Neil Gaiman's 'Neverwhere'

Disappearing into Neverwhere


I read a Guardian Long Read a while back about a young man named Christopher Knight who inexplicably abandoned society one day. He’d driven until his car was out of fuel and then started walking with only the most basic of supplies in his pack. It was difficult to become totally lost, even finding himself back in his own neighbourhood at the beginning of his travels. But then he began to adapt and understand his newfound invisibility. He wasn’t seen again by general society for almost a quarter of a century.

Knight said that he didn’t really know why he left. He had given the question plenty of thought but had never arrived at a specific answer. “It’s a mystery,” he declared.

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere isn’t about a man who chooses his fate in the same way that Knight did, but it is about someone who one day disappears, nonetheless. I wondered to myself, reading Gaiman’s novel, whether there’s a point in the kind of invisibility that Christopher Knight achieved, versus the one Richard has flung at him.

I have wished I was invisible more than once. I do not fit in, simply put. At parties, I see only tight knit circles of friends, all with their backs to me, all in private conversations holding private jokes, talking about the things normal people talk about, leading terribly, terribly interesting lives. If not for the pitied half conversations that strays make with me for matters of politeness, I’d be invisible already. I have been in parks and on grassy fields when an errant football rolls by, kicked astray by some more physically fit person than I, “Oi, mate, chuck over that ball!” I cringe inside, not least because I can neither throw any better than I can kick, but also because I have become noticed and I have been entered into a social contract that I never agreed to. And how I long in those moments for total invisibility, a disappearing act.

Richard becomes a non-person, not in the Orwellian malicious sense, but in a very true, historical sense, where the memories of you are overwritten by fact; you never existed, so nobody can remember you. Knight, on the other hand, remains very much real, though a little mythologised – his own disappearance, at the young age of 20, must have caused pain to his family or friends. And whilst Richard finds himself in a fantastical world of fiefdoms and floating markets, creatures in the depths and bird-men living on roofs, Knight was in the woods, stealing from holiday cabins.

Neverwhere answers those urges to remove oneself from society with stories of wonder and excitement, but never fails to ground it in sneaking reality. At the end of the book, as Richard talks rabidly to the homeless woman, you feel unease that this may have all been some sort of mental breakdown, what’s believable and what’s not suddenly becomes a little more fragile (again, Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four and its ending is strangely relevant). It not Gaiman’s duty to tell you, Hey, don’t run away from your life because I wrote about living in sewers, that should hopefully be implicit. What he did instead is to have offered you that escape anyway. I have rarely been so enraptured by a book, rarely lost myself and my surroundings so intensely. Almost every morning reading it on my commute into central London, I have nearly missed my stop, barely lifting my head in time to see the platform racing into view. Now I’ve left the incredible world of London Below, I feel at a loss, but it has left its mark on me – and I’ll never forget to Mind the Gap, either.

Eleanor’s Mind – The Haunting of Hill House


If, as Stephen King put it, we step into the mind of a madman when we enter Hill House, then it’s only a partial truth. Really, it’s the mind of Eleanor, not quite mad, not quite stable. It’s a mind in turmoil like millions of others living right now. She imagines elaborate alternate lives, daydreams sequences of fantasy and wonder, she escapes to foreign worlds because her own is so unsatisfying – that Hill House should seek her out is no real shock, then. But what is interesting nonetheless, is how we come to understand or, more importantly, to stop understanding her as her life unfolds in Hill House.

Spoilers, duh

Will I, she thought, will I get out of my car and go between the ruined gates and then, once I am in the magic oleander square, find that I have wandered into a fairyland, protected poisonously from the eyes of people passing?

The first chapter allows us a view of Eleanor’s mind in stark contrast to the introductory passages dedicated to the other characters’ lives and thought habits. Those other characters are, though very much alive and with their own quirks, not quite interesting enough. Before even her fantasy around the stone lions and oleander fairyland, Eleanor alone is given the most human treatment: she knocks over an old lady and the agonising awkwardness of the encounter is perhaps one of the most relatable things in the entire novel (unless, of course, you yourself are a haunted house, in which it is less relatable).

She crashed into a very little lady, sending packages in all directions, and saw with dismay a bag upset and break on the sidewalk, spilling out a broken piece of cheesecake, tomato slices, a hard roll. “Damn you, damn you!” the little lady screamed, her face pushed up close to Eleanor’s. “I was taking it home, damn you damn you!”

