hundred and fifty. No doubt my eyes lit up, and I hoped I wasn’t drooling. I asked her what the shoes were like. She said, and I took it down word for word, ‘High heels, peep-toes, ankle straps, a lot of red and black leather, some very soft suede, one or two in silk, some fur mules, some ankle boots, some thigh boots, lots of weird animal skins; you know, your basic set of slut’s shoes.’

I felt like all my Christmases had come at once. When I asked if I could photograph her from the ankles down she was delighted. I squatted down on the pavement and started shooting the zebra-skin shoes. She moved her feet for me, arching them, turning her ankles this way and that, displaying them for me to admire. She really seemed to be getting into it.

This is the beginning of the relationship between the narrator and Catherine, so here we have a foot fetishist and a woman who’s happy to go along with her new boyfriend’s tastes. To the narrator, his wildest fantasies are now fulfilled, and he can finally indulge his sexual preferences with a consenting partner–a woman who happens to have perfect feet. All those scrap books, his video collection, and his own private shoe collection–all hidden from the world up to this point–can finally be shared, appreciated and understood. The narrator even has the great good fortune to meet a shoemaker with a “dark edge to his work”  who specializes in making FM (Fuck-Me) shoes, and this peculiar, grimy, desperate little man, is the second person to become obsessed with Catherine’s feet….

Something strange always happens when sexual fantasies are fulfilled: perhaps a wrinkle is created in the Cosmos as moral boundaries, often invisible until we know we’ve crossed them, shift into unexplored and sometimes uncomfortable territory. While Footsucker is the story of one man’s very specific sexual obsession, there’s an underlying thread which addresses the testing of boundaries and morality and comfort levels. The story is also full of foot trivia as the narrator confides his thoughts to the reader, so we read about various foot shots in many films, the narrator’s views of the deficiency of men’s magazines,  as well as some foot fetishist terminology. Ultimately, however, the story turns out to be a bit of a who-dun-it. But be prepared, there are lots of sex scenes in the book, so you can’t say you haven’t been warned.

One aspect of the novel, and we see this in the title, is that foot fetishists seem to be on the lower end of the totem pole in the fetish world. The narrator doesn’t think that his ‘interest’ is taken seriously, and given the response evoked from a few of the characters in the book, it would seem that the narrator is onto something. His attempts to confide in people usually end in humiliation of one sort or another, and a great part of the book seems to be the narrator’s attempts to claim understanding and acceptance–a paradox as, after all, fetishes are normally kept private. And here’s one response from an uncaring member of the British police force:

I’ve heard it all. And I’ve seen most of it. And as long as no one gets hurt and as long as kids and drugs and animals aren’t involved, then who really cares? Some people want to drink each other’s piss, some want to shove their fists up each other’s backsides. There are blokes out there who like to have their foreskins nailed to the floorboards. Now you and I might think they’re sick, filthy sods who should be taken outside and given a good kicking, but anyway, it’s a free country, isn’t it?

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Hunters and Gatherers by Geoff Nicholson

As he made love to the girl last night he kept feeling that something was missing. Actually, several things were missing–passion, affection, mutual respect–but he could easily live without those.”

Back to my celebration of the works of Geoff Nicholson with his next novel, Hunters and Gatherers, and it’s with this novel that, IMO, the author really begins to hit his stride. Hunters and Gatherers is seriously good Nicholson, and I loved it.

Hunters and gatherersThe characters in Nicholson’s novels are often obsessives of one sort or another, and in Hunters and Gatherers, we find an author, Steve Geddes after a failed marriage and a move to Sheffield, who’s trying to write a book about collectors. There’s an inherent problem with this: while the book is supposed to be a “serious but good-humoured, off-beat, non-fiction work about people who collect things,” Steve has little respect for his subject. He intends to fill the pages with details of “dubious but entertaining eccentrics who had unlikely, bizarre or exceptionally useless collections.” Rather oddly, Steve thinks he’s the “right person” to be writing this book, but the truth is that he’s fundamentally “baffled” by the idea that anyone would want to collect anything:

At bottom I was somehow opposed to the activity. I thought it was a ‘bad thing’. I thought the collecting instinct was a form of grasping covetousness. People owned collections in order to experience the dubious pleasures of ownership. What were these pleasures? What pleasure came from owning, say, ten Fabergé eggs, as opposed to only owning five? Only the pleasure of partially satisfied greed, and it is in the nature of greed that it can never be wholly satisfied.

