The Sense Of A Beginning

They say writing is a muscle which needs to be exercised in order to get stronger, and although I’m in the best physical shape I’ve been in for a long time (yay!), my writing muscles feel like slabs of lard. But it’s been silent here too long, and as always, the thing that’s been holding me back from just sitting down and writing a goddamn post is that peculiar inertia of perfectionism which renders the idea of watching all the Grumpy Cat videos an infinitely preferable prospect to the awful possibility of writing something that sucks.

But if you will forgive me for just embracing the suck and getting on with things, I would like to tell you about Julian Barnes’ The Sense Of An Ending. This won the Booker Prize in 2011 and the Guardian review will give you a decent idea of whether it’s the type of novel you’re in the mood for, but I’d caution against expecting too much from it. There is a plot twist so infuriating that I cast the book aside the moment I finished it and stormed out of the room to see if the Internet’s disgruntlement matched my own. Alec (who had read the book just before me and was asleep in bed next to me as I read) later said that even in the mists of sleep, when he heard my angry huff and little stomps, he knew exactly why.

So you’re probably wondering whether, given that Grumpy Cat’s Worst Monday Ever will only take up a few minutes of your crowded life and fill you with immediate joy, this imperfect book is worth bothering with. It is. The writing is fantastic and gave me one of those “How have I spent all these years not reading this author?!” moments, which I haven’t had since discovering Graham Greene many years ago. Even just the first few pages will give you a taste of Barnes’ craft – his descriptions of the protagonist’s boarding school environment include a teacher “whose system of control depended on maintaining sufficient but not excessive boredom”, “a cautious know-nothing [schoolmate] who lacked the inventiveness of true ignorance” and this, which strikes me as an appropriate quote with which to end one year and start another:

We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

Good To Know

From Sour Sweet (Timothy Mo) (Triad leader giving street fighting masterclass to his thugs.):

‘Untrained man’s instinct is to kick this – Golden Target,’ he indicated the 49’s groin. ‘Very difficult to do. In fighting one is always conscious of the need to protect this spot. It is best to attack the groin with your hand – either Dragon fist,’ – he raised the proximal phalangeal joints of his left hand above the knuckles like two horns and executed a short uppercut just short of the 49’s testicles – ‘or grab them and pull. Incapacitates totally…Note: your opponent’s penis lies in front of and protects his testicles. His yang can save him. Deliver the kick like this.’ He tapped the instep of his foot just above the buckle of the crocodile shoe. ‘Drive upward, not forward. Short-range kick. It squashes a man’s testicles against the pubis. No protection. Even better to use knee-ram instead of foot.’

Iron Plank said: ‘Listen carefully. You hear secrets of a master.’

A day gloriously lost

In recent years I’ve decided that messing around on my laptop or on the Internet are the greatest sources of time wastage and indiscipline in my life. Today an old love gave me a gentle reminder that it, too, was a major contender, when I spent 5 hours in just two bookshops, forgot about lunch, and bought 9 books.

I originally had big plans for today. I meant to hit the shops at Covent Garden and revel in complete frivolity. Instead I found myself a slave of that old bookshopping thrill, helplessly drawn to laden shelf after laden shelf as the second last shopping day before Christmas inexorably slipped away.

Six books from Judd Two Books, a second-hand bookshop in Russell Square. The classic Criminal Law textbook by Smith & Hogan was a good buy at half price, and it will hopefully improve my current floundering in the subject. My chronic need to become less ignorant led me to The World Since 1945 and Issues In World Politics. My interest in early humankind nurtured by Jean Auel and Piers Anthony books led me to The Neandertal Enigma. The two other books I bought are meant to be Christmas presents, so I won’t name them, but right now it’s all I can do to keep from hiding them and keeping them for myself.

Three books from Waterstone’s, two again meant to be Christmas presents, but I really really want them! They had a three for two offer, where you could choose three books from the selection and the cheapest would be free, so I chose two books as presents, and got Miss Wyoming (Douglas Coupland’s latest) for myself.

And remember, before all this purchasing came browsing. Leisurely, glorious browsing. A flip through the featured poetry books of the year. A taste of Prague from a travel guide. Another chapter of The Sandman Companion, which I’ve been reading in bits in bookshops but not quite got up the commitment to buy (it’s 14 pounds). The opening of Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which I read every now and then to remind myself of the fact that I must read the whole book some time. The blurbs on a whole row of Stephen Jay Gould books, trying to decide which one to read first if I ever get round to reading him. I have a multitude of must-reads and should-reads neatly categorized and listed in my head, but when I step into a bookshop, it all degenerates into a huge sprawling mess summed up only by I Want.

Words on paper. Such simplicity. Such beauty. Such bastardry. I want my day back.