Don’t you know that feeling? You seem to spend all day aching over your inconvenience to those around you, and yet in those pinnacle moments of most care, it all seems to fall away from you. Well, I know the feeling anyway. Eleanor isn’t quite careless, in fact, her whole life has been defined by caring, but she is flawed in a way outside of the fictional world necessarily needed for a scary story, she’s actually one of us. And it’s this relatability that grabs at the core of why her mind is such a fascinating concept in this book.

Now let’s look at that first evening in Hill House, in chapter three. What is it that begins to take a hold of Eleanor? It’s there, it’s affecting her and yet what is it? I have long been deeply appreciative of any writer about to narrate the experience of alcohol taking its hold on a thought process. If you want my opinion, my favourite writer so far is George Orwell in his underrated (even he disliked it) book, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, when his terribly unlikable protagonist gets paid for a poem in an American magazine. That is how you write about booze. But is it booze that’s taking hold?

She could feel the thin stem of her glass between her fingers, the stiff pressure of the chair against her back, the faint movements of air through the room which were barely perceptible in small stirrings of tassels and beads.

The most inane becomes the most sensitive when alcohol wraps its around a synapse or two, and so this seems fit for it. Eleanor’s internalised narrative is strengthening in this moment, her mind is fixating. We’ve already seen this in her appraisal of her surroundings and her self-validation of having, for wont of a better word, a clan to which she belongs, before Mrs Dudley’s dinner is served. It continues on, her reappraising of her situation, her own judgements becoming more prominent.

She likes attention, Eleanor thought wisely and, without thinking, moved and sat on the floor beside Theodora.

Again, is this the brandy? Is this a mind merely on the cusp of intoxication, mixed with the anxieties of the everyday you and me? I won’t linger – let’s fast-forward.

After the first terrors of Hill House have visited themselves upon the guests and the fear is alleviated with jokes at the expense of Mrs Dudley, there should be respite – if it were not for that ghoulish message scrawled across the walls, of course.

“And maybe, of course, you wrote it to yourself,” Theodora said again.
And the doctor laughed, then, and she stared at him and then at Luke, who was smiling and watching her. What is wrong with me? she thought. Then – but they think Theodora did it on purpose, made me mad so I wouldn’t be frightened; how shameful to be maneuvered that way.
“I was frightened.”
“Of course you were,” the doctor said, and Eleanor thought, How simple he is, how transparent; he believes every silly thing he has ever heard.

What was, and continues in parts to be, packaged with insecurity and the need for validation somehow now seems sinister, doesn’t it? There’s something chilling creeping over Eleanor’s internal commentary. A virus, spreading and mutating through her thoughts. It is attacking her rational defences. We’ve all done it, we’ve all rushed to conclusions, but in the moment of Eleanor’s terror, the conclusions she reaches seem alien from herself. We read on in horror, not for the events inside Hill House, but for the events inside Eleanor’s mind, that troubled, bumbling human being.





A revelation in Conclave


“Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge” – Revelation 20:4

I’d never even considered Robert Harris before, at least not his books anyway – though do consider his Twitter account. Perhaps it was some unfulfilled sense of stubborn pretentiousness that I’d not want to be seen reading him, or a plain misunderstanding of what he wrote about exactly. Whatever the reason, I think I was missing out. As Ian Samson wrote in the Guardian last year, “Orwell in his notes for an article about Evelyn Waugh famously noted, “Conclude. Waugh abt as good a novelist as one can be (ie as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinions.” Harris is no Waugh – he is too far left – but otherwise the comparison holds.”

Conclave as a Catholic institution is something I have – or had – a somewhat strained understanding of from seeing both the election of Ratzinger and Francis. I knew the routines of the smoke and the votes, the crowds of pilgrims, and I also knew a bit from Dan Brown’s effort, too. Sansom concedes some readers may be “bored by [the] dutiful recounting of facts” in Harris’s novel, but I for one loved it – perhaps because I hadn’t thought to expect it. I fail to understand anybody who would be enticed by the premise of the book and yet bored by the very history that makes the story so compelling.