Then there were all those collections that somehow missed the point. People collect toys that couldn’t be played with, plates that couldn’t be eaten from, jewellery that couldn’t be worn. That was insane. And then there were collections of things peripheral to the activity that caused them to exist. I could see why people might want to go to the theatre or to football matches. I could see why people might go wild about Elvis Presley’s music, but not why they wanted to collect Elvis memorabilia.

So here we have an author writing a book he doesn’t believe in–or I should say trying to write a book he doesn’t believe in. And here’s yet another problem–Steve has accepted a large advance for the book, but although he’s compiled extensive notes, he’s unable to actually write anything. By trying to write this book, in the process, he’s paradoxically become a collector–the very sort of person he doesn’t understand. Is this why he’s mired in a serious case of writer’s block? As Steve pushes onward with his interviews of various eccentric collectors and their bizarre collections, something very strange begins to happen–various collections are mysteriously destroyed or simply disappear. What madness is afoot?

The novel goes back and forth between third person and Steve’s first person narration, and we meet an impressive cast of characters who are all obsessive collectors in one way or another. There’s Victoria who collects lovers, Victoria’s husband who collects cars, a comedian who collects jokes, “England’s foremost collector of and expert on beer cans,” a girl who collects sounds, and Mike who owns the successful, used “flash” car lot, Killer Kars, who collects women’s knickers. In the wake of meeting Victoria, Mike quietly undergoes a crisis of character.

He would say  that he believes in trying most things once, but he now sees how little he has tried. Of course there are all sorts of things he wouldn’t want to try–all the obvious ones that are painful and disgusting, and no doubt a hundred and one other things that people no doubt do but which he can’t even imagine, the sort of thing they get up to in London.

While Mike reexamines his life, his underachiever friend, employee and mobile home dweller Jim, embarks on the collection of knowledge. This rather peculiar, never-ending and somewhat ephemeral quest is inspired by Jim’s passion for a passing encyclopedia saleswoman.  Jim decides that “knowledge is power,” and driven by his desire to impress the rather strange encyclopedia saleswoman, he decides to groom himself for quiz shows and “become a bit of a celebrity.” Jim’s collection of knowledge is soon like any other–insatiable and unstoppable. He ‘invests’ in the set of encyclopedias. To say the entries in The Books of Power, are eccentric and bizarre is a wild understatement. Here are some samples entries for England:

English food: the sandwich, sirloin and pease pudding, spotted dick and custard, fish and chips, cakes and ale.

The English character: reserved. Except at pantomimes,  football matches, wedding receptions, in pubs and clubs, on picket lines, at New Year’s sales, at the bingo, at the seaside, on coach parties

Some famous English obsessions: Ireland, public schools, contempt for the French.

World War One: trenches, appalling casualties but some damn fine poetry

World War Two: the blitz, sleeping in the Underground, VE Day–dancing in the streets. The GIs, over here and all over everybody

Democracy:  chained themselves to railings, that woman who threw herself under a horse.

Steve’s rejection of collections is re-evaluated when he discovers that his all-time favourite author, the extremely reclusive novelist, Thornton McCain, may have written another book that appears to have vanished. Obsessed with discovering the truth (and the missing book,) Steve tries to locate his hero who seems to be everywhere and nowhere.

There are three things to remember about Geoff Nicholson novels:

  1. They’re funny in a very dark humor sort of way
  2. Nicholson does not create normal characters. In fact a great number of them seem to be pervies
  3. Nicholson novels spin and build and appear to go out of control, but that’s just because you can’t seen the hidden, carefully constructed design behind all the madness.

