Sunday 21 June 2015


What a wonderful problem to have! Books are piling up on the wee table beside my bed, waiting to be read, while others, written by friends and recently published, are due to arrive soon.

I often feel intimidated by people who imagine, quite justifiably, that I might be well read. You’d think that as a writer I’d have all the classics filed away in my memory banks, yet nothing could be further from the truth. I read all the time, but I do it slowly, for a few precious minutes in bed, before I take Lady Dog for her morning walk.

If a book is really gripping me, I will stay awake at night to read it, but more often my sleepy brain is too addled to absorb literature of any kind. Instead I grab a Guardian Weekend magazine and read of restaurants, pop-psychology, fashion and modern culture, reconnecting in some way with the London life I left behind in 1989.

There is nothing that compares to the feeling of being engaged in a good book: the excitement of returning to a unique fictional world. While I’m passionate about film, the book is invariably better than the movie (with the notable exception of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, a good book turned into a masterpiece on screen.)

When I first encountered my teacher and friend Iris Leal in 1986, she asked what I was reading and screamed with horror when I spoke the words: “Stephen King.”

She demanded I read the great Russian writers and Thomas Mann and a host of others. She bought me a copy of Gabriel García Márquez One Hundred Years of Solitude, which opened my eyes to magic realism, and then she ordered me to read Anna Karenina.

What Iris didn’t realise was that her well-intentioned exhortations were serving only to reinforce dark feelings of inadequacy that were pummelled into me at Public School. It was there, in my teens, that I decided the great works of literature were beyond me. 

When you’ve been told you’re thick often enough, you start to believe it, but nothing was going to rob me of the joy of reading.

Devouring Enid Blyton’s stories in the 1960s, read by torchlight under the bedcovers after lights out, I was hooked. Having consumed every word of every book in her Secret Seven series, l moved on to the Famous Five, then the thrilling leap to Alan Garner’s magical adventures in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath and Elidor.

Always within my arm’s reach, read scores of times inbetween all the other books of childhood, was Stephen Fennimore’s Bush Holiday, an utterly thrilling story about a young lad taken to the Australian outback to live on a ranch.

Looking back now I believe that book led me to the life I live today. The sense of adventure and glorious freedom I experienced vicariously through its pages burned bridges in my mind, leaving in tatters synapses that led to security.
I wanted to live on the edge; exist by my wits. 

Next I was moved by Bound for Glory, Woody Guthrie’s great biography about his life on the road during America’s Great Depression. My middle class sensibilities were so happy for him when, at one point in his story, after half-starving himself and being beaten up, he had the chance to stay in a warm cosy house, have a bath and eat a good meal.

I remember gasping out loud in shock when instead he chose to walk away from that house, because the air inside smelled stagnant.

Couldn't he have had the bath and meal and then left?
Was this what being true to your ideals meant? Turning your back on comfort to live by your own rules?

I still find that book astonishing, as I do my other two American heroes. Not the great Faulkner nor F. Scott Fitzgerald for me, but rather the dirty realism of Charles Bukowski, whose abhorrent language and attitudes attract me for their honesty. Unashamedly shocking, brutal and hilarious, you don’t have to like Bukowski but his writing cuts through the crap like nobody else.

Far from Bukowski’s verbal beatings comes my beloved Richard Brautigan, who writes the prose of a stoned poet, using words gently and subtly, while offering great wisdom shrouded in humour.

So contrasting in styles, both of these American writers offer a stark honesty that I find irresistible.

Inbetween these extreme pillars of my bookshelf, I add Galway’s own great Walter Macken, who’s centenary was recently celebrated in the streets of the west of the city.

No other writer has enlightened me more about Irish history or shown me such images of the culture and darkness that pervaded back in the days of oppression. 

Macken’s voice booms and whispers with the comfortable authority of a man in his own world. It is both a tragedy and a travesty that much of his work is now out of print.

So what should I read next? Inspired by Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning I was starting to read Cider with Rosie, but then Dalooney lent me The Narrow Road To The Deep South, Richard Flanagan’s heart-wrenching Booker Prize winner.

As yet I have not started my friend Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond (Stinging Fly), published this summer to great acclaim from high places. Claire-Louise has that most extraordinary of gifts: her own literary voice, so I look forward to immersing myself in her unique world of words.

Then I’ll read my good friend Helen Falconer’s cracking new book,The Changeling, (Random House), followed by Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha In The Attic, which the Snapper loved.
After all that I’ll escape once again to Tudor London with C.J. Sansom’s latest Shardlake novel.

I feared that E-books and Kindles were going to kill the printed book, but going by recent upturns in both retail bookshop sales and the pile beside my bed, the book is not only surviving, it’s thriving!

©Charlie Adley

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