When I look online for evidence of Harris’s religious beliefs, the information is scarce – one or two conversations in forums seem to be bothered about how likely he is to burn in Hell, but aside from that, few are taking much interest. I’m glad, in a way. I’d rather not know the believing mind behind any work of fiction, I think, lest it force upon me some prescribed idea of their motives in writing the thing in the first place. But the inquisitive side of me pushed me look into it in the first place, and why? Because religion, and more importantly, religious organisations, have such long and complex histories, our relationship to them inevitably begins to seem just as interesting once you give it some thought. There are lot more stories to be told about these worldwide organised groups of believers (and fakers, for that matter), I hope writers such as Harris keep writing the novels for them.

Apologetically described as ‘unputdownable’, Conclave served its purpose neatly, delivering excitement and intrigue in unpredictable ways. I never thought I’d care about a religious election described in such hourly detail, if I’m honest. But by the end, behind that curtain separating the new Pope from the masses in the square, I realised how deeply I was involved in the the characters, how feverishly I’d spent my afternoon turning page after page, and how much I suspected them all of no good. That’s a great story in my mind, something that keeps going once you’ve hit the Acknowledgements and dutifully skimmed through them.

So, will you hear my confession? Forgive me, I thought it mattered who you read and who sees you reading it, but rarely in the past few years have I enjoyed a novel as much as this. I’ll keep that in mind for the future.

Madness in The Haunting of Hill House


Madness. Suffocating madness. Poisonous madness. The kind of madness that creeps and crawls in the dead of night as you sleep, peering over the edge of your mind, laying doubts, unanswerable wonderments in those unmonitored darkest corners and creases. It is insidious. That’s the horror of The Haunting of Hill House. Stephen King, in a deferential essay in Danse Macabre, said of Jackson’s novel, “One thing we do know about Hill House is that it is all wrong. It is no one thing we can put our finger on; it’s everything. Stepping into Hill House is like stepping into the mind of a madman[.]”

Gentle spoilers ahead…

Eleanor, the novel’s protagonist, is the result of a troubling start to life and, over the span of the story, seems to be the unfortunate vehicle for both the progression of the narrative but also the reader’s sense of horror. People, especially young people, like Eleanor, who must quickly learn to shoulder a burden few ever have to consider can often become wounded by the continued grind of simply being. They are bound to carry on, sometimes by duty, by love, by guilt, by any number of instinctive feelings, combined or totally separated, and they’ll do it accumulating more and more mental exhaustion to their burdens. It’s no wonder then that we spend so much time in Eleanor’s mind; her coping mechanism has become a fantastical, internalised world that carries her off at the flick of mental switch. And what better place to instil those first terrors.

There are some beautiful passages in the book. So much so that I’ll even take the somewhat daring step of comparing the final paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House to the final paragraph of The Great Gatsby. Both speak to the impossibly stubborn continuation of being. The things that hurt, that cause or feel pain, the things that experience all the love that can both cause it and destroy it. And rather than meditate on that – because I’m definitely not the first – I’ll simply say that these are the words we all live for. They aren’t exactly comforting in the reassuring sense, but they do offer comfort in a way that tells us that some things are immovable. Being defiant in the face of fear is courageous some of the time, but there’s also a great deal to be said about yelling and screaming and running away as fast as you possibly can. We are not immovable.



Christine, by Stephen King


There is a reason that reviews tend to be negative when it comes to Christine – it’s not that it’s a terrible book, it’s that there is just too much of everything in it. It takes too long to move the car from one place to another, never mind the narrative, and where the rare moments of incisive teenage mental angst come, they arrive in the minds of under-nourished characters. However, for all the negatives, it is hard to outright demonise this giant volume, the product of a shit ton of coke and booze in the body of a bestselling novelist, because it still delivers the sort of tricks that only King seems to manage. For one thing, he made the junky, forgettable concept of a demonic car sort of, well, memorable. As King himself said in a 1984 interview,

An audience can relate to a certain degree to something like a haunted house, The Amityville Horror, traditional horrors like ghosts, vampires and things like that. You give them a car, or any inanimate object, and you’re suggesting something that is either along the pulpy lines of the E.C. comics, or else obviously symbolic. […] When you do that, you’re really starting to take a risk. But, that’s also where the excitement is. If you can make somebody go along with that concept, that’s really wonderful.

