As David Slack has recently observed, the signs of Christmas are all about us. Festive muzak blares in every shopping mall. The poor and down-trodden roam the streets pushing prams full of Christmas mailers. Turkeys are force-fed to meet their execution deadlines. Fruit ripens on the trees. And each day begins with the smell of sunscreen slathered over my useless Scottish skin.
Christmas, of course, it is the day that Jesus died. Or, quite possibly, the day that he was born -- I'm a little sketchy on the finer details of theology. For me, however, the true meaning of Christmas is the following: alcohol, presents, food, and -- not least -- a few days of decent spino.
Spino, if you have never come across it before, is a very useful noun which describes the art of loafing around (preferably while lying horizontally upon one's spine). It is pronounced to rhyme with rhino, and -- according to Harry Orsman's dictionary -- is a New Zealand dialect word of 1940s origin. During the post-Christmas hiatus you are more-or-less guaranteed to have an interlude of spino when you can do exactly what you want. And, for me, this means indulging in an orgy of reading.
Throughout the year I carefully prepare my list of Christmas spino books. I particularly like to track down those obscure favourite novels that people cite in their autobiographies. I'm also rather partial to the autobiographies themselves, particularly the 'man alone' accounts of light-house keepers and solo sailors (nothing makes Christmas leftovers taste more delicious than reading about starving people adrift in yachts). But the best books are usually recommended to me by librarians. These are usually the scary sort of librarians, who scold you for your ignorance when they see what you're borrowing: "The Maltese Falcon? Have you read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins? Well, why not? I'll hold these books while you go and get it."
I've discovered some of my favourite books during Christmas spino. So I thought -- in the spirit of Christmas giving -- that it would be good to make a top five list: 'Five books I wish I hadn't read, so that I could receive them this Christmas, and read them for the first time all over again'. Perhaps the regular Public Address writers might even consider producing their own lists, and share some of their favourite literary spino for future Christmases.
Guidelines for Christmas Spino Book lists:
• Nothing too well known. Nobody needs to be told that Emma or The Sun also Rises are good books.
• Nothing too worthy. Nobody wants to be made a better person at Christmas. This rule disqualifies any book commonly taught at a university.
• Nothing too depressing. Christmas is already the year's foremost suicide season.
• No two books in the same genre. As every mother knows, reading too much of the same genre at Christmas will lead to cramp.
My own list covers the main Christmas spino varieties: Travel Writing, Children's Literature, Crime Fiction, Collected Essays, and Romance.
1. Travel Writing: An Island to Oneself -- Tom Neale
Strictly speaking, I suppose this isn't so much travel writing as 'staying put' writing. Tom Neale went to live in the uninhabited South Pacific atoll of Suwarrow (a.k.a. Suvarov) in 1952. Anchorage Island, the largest of the Suwarrow group, has a land area of only 0.2 square kilometres. Neale lived there entirely by himself -- in three separate periods of occupation -- for nearly 18 years.
An Island to Oneself covers Neale's first two visits to Suwarrow during which he spent about six years on the island. In the main, the book is simply an account of Neale's daily activities: his cooking, his gardening, his fishing, and his laundry. It sounds astonishingly dull, but actually it's surprisingly compulsive reading. How do you make a vegetable garden when there is no proper soil on your island? What do you do when your dinghy capsizes in a storm and you are miles from land? How do you stay sane during what is effectively years of solitary confinement? The last question is perhaps the most difficult to answer; although I suspect that Neale was turning a little strange on the occasion when he sought friendship with a duck. As he himself admitted: "I can imagine no duller pet."
A duck on a coral atoll is highly unusual; it had probably been blown off-course to Suwarrow during migration. But for some reason -- presumably loneliness -- Neale became quite obsessed with it: "I would not rest content until I had tamed her". He spent months gradually gaining the duck's confidence, tempting it with delicious foods, until eventually it would eat from his hand and follow him around "almost like a dog".
But then the dreams began. At first, they merely involved delicious visions of "thick hunks of bread with butter" [and a] big pot roast of hogget". One night, however, they suddenly took a new and horrifying turn:
No longer did I crave hogget, nor even bread and butter; only one mouth-watering dish. There on a silver platter with, I remember, a highly ornate carving knife and fork, and surrounded by a mound of exotic vegetables, was the wild duck.
I woke up shivering. The impact was as terrifying as if a head waiter had lifted a silver cover to reveal the elaborately cooked head of my best friend. Even though it was the middle of the night I jumped out of bed and rushed down to the beach to await the dawn and make sure the wild duck was still alive.
The dreams continued to torment him for weeks. And gradually Neale's relationship with the duck began to change:
I was now seeing my beloved duck through different eyes. The dream and the reality had somehow treacherously merged. I was horrified to discover that I was now questioning my reluctance to think about cooking the wild duck. After all, I was desperately in need of a change in diet, so surely there could be nothing wrong in simply ensuring my survival. Perhaps my duck might even feel that there was a certain rightness in sacrificing herself to save a friend? Each day those murderous thoughts continued to torment me until one morning the temptation became so great that I almost put my hand around her neck. I was sweating. One twist and she would be ready for the pot.