And finally one last quote:

If you want to come here and fuck my wife that’s one thing, but if you do then you have an obligation to make a decent job of it, otherwise piss off and stop wasting everybody’s time.

I’ll be skipping the next Nicholson novel, The Food Chain. I’m a vegan and I’m sure the author will understand why I’m giving this one a pass.

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What We Did On Our Holidays by Geoff Nicholson

Moving along with the third novel in my Year of Geoff Nicholson brings me to What We Did On Our Holidays, a dark, wickedly funny, and nastily subversive novel which follows the trials and tribulations of one man who drags his family off on a tent holiday. What We Did On Our Holidays was actually the first Nicholson novel I ever read, and while I recognised that I’d found a seriously different author, the book also made me a devoted fan.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a weakness for books which depict people on their holidays. There are several reasons for this: Holidays are high stake events, but expectations don’t mesh with reality. Plus close confinement serves to highlight family fractures that perhaps have been deftly avoided or even unnoticed. You could definitely say that middle-aged Eric, our narrator, and the man who plans and organises the family hol, has no idea what he’s in for.

Eric’s 45th birthday is approaching. Wanting to “get off this rat race” for a while, and suffering from “an intense bout of middle-aged angst,” Eric overrules his family’s objections, and books two weeks in a caravan in the Skegness Tralee Carapark and Holiday Centre. Already by page 2, we know that there’s something wrong with Eric. His narrative presentations are somehow off. Here he sounds as though he swallowed the Holiday Centre advertising brochure:

It is a well-designed, attractively appointed, carefully screened, compact site, on level ground, with trees and bushes, sloping gently towards the sea on one side, with small but sylvan hills to the rear. It has outstanding panoramic views and is genuinely picturesque. There are extensive showering and toilet facilities, a site shop, a launderette, a children’s playground, and calor gas supply.

Perhaps Eric is just one of those boring, dull people who never show a spark of life or original thought. He suffers humiliating encounter after humiliating encounter with various characters in and around the holiday camp. Someone let the loonies out, and they’re all there to victimize poor Eric–there’s the psychotic policeman Hollerenshaw who’d like to fit Eric up for every crime that’s occurred in the area, a crooked car-dealer named Honest Iago, a gang of violent bikers, a disaffected shop clerk who’s ready to get violent for better pay, a stuttering bingo caller, and some sexually rapacious acrobatic dwarves. And what is going on with the Garcias in the caravan next door?

Eric may seem to be the meek recipient of constant abuse, but there’s a lot more to Eric than meets the eye. After all, any man whose Joan Crawford obsession is strong enough that he needs to take a coffee table book of his idol on holiday can’t be all bad, right? Perhaps still waters run deep.

I find it fairly hard to say just what Joan had that really hits the spot for me. Of course she was sexy and statuesque, but who wasn’t in those days? of course she had flashing eyes, a finely chiselled nose with flaring nostrils, and a warm, melting mouth. She was distinguished, determined, passionate, perhaps a little haughty. But she had something more than all of these. She had class. She was also something of an icon.

In later years it was revealed that Joan had appeared in blue movies before she got her big break. That didn’t exactly gild the lily but I never held it against her. It only made me feel a deep compassion for her; and it proved,. as if proof were necessary, that above all else Joan was a survivor.

But Eric is not just under assault from the strangers who cross his path–his family is also revolting (deliberate pun). His daughter Sally has turned into a religious maniac, and son Max decides that Skegness is a great place to go primitive. As for Eric’s wife, Kathleen, who packs up 4 suitcases of dirty laundry to take on holiday, she’s the originator of such vomit-worthy dishes as turnip and corned beef flambé, and she’s also a raving nymphomaniac who’s reading a book called Canine Orgasm. Eric calls it pornography, but Kathleen defends the book as erotica. Not that this insatiable woman needs any more ideas on the subject, mind you.

