Signed up for the Nantucket Sleigh-ride

The Leviathan

Verdict first: yes, I shall read Moby Dick. Based on the first 53 pages I’m happy to be press-ganged by Herman Melville into joining his narrator on his maritime peregrinations in pursuit of the Leviathan. Having taken against the diversionary second chapter in The Master and Margarita, I could be accused of inconsistency for loving the first 20 pages of this book that were extracts from other writings about whales. I revelled in them though because, far from being diversionary, they established from the beginning the mystique and terrible might of Ishmael’s chosen adversary on the High Seas.

I have chosen the word ‘chosen’ carefully, for Ishmael tells us early on that he is over qualified to be a sailor before the yardarm. He chooses to go to sea. We join him as he sets out for Nantucket Island,* where the whalers are, breaking his journey with an overnight stop in New Bedford.

Melville’s writing here is spellbinding as he describes Ishmael’s first evening when he is searching for cheap lodging. I loved the casually inserted aphorism that ‘A purse is but a rag unless you have something in it’. This leads into riff on money: ‘… considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven, Ah! How cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition’*.

Ishmael secures a shared bed for the night in The Spouter Inn, and in a scene written alternately with humour and terror he introduces the perturbing figure of Queequeg the harpooner, whose tomahawk lay in the bed ‘as if it were a hatchet-faced baby.’

Next morning, after watching Queequeg wash and shake himself ‘all over like a Newfoundland dog fresh from the water’ Ishmael walks through the town in the ‘murky light of that darkened doleful day’ and visits a church. Melville reproduces on the page examples of the marble tablets that commemorate whalers lost at sea*.  Thus, we are persuaded by the powerful ebb tide of Melville’s prose to drop everything and follow Ishmael on his perilous adventure*.

  1. Surely “Call me Ishmael” is one of the most well-known first sentences in literature. It is also an instructive lesson in the use of the vocative comma. “Call me, Ishmael” would have started a completely different book.
  2. Coincidence 1: I have recently finished reading the draft of a non-fiction book for a friend. It’s an ambitious project structured around his return journey from Kidderminster to Kazakhstan as a truck driver. Chris graduated from university with a first-class degree in French. Despite his over-qualification he followed his childhood dream to be an international truck driver.
  3. Ishmael is already well-travelled when we meet him. Melville reinforces this economically when Ishmael describes June 21st as, ‘The longest day of the year in our hemisphere.’ I can’t think of many better examples of the creative writing teacher’s exhortation to “show, don’t tell”.
  4. Coincidence 2: Chris’s book concludes with a proposition that humankind’s survival will only be possible in a money-free society.
  5. Coincidence 3: Another writer friend, Bruce, is currently working on a project inspired by a marble tablet on the wall of a church. Something eerie is happening here.
  6. I was asked in a quiz recently, “In which occupation was a Nantucket Sleigh-ride a danger of the work.” It happens when, having harpooned your whale from a flimsy boat, you are towed behind it at unimaginable speeds until its injuries cause it to tire. One of the marble tablets depicted on page 52 of my copy of Moby Dick is dedicated to, ‘One of the boats’ crews of The Ship Eliza who were towed out of sight by a whale, on the off-shore ground in the Pacific, December 31st, 1839.’


02 2019

Head Rolling in Moscow

Patriarch’s Ponds, Moscow

It’s my third attempt to read The Master and Margarita. The first sentence: ‘At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriarch’s Ponds’ gives me the feeling of déjà vu all over again. Coincidentally, UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, has recently had her own succession of Groundhog Days, never more so than when she approached the despatch box this week to sell Parliament her version of Brexit for third time*.

The PM addressed the house on Tuesday*. Without any show of shame or remorse, she urged the House to vote for an amendment that junked the deal that she herself negotiated. It was carried and now she goes back to Brussels to plead to re-open a contract that she had agreed was non-negotiable.

As I understand it The Master and Margarita was banned in the USSR because it parodied a country in which the government held The Party’s interest above those of the country’s citizens. The situation in the UK where the Tory government has been blatantly acting solely in the interests of the Tory Party is beyond parody.

The ‘foreigner’ arrives

Back in Mikhail Bulgakov’s world, this time I reached the contractual page 53 without too much strain. In the first chapter, two Muscovites sitting on a park bench are visited, in turn, by a wreathly ghost and then a ‘foreigner’ wearing a jockey’s cap who, it seems, foretells the future. They discuss God. The second chapter is a retelling of the Pontius Pilate Bible story. Does this grab you? No, me neither. 