I should probably warn vegetarians that they may be upset by certain passages in this book. But for those of us who have fantasized about living alone on a tropical island, this is a fantastic read. You can experience the hard work, malnutrition, and loneliness of life on a coral atoll without ever having get up from your hammock.
2. Children's Literature: Minnow on the Say -- Philippa Pearce
The best children's books can be enjoyed by adults as well, and Minnow on the Say has all the essential ingredients for a cracking good read: a river (the Say), a canoe (the Minnow), and a desperate hunt for treasure. Philippa Pearce grew up in the King's Mill House on the River Cam, and the house and its surroundings provide the backdrop for this book -- as they did for Pearce's more famous children's novel Tom's Midnight Garden, which won the Carnegie medal.
Pearce paints a vivid picture of life in an ordinary working family: the bothersome little sister, the much-admired elder brother, and the cruel intolerance of a father who refuses to understand your perfectly rational explanation for losing his wheelbarrow in a river. The story is narrated with a marvellously warm sense of humour; it is much less melancholy than Pearce's other work. One of my favourite passages describes a scene in which the hero of the novel, David Moss, attempts to flag down a bus in an emergency. The bus is driven by his father, who is forbidden to pick up anyone who is not standing at an official bus stop:
Mr. Moss was humming contentedly to himself as he drove round the bend of the road and came within view of the Little Barley Bridge. Then he caught sight of the figure at the side of the road, and the outstretched hand. He assumed, at once, the special, unseeing, cold expression that was necessary in the passing of these would-be boarders of buses. They were no better than pirates; and the drivers of the Castleford and County buses had thought that this piracy was stamped out. No one now attempted it. Yet, here, standing by the Little Barley bridge and far from any bus stop, was another impudent one, due for a lesson.
One of the advantages of being grown-up is that you are big enough to bully children and take their presents away from them. So do yourself a favour, and steal a copy of Minnow on the Say from a small child this Christmas.
3. Crime Fiction: The Long Goodbye -- Raymond Chandler
This book nearly breaks the first guideline of my list, except that it appears to be one of those novels which everyone has heard about, but few have actually read. Shame on you all. Raymond Chandler is one of the great American writers, and should probably be considered in the same class as Faulkner and Hemingway. Certainly he is one of the most imitated authors in modern history. In fact, there is a sense in which all subsequent 'hardboiled' novelists -- from Robert B. Parker to John D. MacDonald, Ed McBain, and Sara Paretsky -- are simply watered-down Chandler.
Chandler was born in the U.S.A., but -- rather surprisingly, given his status as an iconic American writer -- was raised and educated in England, and was actually a naturalized British subject. He studied French in Paris, and German in Munich. Then, following the declaration of the First World War, he enlisted in the Canadian Army and served in France. As you might expect, his war experiences had a huge impact on his subsequent life. He later wrote: "Once you have had to lead a platoon into machine-gun fire, nothing is ever the same again."
After the war Chandler settled in Los Angeles where he embarked on a relationship with Cecilia Pascal. Eventually they became engaged. The youthful-looking Cecilia had originally told Chandler that she was the same age as him, but a few days before their wedding she admitted to being ten years older. Chandler was shocked by the news, and there was talk of calling off the marriage. So it was just as well that Cecilia hadn't told him the whole truth behind her doctored birth certificate -- that actually she was nearly 20 years older. Bummer. In later years, Chandler was mystified by the sudden speed of his wife's aging.
Chandler's subjects and style are so well known that there seems hardly any point in describing what actually happens in The Long Goodbye. But suffice it to say that there are crooked cops, murderers, gangsters, alcoholics, dope doctors, knife-wielding Mexican houseboys, and -- of course -- a femme fatale.
Some people will strongly disagree with my assessment of Raymond Chandler as a great novelist. Sara Paretsky has called him the most misogynist writer in the history of American literature. But I prefer to think that Chandler was simply a product of his time. You can decide for yourself. Here he is describing women with blonde hair in The Long Goodbye:
There are blondes and blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays. All blondes have their points, except perhaps the metallic ones who are as blond as a Zulu under the bleach and as to disposition as soft as a sidewalk. There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters, and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue glare. There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always so very very tired when you take her home. She makes that helpless gesture and has that goddamned headache and you would like to slug her except that you are glad you found out about the headache before you invested too much time and money and hope in her.
There is the soft and willing and alcoholic blonde who doesn't care what she wears as long as it's mink or where she goes as long as it is the Starlight Roof and there is plenty of dry champagne. There is the small perky blonde who is a little pal and wants to pay her own way and is full of sunshine and common sense and knows judo from the ground up and can toss a truck driver over her shoulder without missing more than one sentence out of the editorial in the Saturday Review. There is the pale, pale blonde with anaemia of some non-fatal but incurable kind. She is very languid and very shadowy and she speaks softly out of nowhere and you can't lay a finger on her because in the first place you don't want to and in the second place she is reading The Waste Land or Dante in the original, or Kafka or Kierkegaard or studying Provencal. She adores music and when the New York Philharmonic is playing Hindesmith she can tell you which of the six bass viols came in a quarter of a beat too late. I hear Toscanini can also. That makes two of them.