Christine is the name of a ruined old Plymouth Fury that ensnares a young, acne-ridden teen, Arnie, to open his wallet and then later his soul. Dennis, his only friend, is forced to watch from a distance (literally; he’s in hospital for half of the novel, taking a break from narrating things) as his nerdy little friend becomes the world’s most unlikeable dick. Will Dennis get his friend back from the borders of Crazy Town, or will the old car steal poor Arnold Cunningham away forever?

I took a break from Christine about halfway through to read a couple of other books. When your book is over 700 pages long, it’s easy to stray into the warm embrace of a 300 or 400 paged other lover. But, as it turned out, it was good to come back to it after that break. As James Smythe notes in his Guardian blog, there is a formula oft quoted to the ridicule of a King story: “x (where x = any seemingly innocuous thing: dog, hotel, clown etc), + y (where y = possession, demons, the undead) = novel.” He acknowledges that this only applies to those commercial favourites, of course, whilst thankfully the real gems tend to avoid such easy accusations. But what can be a criticism can also be a redeemer – formulaic can be cosy, it can be like an old friend who always tells the same stories but you enjoy hearing them anyway, and you enjoy them doubly when you haven’t heard them for a while. That is how Christine feels.

The world of Christine is like the world of Carrie, of Needful Things, of Pet Sematary, of any number of others because, aside from the fact that most King books reside in the same fictional universe anyway, they also share a habitual tendency to dedicate themselves to the lives of the working class, of the oddballs, of the young. He writes these characters with almost obsessive desire to plant colloquialisms, to live out their ordinariness, their father who drinks beer and watches sports, their dog or cat loved by the children – and then the ground is ripe for extraordinariness.

Although there are weighty criticisms levelled at Christine, it remains undeniably an iconic novel in genre fiction, with cruel imagery to corrupt even the biggest Herbie fan. If you are intent on reading the majority of King in the coming years, as I am, Christine needs to be on your list. It is essential reading – so get in the car, because Roland D LeBay is driving and he’s not a patient man.

Finders Keepers, by Stephen King – Boring Bill Can’t Ruin This Ending


There is a problem with Finders Keepers and its name is Bill Hodges. While other characters are exciting, despicable, and electrifying, Hodges manages to slow down the pace and the prose, he manages to stagnate the narrative. The characters around him begin to wade through his aura of mundanity and they too start to do things more slowly; as others are fighting for their lives, or committing atrocious crimes, Bill Hodges is thinking about how little he understands computers. And then he’ll spend some time thinking about that thing that happened a few years ago and the fact he eats salads but he doesn’t like them but he does.

Finders Keepers obligingly allows old Bill in about a third of the way into the novel. There he is, eating a goddamn salad, on his way to corner a criminal. King doesn’t seem to want to make him interesting, and it should be no particular surprise. It’s the rather dull characters that we imprint on, the ones who until now have led envious, but not exciting lives. Jake in 11/22/63 is no one very special, called upon to do something extraordinary. Mike in Bag of Bones is a pretty standard writer whose most enveloping mystery is his own life. But for Bill, who has led a seemingly self destructive, exciting buddy cop movie sort of life, and then retired, he has never really surpassed his own history. He’s perhaps a little rubbish at it all now. He is no Inspector Clouseau, but unentertainingly close. 

All that bitching and moaning out of the way, I still ended up loving Finders Keepers (big surprise there). When Boring Bill Hodges comes on the scene, it took me a long time to regain pace, but I’m glad I stuck with it. Morris Bellamy is a superb, cold and brutal villain, far more entertaining than Brady Hartsfield from Mr Mercedes, and he is a sadistic joy to read. Pete Saubers continually reminded me of Arnie Cunningham from Christine, but unlike Arnie, Pete seems to curb his obsession before it becomes possession.  Holly and Jeremy bore me tirelessly, sorry Bill, I find even your friends uninteresting.

Read Finders Keepers for its ending. Like Mr Mercedes, the finale to this novel closes a classic King young vs old narrative, before giving you all the reasons in the world to read the final book in the trilogy. If you, like me, felt apprehensive about the Hodges trilogy because it all seems too ordinary, the final book seems to be anything but ordinary. So read the books, even if you don’t like Hodges, because what’s coming is going to be worth it. 

