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.



Filed under Fiction, Nicholson, Geoff

35 responses to “Hunters and Gatherers by Geoff Nicholson

    • You read London Burning didn’t you? I know your publisher recommended one of Nicholson’s titles, and I think that was it . Will this then be your second Nicholson?

      • Sorry, Guy, only just noticed this. I read Bedlam Burning (if that’s the one you mean) and loved it, though I was rather annoyed as well because I was trying to place a novel with a superficially similar plot twist at the time and found my way blocked by what may be a better novel (OK, is…). Now I’ve read Hunters and Gatherers and I can’t understand why Nicholson isn’t recognised as one of the most interesting novelists around. Intelligent, clever in the best sense, constantly engaging. Compared with some of the pompous, self-regarding fiction produced by white Anglo-Saxon males who occupy pages of our press whenever a new novel comes out (I name no names), his work is an absolute joy to read, and to think about afterwards. Which one next? Any recommendations? (My only complaint about the book was the really dire cover Hodder and Stoughton used for the hardback – a sort of collage I wish I hadn’t had to see…)

  1. Some great quotes here.
    I thought most of his novels are pop, seems this one is not.

  2. Great, now you’ve got me perversely interested in The Food Chain!

    The bitter writer charged with writing something he (usually he) doesn’t want to write seems to be something of a contemporary fixture. This one sounds a bit like Gerald Samper in James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking with… trilogy.

    BTW, I love that cover image for the book.

    • Scott, many of the Nicholsons are rereads. I’ve read The Food Chain and it was my least favourite but I think that is a personal quirk, so I am skipping it. If you’re thinking perverse, hang on for my next Nicholson!

      I’ve heard/seen that trilogy but haven’t read it. Do you recommend it?

      • Guy – I look forward to your upcoming perversity!

        Regarding the Samper trilogy, I’m aware that mixed feelings abound. I had my own doubts with the initial pages, but I laughed throughout, and particularly liked the first book. Then again, I live in San Francisco, where fetishism of food knows no bounds and where a book like Cooking With Fernet Branca, despite its British author and Italian setting, hits some close targets.

        • I remember that trilogy now (after checking on Amazon). I thought it was Non fiction for some reason. I’ve had good luck with Europa titles.
          Speaking of perversity, I typed in ‘cooking with’ to check out the trilogy and common searches came up including ‘cooking with poo.’

  3. Right. I definitely have to dig my copy of this out from that box under the stairs along with any other Nicholson’s I own, your last post on him reminded me how much I liked them and this one has nudged me to get them back onto my TBR pile. 🙂

  4. Brian Joseph

    Great commentary on this book Guy!

    You wrote,

    “Nicholson does not create normal characters. In fact a great number of them seem to be pervies”

    I think that is one of the things that makes reading so fun. Such a proliferations of oddballs and unusual people abound in so many good books.

  5. Lovely opening quote. The writer condemned to write that which he doesn’t care about reminded me of the Coen Brothers’ film Barton Fink, though nothing else does. Still, I liked Barton Fink so always nice to be reminded of it.

    Otherwise, if I go back to Nicholson I’m still not sure it’ll be this one, or at least not for a while, but the collector drive is an interesting topic and Nicholson is good at obsession I have to admit. This does seem his natural territory.

    • It’s my opinion that for some reason, Nicholson has never quite got the right audience. His books are very complex and simultaneously subtle and yet also unsubtle. It’s a curious and difficult blend. I think there’s a definite cult audience for Nicholson but he deserves much more than that. It may possible even be a marketing issue.

      No hurry on picking a title. There’s more to come.

  6. The opening quote sold me. I’m reading it – Never read him before.
    BTW, I’m reading the Nibelungenlied, in (verse) translation of course, and it’s a great read if you’re into that medieval epic stuff…as I am. And fun to read after Fritz’s flick.

    • Thanks for the reading tip. Will check it out. On the film front, I recommend les vampires, A 1915 French silent film series about a gang hunted by a crime reporter. Great fun–nothing too serious

      • I’m reading this now, and finding it very funny, and very clever. He has a knack for making nasty behavior seem hilarious and pathetic. So, if I really like this, would I probably like any of his written after it?

        • Yes, you would. We’re just getting to the good ones, IMO. Bedlam Burning and Everything and More are both top notch. I have a soft spot for The Errol Flynn Story and The Hollywood Dodo

  7. So we’re entering the second year of reading Nicholson. This one sounds great as well. I love the quotes.

    I have to say I don’t understand why people collect things either.

    PS: the cover reminds me of the opening credits of cinema night on the French TV FR3 when I was little. Pairs of eyes replaced one another at a rather high speed on the screen to make the transition between programs and the night film. It scared the hell out of me. So this cover, no way… (

  8. Looks like something to advertise Svengali.

  9. The Books of Power remind me a lot of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas.

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