All of Eric’s sorry misadventures are recorded in diary entries. These entries amount to one humiliating encounter after another, but there are also a few lists such as Eric’s “pet hates” and his “political statement.” It’s through these very private lists and diatribes that we see that underneath Eric’s moronic exterior lurks some strange and equally moronic thinking:

Unions are a very good thing if they protect workers’ rights, but a bad thing if they become all militant and subversive.

I think people should be free to walk the streets without being molested by the police, and they should certainly be allowed to sleep in their own caravans, unless of course they’re criminals, in which case the police should go in fast and hard. It doesn’t pay to have a soft police-force. I think most police are doing a good job but there’s always one bad apple and unfortunately I seem to have met him. I’m no fan of capital punishment but how else can you make people see sense?

I think education’s to blame. Everybody’s entitled to an education, but sometimes it seems to me that all we’re doing is educating people to be unhappy with what they’ve got. They all think they’re so bloody clever. And if the State can’t provide a good education then it’s only fair to be able to send your kids to school so long as they don’t turn out a bunch of toffee-nosed snobs and poofs.

While the holiday was designed to bring Eric and his family closer, confinement in the tatty, smelly caravan has the opposite effect. Sally, Max and Kathleen all behave badly and go wild in their own ways. Here’s Eric remonstrating with Max about his behaviour:

“Don’t you see Dad, this is all a sham.”

He gesticulated wildly at me, at Kathleen and Sally, at the caravan, at the world beyond. He picked up his plate, scooped the food in his mouth, licked the plate clean and threw it over his shoulder.

“If rejecting civilisation means an end to good table manners, then it seems a sorry show to me,” I said.

Max roared again. He knocked over the table, snatched up a chair and smashed it against the caravan wall. He started to leave.

“Just where do you think you’re going, young man?”

After some more animal noises he said very distinctly, “I’m going native.”

“In Lincolnshire?” I demanded, incredulous, but it was too late to argue with him. He was already out of the door and disappearing on all fours.

I suppose this wasn’t exactly the effect I’d hoped my little chat would have, and if I had my time again I’d probably be more gentle with him, though frankly I’m still not sure exactly what I did wrong. Kathleen began talking to me again and accused me of being a bully and a home-wrecker, which I hotly denied. Nobody bullies Max these days. Basically I’m sure it will do Max the world of good to get away from the nest for a while, and, if nothing else, at least our little exchange has cleared the air.

These humiliating encounters which always have bad results for Eric typically end with this sort of peculiar non-response, so the last passage will give you a sense of the novel’s tone. This repetition is the novel’s weakness as a normal character wouldn’t take this, and after each anti-climatic encounter, I started to wonder if Eric was heavily medicated, but then again, we are seeing all this through Eric’s eyes, and just how reliable a narrator is he? Author Geoff Nicholson ties all the madness together in a very satisfying and transgressive manner, and by the novel’s conclusion as events spiral out of control, it’s clear that while Eric’s world is a strange, inhospitable place, perhaps Eric’s head is even a worse place to be. I could waffle on about how What We Did On Our Holidays is a subversive exploration of the moral bankruptcy of modern family life, and while that’s true, the book is also a good laugh for anyone who’s been stuck with their family for two miserable holiday-from-hell weeks.

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A Knot Garden by Geoff Nicholson

“Perhaps,” she said, “you think I’m trying to bury my feelings of guilt in a savage bout of loveless promiscuity.”

A Year of Geoff Nicholson continues with his second novel, A Knot Garden, and the reading of this novel just proved, all over again, how this novelist continues to surprise me. A Knot Garden is a mystery novel and it’s told (if I counted correctly) through the eyes of no less than 13 narrators. Now that’s a lot of different voices when you are talking about a novel that comes in at just under 200 pages. Perhaps for some readers that’s too many fragmented POVs, but I throughly enjoyed reading through the minds of these very different narrators who all provide a slightly different look at what is going on here, but first I’m going to back up and talk about Knot Gardens for a moment.

Knot Gardens, for anyone who doesn’t know, are formal gardens of very intricate design. Here’s a photo of one (in the public domain). Yes, quite beautiful and very skillfully done, and it’s also very complex. As for the design…well it’s hard to know where it begins and where it ends.  And this brings me back to Nicholson’s novel which is a literary version of the photo.