Finders Keepers, by Stephen King – Time Travel and the Trouble With Present Tense


I wasn’t a huge fan of Mr Mercedes, the first book in the Bill Hodges trilogy. For me, it lacked the twisted energy that I love about King, it seemed to be gruesome and disgusting in all the ways you wanted, but it never quite tied everything together into a driven narrative. King’s magic is in pulling you into a moving story, feeding you drugs of character and snippets of misdeeds, stepping down on the pedal, swerving and taking risks on bumpy routes, and you love it and you forget you’re a literary hostage.

If you’ve been sentient during the run-up to the release of the book, you will know the opening line, because it headed all of the press campaigns: “Wake up, genius.” But don’t let all the comparisons with Misery put you off – I’m convinced that’s a bit of press from Hodder & Stoughton to bring back the old fans and nothing more – because the only thing you really need is a passing knowledge of Mr Mercedes. So, enough of the intro, the question is: is it actually worth it?

I just finished Part 1. It’s taken me since the book’s release to get this far, not because of the book, but because I recently moved house at the same time as doing buckets of overtime at work. But now I’m settled in my new place with two dogs, two guinea pigs and two humans, so I’m starting to find more time for reading and for writing. Which means that I have the time to say this: Finders Keepers is, so far, bludgeoning Mr Mercedes over the back of the head with a page turning blunt instrument. 

The characters, the events, the world that I’m slipping into is all characteristic of the King I love, and same one I feared I had lost with the first Bill Hodges story. Morris Bellamy has been a grotesque joy to explore in Part 1, his place as the delusional, psychotic villain is firmly, deservedly earned and I’m beginning grow very, very afraid for what Part 2 has in store for those who may be meeting him. Pete Saubers, a young boy whose story begins over thirty years after Morris’s is courageous and resourceful, and completely likeable. It’s been said before, so I won’t tire you with some inane discussion on it, but King writes children not just as absorbing characters to root for, but also as complex, honest depictions of how a child is, how they secretly feel and how they make sense of the world around them. That these two characters share a narrative gives me excitement and total horror.

Time Travel

Finders Keepers, as the dust jacket will eagerly tell you, is a story set around three crucial years: 1978, 2009 and 2014 (do not read the dust jacket, read the story, there’s no magic in the dust jacket). Throughout Part 1, the narrative swaps between these years; we see our characters’ histories, their ideas, their families and, most importantly, their trajectories as they traverse their lives, ultimately knit together by small worlds. They will collide eventually and with each swap of decade, each paralleled thought and life echoed across the years, their collision becomes more worrying. 

The Trouble With Present Tense

Part 2 opens, “Kermit William Hodges […] drives along Airport Road” – well, shit, I think to myself. I don’t like present tense. Present tense asks something more of a reader, it asks that you take your attention and use it to push the narrative forward, if you stop caring, you so easily stop reading. With past tense however, past progressive if we’re getting a little technical, you are always playing catch up – if Hodge was driving, you now want to know what he did after he was driving, this opens up the field for the basics: where was he driving? Why? With whom? And what happened after that? But give that in present tense and the questions barely surface, you’re dealing with language that is very matter-of-fact and therefore needs to deliver excitement immediately – sadly, Bill Hodges driving and eating a salad ain’t cutting it so far. In my opinion, the best place for present tense is the opening to a noir, if only those first few sentences of Part 2 actually felt enough like a noir.

And so what comes next? This post has been sat on my dashboard for a couple of weeks and I’ve been continually backspacing and editing it, whilst making my way through Part 2 of the book. I can certainly say that the downbeat final paragraph of this post carries less weight as I’ve persevered, it is not all present tense and in fact the language is playful and the narrative increasingly complex, with delicious twists in time and perspective.

For prolific King readers: These Stephen King Connections Will Blow Your Mind

Christine, by Stephen King – Bullies and Retribution


I’m a little over one hundred pages in. The world is building and the narrative engine is popping and grunting and coming to life. I, much like Arnie Cunninghham, will soon be possessed. 