And lastly there is the gorgeous showpiece who will outlast three kingpin racketeers and then marry a couple of millionaires at a million a head and end up with a pale rose villa at Cap Antibes, an Alfa-Romeo town car complete with pilot and co-pilot, and a stable of shop-worn aristocrats, all of whom she will treat with the affectionate absentmindedness of an elderly duke saying goodnight to his butler.
The blonde across the way was none of these, not even of that kind of world. She was unclassifiable, as remote and clear as mountain water, as elusive as its colour.
4. Collected Essays: The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell: Volumes I, II, III, and IV -- George Orwell
Every household in the world should own this superb set of books. Orwell is justly famous for his excellent, although somewhat dreary novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. But his essays, journalism, and letters reveal a much more appealing personality. Orwell employs a magnificently dry sense of humour to dissect a wide range of topics, such as: The Decline of the English Murder, In Defence of English Cooking, and A Nice Cup of Tea.
Orwell was originally an imperial policeman in Burma, and some of his harrowing experiences in this job are described in the essays A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant. He resigned from his police career after five years' service, and returned to England determined to make a living as a writer. Initially he struggled with this ambition, requiring enormous amounts of effort and numerous revisions to produce articles with which he was only mildly satisfied. But by the end of his life, he had developed a Russell Brown-like ability to dash out pages of wonderfully-written and insightful prose with no apparent exertion. The effortlessness of his style is aptly demonstrated in the opening sentences of his essay Decline of the English Murder.
It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?
Naturally, about a murder. But what kind of murder? If one examines the murders which have given the greatest amount of pleasure to the British public, the murders whose story is known in its general outline to almost everyone and which have been made into novels and rehashed over and over again by the Sunday papers, one finds a fairly strong family resemblance running through the greater number of them. Our great period in murder, our Elizabethan period, so to speak, seems to have been between roughly 1850 and 1925, and the murderers whose reputation has stood the test of time are the following: Dr Palmer of Rugeley, Jack the Ripper, Neill Cream, Mrs Maybrick, Dr Crippen, Seddon, Joseph Smith, Armstrong, and Bywaters and Thompson.
It is interesting to note that Orwell was ahead of his time in terms of analysing popular entertainment as serious art. His essays on Boy's Weeklies and The Art of Donald McGill (McGill was a popular illustrator of seaside postcards) are both entertaining and enlightening. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for some of Orwell's modern imitators. I once attended a seminar which presented a serious literary analysis of letters to Penthouse magazine. It is curious to reflect that we may have George Orwell to thank for this kind of scholarship. Although, I dare say, he would probably have been greatly amused.
5. Romance: I Capture the Castle -- Dodie Smith
It takes a lot of bottle for a bloke to include a romance in his top five list of Christmas spino books. But Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle is nothing short of a masterpiece. For years I was the only person I knew who had read it, and I'd begun to feel as if it were somehow my own private book. Recently, however, it has been made into a movie and all sorts of other people have now come to admire it, which -- quite unreasonably -- makes me rather peevish. J.K. Rowling has even named it as her favourite novel.
Dodie Smith was so enormously talented that she had three different careers as a writer. In the 1930s she was a successful West End playwright. Her play Dear Octopus is regarded as a classic of the period. Then she wrote a series of novels including I Capture the Castle. As an encore she thought she'd try her hand at children's literature. Her first attempt, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, did rather well.
I Capture the Castle is the story of a once-genteel family who live in a slowly disintegrating castle. Their descent into poverty has become so severe that they have sold all their furniture, and are forced to live on donations from their ex-maid's adolescent son. In an attempt to earn money, the eldest daughter announces that she is going to become a street prostitute. When this proves impractical in rural Suffolk, she decides to get married instead. The ensuing events are told through the diary of the family's middle child, Cassandra.
In her four volume autobiography -- which, incidentally, I thoroughly recommend -- Smith describes the agonies she went through in the development of this novel. She suffered terrible bouts of depression, and spent years compulsively re-writing each page -- she once estimated that she had produced at least six versions of every paragraph in the book. But amazingly, none of this anguish is apparent in the final version. It reads as if the prose has simply leapt from her pen. Here is the novel's excellent opening paragraph:
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and the tea-cosy. I can't say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring -- I wrote my very best poem while sitting in the hen-house. Though even that isn't a very good poem. I have decided that my poetry is so bad that I mustn't write any more of it.
If you haven't previously read I Capture the Castle then I would recommend it for the number one spot on your Christmas spino book list. Grab a copy and read it under a shady tree on the first morning of your summer holidays. And enjoy the happy feeling of knowing that your return to work is still days and days away.