A Knot Garden begins with Fantham, the low-rent house detective of a hotel rooting around the room of an apparent sleeping pill suicide, and according to the detective, it’s an “open and shut case.”

It turns out this stiff is called Richard Wisden, and everybody runs around like I’m supposed to have heard of him, which I haven’t. Turns out he’s a gardener. I mean, come on, how many famous gardeners have you heard of? Turns out he’s on the telly a bit, runs a design firm, written a couple of books. Big bleeding deal. So it’s all got to be kept quiet and kept out of the papers. That’s what they tell me and they kept telling me, all of them telling me, the manager, the Old Bill, the PR girl, the doctor, everybody and his uncle. I mean what do they think I’m going to do? Stand outside selling tickets, ‘Step this way and see the famous stiff, two quid a shot’? I mean what do they think I am? An arsehole or what?

Fantham is the perfect character to get this mystery rolling. He’s very happy to move on until Wisden’s attractive and much younger widow, food critic, Libby hires him to dig into the case.

Now Libby Wisden looked the kind of woman I’d be prepared to keep on living for, but then again that might mean she was the kind some poor sod might be prepared to do himself in for. Either way you wouldn’t have picked her out as a grieving widow.

Libby claims that Wisden was supposed to be working on a knot garden in Derbyshire at the time of his death. She wants to know why he didn’t go to Derbyshire and how, instead, he ended up dead in a hotel near Paddington Station. And then again, why did Richard have a cheap plastic child’s ray gun in his suitcase? Libby, who led a completely separate life from her husband, also has some rather naughty photos from the dead man’s camera of a prostitute called Trudi. Fantham takes the 500 quid retainer and later wishes he hadn’t.

But Fantham isn’t the only person Libby contacts. She also asks her female GP (who has a thing for Libby) to travel to Derbyshire to the address where Wisden was supposed to design and build the knot garden, and she also employs Rowntree, an academic to read Wisden’s books The Happy Herbalist, Grand Designs, and A Turn Around the Parsley Patch and give her an opinion about their author. To his surprise, Rowntree discovers that Wisden’s books, full of gardening history and sexual innuendo also include generous allusions to Shakespeare and by the time his work is concluded, Rowntree feels that the real Wisden is indecipherable.

Another narrator is “slave to pleasure,” Basil Shaw–bank officer by day and membership secretary and archivist of the orgiastic Posthumous Society by night. It’s to Basil that Libby turns for information about who participated in orgies with her husband, and she’s prepared to go to any lengths to get the information she seeks. Other narrators include a pudgy, un-employed actor, Wisden’s illegitimate son, David who’s treated by everyone as a half-wit, a woman who worked with Wisden before he became famous, and George Woods, the kinky owner of the Fun Emporium, who claims to be a fan of Wisden and communicates through letters to Libby–initially asking for one of Wisden’s jumpers but eventually demanding a pair of Libby’s dirty knickers.

Lies, stories and various versions of events are knotted together over multiple narratives, and Fantham discovers 13 suicide notes–one plagiarised from Romeo and Juliet and one an exact copy of the note that screenwriter Paul Bern supposedly left for his wife, Jean Harlow. As various people become involved in the unofficial investigation surrounding Wisden’s death, the circumstances, instead of becoming clearer, just become murkier and more convoluted.

Author Geoff Nicholson’s dominant theme is obsession–and it’s a theme that allows plenty of quirky scope and also allows the author to have a great deal of fun playing with his characters. In this novel, obsession is unleashed via Libby’s quest to solve the mystery behind her husband’s apparent suicide, and that quest opens a Pandora’s box of other obsessions: sex, orgies, revenge, a crazed fan, a séance, and the mystery of the knot garden.

I’ll be the first to admit that Nicholson isn’t for everyone and is arguably for those with obscure tastes. For one thing he doesn’t seem to be interested in appealing to the masses, and some of his books, while focusing on various manifestations of obsession, will lose some readers along the way.

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