Exceeding seven hundred pages, it would be hard for my discussion of the first hundred to really offer any spoilers beyond what a brief reading of the blurb would do, so you’ll be pretty safe reading on. The story goes like this: one day Arnie, a serially bullied and ridiculed pot faced teenager, spots an ugly, battered and broken, complete shit heap of a car for sale at the side of the road. At the time, Dennis, his only friend, tries to convince him not to waste all his wages on the car, to at least consider something better at half the price somewhere else – but Arnie is hooked and soon becomes worryingly obsessed with this rusted, eery Plymouth Fury.

If you have read Carrie, you’ll know how well King writes retribution. Power out of powerlessness, strength out of loneliness, the underdog takes a bite even if it may spell its last. Carrie, that abused girl, who turns on her bullies, I wonder if Arnie will do the same. His existence seems too painful, too miserable to miss out on some great retribution. He is the kid who is tripped in school hallways, who is punched and kicked and spat on for being different. But now something has him, it is an obsession with a car that creeps Dennis out, that is slowly changing Arnie into several different people. 

Will this darkness that Christine embodies take a hold of Arnie? Will retribution become cruel sport? I really hope so. 

Letters to a Young Contrarian, by Christopher Hitchens: Rebellion and a Reading List


You should rebel with Hitchens. Few books on a shelf carry with them by mere sight of their spine such heavyweight provocation. In fact, you should learn with Hitchens, and delight in language and in the love of books with Hitchens, too. 


Banned Books and the Spiritual Experience

My childhood was governed in many ways by the conservative religion in which I was brought up. No ungodly entertainment was acceptable in the view of the church; anything with demonic elements or characters in them, like ghosts, spirits, demons and devils, these were all gravely frowned upon. There were to be no themes that contrasted or disagreed with doctrine either, so anything that promoted ideas of evolution, positive views of homosexuality or feminism, or magic. That meant books too. These books, personally influenced and inspired by Satan, like Harry Potter or anything written by Terry Pratchett, if seen to be in the possession of a church member, would cause more than just whisperings in the congregation.

In my later teenage years, after the strength of my faith began to wane, I decided to start tracking down those forbidden texts that promised so much outrage from my congregation and my family. 

I found the books, I kept them hidden, and in small moments, I began to read them. After straying into the pages of other well known contrarians and academic rebels, I was finally to find my place in those of Christopher Hitchens. My point though, before I get ahead of myself, is not to get hung up on exactly the words he used (that comes later), it’s more the religiousness of the feeling those words gave me.


Not this church, it’s just a nice moody photo.

If you have never left a place of worship after a captivating service or finished a long, heartfelt prayer, then perhaps there is an experience you have not yet had – the spiritual, religious experience is seemingly like no other. It is, in my opinion, not wholly a positive experience though, it’s hypnotic and it’s overwhelming, but it might be nonetheless somewhat unique. You look out at your surroundings, the world may as well have changed completely but imperceptibly, like ground beneath every footstep and brick admitting guilt to holding up an elaborate illusion. You are seeing things differently, for what they really are. Every car, building, street, face, movement and moment, they all exist only as symbolic confirmation of the truth embodied in your strengthening faith. 

It is my opinion that this is a state of mind to wary of – and if any book makes you feel like this then you should read another immediately afterwards that entirely disagrees with the first. Not because you’re wrong to feel enlightened, or spiritual, but because there’s a good chance that such a powerful feeling, like any other addictive drug, will make you want more with no care for whether or not it is good for you, never mind whether or not it is true. It’s one reason why some people become religious extremists, why others buy into fascist or racist doctrines, and it’s probably also why some people think John Green writes authentically. 

The ironic religiousness, or spirituality, of reading Hitchens’ god Is Not Great has never left me – it was in the pages of this book, by the way, that I found my place. I have since read around him and against him, challenged his opinions and formed my own – but he has always remained irrepressibly brilliant. And although his famous anti-religion polemic is a superb read for anyone regardless of belief or non-belief, I can’t help but wish I had found Letters to a Young Contrarian sooner, back when I was looking for that perfect way to rebel, to find myself.

A Reading List

Hitchens has always been a prolific recommender of great writers and books, and this volume of his squeezes in a fair few more invaluable additions to any well-round reading list.

J’accuse …! – Émile Zola

Emile Zola could be the pattern for any serious and humanistic radical, because he not only asserted the inalienable rights of the individual, but generalised his assault to encompass the vile role played by clericalism, by racial hatred, by militarism and by the fetishisation of “the nation” and the state. His caustic and brilliant epistolary campaign of 1897 and 1898 may be read as a curtain-raiser for most of the great contests that roiled the coming twentieth century.”

