I have absolutely no illusions that I’d last very long. The crabs would be nibbling on my toes in about a month I reckon, so I don’t think the length of the books matters much because I won’t have much time to read them. And I’m not going to waste any time with worthy books I haven’t read but think I ought to. I was toying with Dostoevsky’s The Idiot which I’ve started about three times and never finished but then decided not to be one. So here are five books I know I love, and that I will be able to read even while watching the crabs crawling across the sand towards my emaciated toes. First off a couple to make me laugh.
Fat Chance by Simon Gray
This is a short very funny account by the writer Simon Gray who wrote Cell Mates, the play that Stephen Fry (who was acting one of the main roles) mysteriously vanished from in 1995. The play closed three weeks later. Gray is writing about an event that was a complete catastrophe for him and does so with a great deal of gallows humour (suitable for a desert island!) and some understandable bitterness. It’s like reading the story of a train crash. I read it when I’ve got flu because, firstly, it’s beautifully written and, secondly, it makes me think that however depressed I might be feeling, at least I haven’t got a play on in the West End from which one of my main actors has disappeared.
Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Low Life by Sam Savage
The low life in this case is a rat, which grows up in a second hand bookshop and learns to read. I know it sounds nauseatingly cute but it isn’t. Because I’ve worked in bookselling (one mouse-infested, fungus-growing basement in the Charing Cross Road comes to mind) this has particular appeal. The bookseller in it is a rather despondent fellow and that does match my experience of second hand booksellers. They are an interestingly obsessive, eccentric lot. This book is charming, a celebration of the redemptive power of literature, and is shot through with affection for all those involved in the business of writing, publishing and selling books. A tribe I am very proud to belong to!
Regeneration by Pat Barker
Simply one of my favourite books by one of my favourite writers. Set during the First World War, it’s about Captain Rivers, an army psychiatrist, and his encounter with the poet Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon threw away his military cross and wrote a letter to his commanding officer stating that he would not fight anymore. The letter was subsequently read out in the House of Commons and published in The Times. In it he said that “the war in which he had entered as a war of defence and liberation had now become a war of aggression and conquest.” The army and establishment couldn’t rubbish Sassoon’s reputation, by accusing him of cowardice, because he’d won the MC, so it was a tricky problem for them. In the end they sent him to Craiglockhart, the army hospital in Scotland for officers suffering from shell shock. It was Rivers’ job to get him back to the front. Billy Prior, a fictional character, is a working class officer who is being treated for mutism at the same hospital. He is a fantastic creation who Barker followed into The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, the two other books in The Ghost Road Trilogy. She won the Booker prize for The Ghost Road but I think she ought to have got it for Regeneration.
London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins
Oh, I love this book. Sarah Waters describes it as ‘One of the great city novels …’ And it is! It was published in 1945 and sold 884,000 copies. There’s a scene at the end when Mr Josser, who has retired and moved to the suburbs, returns to work because the Second World War has broken out and the young men at his firm have been called up into the army. He is so happy to be working again, even though this is dangerous because it involves travelling back into a city which is being bombed. He returns to the office and climbs back onto his old stool which creaks: ‘It was his creak. And it was like clambering up onto his mother’s lap, getting back onto that stool. “This is where I belong,” he told himself. “I belong to London. And London belongs to me …”’ Yes, it’s sentimental but this scene always makes me cry because I love London too. The love has crept up on me slowly over the years but it has got steadily stronger. I started writing here, I met my partner here. I have the feeling that I can be anyone I want to be here. Living in a place that is constantly reinventing itself encourages one to do the same. My partner is a Londoner born and bred. We walked past St Paul’s the other night, quite late, and looking up at that great dome you can’t help but feel a sense of wonder and pride. I feel incredibly lucky to live here.
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
This was one of the books that made we want to become a writer. I was particularly enchanted by Villanelle, a Venetian girl born with webbed feet. I love the playfulness, the lyrical language and the romance. It’s a scintillating book. So light on its feet. Winterson wrote it in her twenties and it has all the energy and chutzpah of youth. Reading it is like watching a pod of young dolphins frolic. You can’t help but smile at the inventiveness, the confidence and feel the sheer joy of being alive.
Victoria Blake grew up – like Phillip Pullman’s Lyra – in the grounds of an Oxford College. Daughter of acclaimed historian Lord Robert Blake, famous for his pioneering biography of Benjamin Disraeli, Victoria grew up loving history. She studied the subject at Lady Margaret Hall, then worked in law, publishing and bookselling. She has written the Oxford-based crime series featuring PI Sam Falconer and has written two true crime books for the National Archives. Her novel Far Away was shortlisted for the Historical Society Novel Indie Award 2016. Her latest novel, originally published as Titian’s Boatman, is out in paperback on 26th July, retitled The Return of the Courtesan.