I understand that, later, there will be cat. This, unlike the death of one of the Muscovites, is not foretold by the foreigner. This prefiguring of Berlioz’s death is deftly done: ‘… the glass dazzlingly reflected the broken-up sun which was forever departing from Mikhail Alexandrovich …’ but you have to know that he is going to die for it not to slip by unremarked.

Has what I have read so far persuaded me to carry on? I consider the other projects competing for my attention*. No, not enough has happened. As a reader I crave action. The opening chapter establishes atmosphere which you can get away with if the next one starts with a bang*. 

Had Bulgakov skipped the Pilate story (which added nothing at this early stage in the novel other than to highlight that the novel is unconventional) and led straight into chapter three where (thanks to Andy Miller) I know that a Berlioz’s head does literally roll perhaps this would have persuaded me. But the intrusion of the Bible story – what was that about? No, sorry, life’s too short.

Moby Dick next.

  • Now dubbed ‘Brexshit’ in this house.
  • The previous Monday, THA and I had joined a mass-leafleting of a nearby estate on behalf of the People’s Vote campaign. It’s too little, too late.
  • Writing my WIP, codename Lydia; reading the final draft of my next novel Chinatown; reading a friend’s WIP final draft; and reading Ian McEwan’s The Children Act for our community cinema’s Film of the Book Night. Not to mention time ‘wasted’ on Facebook and Twitter.
  • A head rolling for instance.


02 2019

Life’s Too Short for …

A Proud Nation Again

When you’re nudging 70, time remaining is an unknown that affects the algebra of most decision-making. For instance, AHP* and I have been formulating a Brexit plan around the idea of moving to Scotland. We hope that Brexit will lead to Scottish independence and the new country will join the EU. We went so far as to start looking at properties on the coast near Edinburgh. Then reality kicked in. Life’s too short for that sort of upheaval, making new friends, starting new projects.

But my remaining life should be long enough to improve myself by reading the books that I have let slip by. This thought was triggered by Andy Miller’s book A Year of Reading Dangerously which has inspired me to start on my own version of his List of Betterment. I afford Miller’s book the honour of being in pole position at the start of this project.

Miller’s list started with Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita*. He includes extracts from the book’s beginning that describe a meeting in a Moscow park and a premonition of death. We follow one of the characters out of the park and into the path of a tram. Somehow the man’s head is cut off and rolls into the gutter. Miller writes: Right here is where my life changes direction. This is the moment I resolve to finish the book – a severed  head bouncing across the cobblestones.*

After finishing the book Miller concludes: The secret of The Master and Margarita which seems to speak* to countless people who know nothing about the machinations of early Stalinist dictatorship or the novel’s gestation: words are our transport, our flight and our homecoming in one.

Anthony Aloysius Hancock

Before reaching page 53, Miller introduces his second book, Middlemarch by George Eliot. His critique starts with an extract from an old episode of Hancock’s Half Hour in which our hero from East Cheam is trying to get to grips with a Bertrand Russell tome. He puts it down, exasperated, saying, “No it’s ‘im … he’s a rotten writer. A good writer should be able to put down his thoughts clearly in the simplest terms understandable to everybody.” He turns to another book and studies the cover. “Ah! That’s more like it, Lady, Don’t Fall Backwards.”

Hancock wanted readability* in his books and Miller introduces Middlemarch with Hancock because initially Miller found Eliot’s prose indigestible. However, after biting it off in manageable chunks of 50 pages at a time he learned to love it.

Middlemarch is on my List of Betterment and, when I get round to it, I’ll read it as far as page 53. If it hasn’t by then persuaded me to continue I will not continue. I make this sacrifice, dear reader so that you don’t have to. At the end of each 53-page reading I’ll give each book a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.

Which brings me to page 53 of The Year of Reading Dangerously by which time Miller is introducing us to his next three reads: Post Office by Charles Bukowski, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marks and Friedrich Engels and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. Despite this being the steeply uphill landscape ahead, Miller had already done enough to persuade me that I was in safe hands. Reader, I finished it and gave it a five-star Goodreads review.