The Strange Death of Liberal England – George Dangerfield

Hitchens only mentions this “magnificent book” in passing, a note within a discussion and critique of the work of Rainer Maria Rilke. However, the book was often on the lips of some well-read acquaintances when I was at university, and so I’m inclined to see this as a strong endorsement.

Dr Israel Shahak

“I have a dear friend in Jerusalem […] His name is Dr Israel Shahak; for many years he did exemplary service s chairman of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights. Nothing in his life, as a Jewish youth in pre-1940 Poland and subsequent survivor of indescribable privations and losses, might be expected to have conditioned him to welcome the disruptive. Yet on some occasions when I have asked him for his impression of events, he has calmly and deliberately replied: “There are some encouraging signs of polarisation.” Nothing flippant inheres in this remark; a long and risky life has persuaded him that only an open conflict of ideas and principles can produce any clarity.”

A Dance to the Music of Time – Anthony Powell

“Oriental religions, with their emphasis on Nirvana and fatalism, are repackaged for Westerners as therapy, and platitudes or tautologies masquerade as wisdom. […] Anthony Powell […] captures the foolishness of such mantras very well in his depiction of the followers of the sinister Dr. Trelawney. Adepts of his cult recognise each other by the greeting: “The essence of the all is the godhead of the true” and by the response “The visions heals the blindness of sight.””

Zen at War – Brian Victoria

“[…] which, written as it is by a Buddhist priest, exposes the dire role played by Zen obedience and discipline in the formation of pre-war Japanese imperialism.” 

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – David Hume

Although he never outright recommends this in the book, he has often quoted from it and from what Hume I have read, it is very readable and enjoyable. For one of the occasions on which Hitch discussed Hume, here is an entertaining example.

From Chapter, or Letter, XIII onwards, Hitchens saturates the reader with recommendations and quotes and thinkers and writers that everyone should read, and so I will stop here and simply implore you to buy this superb collection of letters. The book is, I am being reminded as I flick through, indispensable, and worth whatever it costs you. It is here, here or here.

I leave you with Dulce Et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen.

World Poetry Day: The Absurd Genius of Spike Milligan

Books, Poetry

Today I saw a little worm

Today I saw a little worm
Wriggling on his belly.
Perhaps he’d like to come inside
And see what’s on the Telly.

Spike Milligan - Today I saw a little worm

I was helping to clear out the garage at my brother’s house some weeks ago, before he moved house. Sorting through almost three decades’ worth of toys and accessories, games and crayon drawings, I came across “A Children’s Treasury of Milligan” in one of my boxes. Amongst those stacks of cartoons and pieces of Lego and school books in the old ratty cardboard box, the cover of this hefty book shone out and I needed no time to remember what I was looking at.

There was a young soldier called Edser

There was a young soldier called Edser
When wanted was always in bed sir:
One morning at one
They fired the gun
And Edser, in bed sir, was dead sir.

On the three hour long drive back after our visit to my brother, I sat in the passenger seat reading from cover to cover this old prized possession, whose words I barely remembered. And page by page, line by line, rhyme by rhythm, I saw some of my origin, a little bit of where I came from. Spike’s poetry, the humour, the intelligence, and the irreducibly creative absurdity that he placed in everything he did, seems to have had a home in me for some time. I was always odd, I never fitted in – nothing has changed, I can report – and this man led a life completely devoted to that, devoted to the thing everyone gets bullied for at school, being different, being weird. I’m a little absurd, too.


A baby Sardine
Saw her first submarine:
She was scared and watched through a peephole.

‘Oh, come, come, come,’
Said the Sardine’s mum,
‘It’s only a tin full of people.’

spike milligan - sardines

Too many people are so concerned with fitting in and making friends and being part of a crowd that their weirdness is reduced down to minor hobbies or repeating every week that they think they’re going down with something (but they never actually do). So today I’ll be reading more of Spike’s poems, not because he was always silly, sometimes he was serious, but because I’m still far too worried about fitting in.


Said Hamlet to Ophelia,
‘I’ll do a sketch of thee,
What kind of Pencil shall I use,
2B or not 2B?’