A week that started with the blood-red, wolf-moon* and thoughts of sunshine on Leith ended with AHP and I celebrating Burns Night in Stourport. Perhaps we’re unconsciously already preparing ourselves for the move. Who knows?

  1. I have wrestled with myself over what I should call my wife of 33 years. (Married, that is, not age. I should be so lucky.) I have settled on A Higher Power.
  2. I started The Master and Margarita on my daughter’s recommendation about five years ago. My bookmark betrays the fact that I reached page 21 before giving up,
  3. My spine was tingling at this point. What were the chances that Miller’s decision was made on page 53? How eerie would it be? I immediately went to the bookcase and drew down my daughter’s copy. I flicked through to the point where the detached head vaulted the tramlines  … page 60 in her copy. Drats! (But it might have been page 53 in Miller’s edition.)
  4. Earlier Miller had written: Whether it [a book] is great in itself will depend on whether, as you turn the pages, the machine begins to hum; on whether it comes alive and talks to you. At this point I had hugged the book to my chest and voiced undying love not merely for the sentiment but also for the masterly use of a semi-colon.
  5. The 2011 Booker Prize attracted considerable opprobrium from the literary establishment for announcing that ‘readability’ would be one of the key factors when they made their decision. Ex-Poet Laureate Andrew Motion said that the Booker should not become a theatre in which a split is opened up between quality and readability; “That is a pernicious and dangerous thing.” My personal view is that life’s too short to read (or write) the “impenetrable, dark, tricky novels” that one publisher would have preferred to see on the shortlist that year.
  6. There was no way I was going to be levered out of bed at 5am on the off-chance that there would be a clear sky and the moon would be at its bloodest-red. I made the right decision, the West Midlands slumbered on oblivious under a blanket of cloud. The photos from other parts of he world were good, though.


01 2019

Reading inspired writing

In The Year of Reading Dangerously Andy Miller turned a good idea into a brilliant book about his reading life and life in general. Because my memory is poor and I don’t keep a diary, I can see that, were I to embark on a similar project to read and react to good books, it would be the equivalent of a Pilates work-out for my mind.

In the same way as I use Goodreads to remind me of the books I’ve read, so this blog, if I can maintain it, would also create a record, a memoir, that I could reflect on, perhaps.

AHP*, who thinks that anybody who puts their thoughts ‘out there’ is an unmitigated show-off, is likely to condemn the whole idea. ‘If you’re doing it to help your memory,’ she is likely to say, ‘why do you need to go public.’ My only justification is that the gene that makes a writer is tied to one that makes me want to show off through my writing*.

Life is too short to read bad books. But it is also too short to carry on reading a long book for the sake of ticking off a classic on a list. This is why I’m taking my own approach to a list of betterment. I will only continue reading a book if I’m convinced by its first 53 pages. Each week will start with a new book. After seven days I will write a blog about my reaction to it. I will continue reading books that pass the 53-page test.

The project starts with the book that inspired it – one that I did read to the end – The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

  1. A Higher Power. My wife of 33 years. Married that is. Not age – I should be that lucky.
  2. She should allow me this, I hope, since in all other areas of my life I’m cripplingly modest. On second thoughts, she wouldn’t.


01 2019

Why ‘Nudging 70’?

As each year passes after my sixtieth birthday, I’m increasingly aware that the grim reaper is treading in my footsteps. Nearing the close of my seventh decade*, I find myself using the phrase ‘life’s too short’ more often.

Switching metaphors, I’m driving along life’s motorway and a police patrol car has appeared in my rear-view mirror.
I reduce my speed and, until the police officer loses interest in my driving, I’ll check my speedometer regularly to ensure that I’m not passing the national speed limit*. Because, my memory being what it is, unless I check in regularly, when the patrol car signals me to pull over,  I’ll have no idea how I’ve been doing.

Inspired by a book called The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller, (see my Goodreads review here) I will take on challenging books and write about my reaction to their first 53* pages. I hope it will act as a prompt to monitor my driving in life’s two-lane highway – possibly with the occasional excursion into the fast lane.

This is mostly for my benefit but if you’re happy to sit in the back seat, make encouraging noises and never tick me off for my driving, welcome aboard.

  1. ‘Nudging 70’, geddit?
  2. ’Nudging 70′, geddit?
  3. Because I read somewhere that, if a reader decides to give up on a book, on average, the decision is made on page 53.


01 2019