The Works

There are loads of ‘Things to read while in lockdown’ lists circulating right now, and even though it’s not a holiday, I am certainly finding myself spending more time at least thinking about what to read to pass the time. I am missing being able to browse in bookshops, even in the rather limited range available in downtown Exeter. I especially miss popping into a random charity shop in the dim expectation of finding something I didn’t think I wanted to read, buying it for £1, taking it home, and never reading it.

Being denied any access to these small pleasures reminds me of one of the abiding experiences of what it was like to have once lived in Swindon. For me, one important aspect of this experience was defined by the fact that Swindon is NOT a University town. I grew up in a place (East Grinstead) that was a lot more metropolitan than the small village which I might otherwise have grown up in (Fairford, from which one visited Swindon to do proper shopping and watch football), but which was still just a dull dormitory town (“sclerotically reactionary” is how Paul Theroux once described East Grinstead). Then I lived in various places (Cambridge and Bristol, Oxford and Reading, Salford and Columbus) which were all identifiably University towns, in their very different more-or-less provincial ways. I spent time in places like Atlanta and Durban, when both places still had bookshops. Living in Swindon was a strange return to a never-quite-experienced, what-might-have-been land that never-really-was.

All of which is just a prelude to an excuse for another list, this time a tribute to The Works, the cut-prize books/stationary-tat store that, alongside a perfectly decent Waterstones, served as my primary go-to book-haunt for eight years. If you are familiar with The Works, you will appreciate just what it means that this was the second best bookstore in town. The fact that it is located in Swindon’s best known attraction, the outlet retail centre, cherished by railway buffs and historical geography nerds from far and wide, is even better – it’s a pun: The Works, located on the site of the old GWR/BR railways works).

I’d like to say that I came across some hidden gems in The Works. But that’s not quite true. These are the top five books I picked up there which I would almost certainly never otherwise have read AND which I do not regret spending £2 to £4 on….

1). Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs, a lovely collection of essays, including a fantastic piece on why Lego minifigures represent a terrible constriction of the imagination, an argument I liked when I first read it and that has become more relevant to me now that, in lockdown, I find myself discovering the limits of my own design imagination while trying to make good use of a Lego Architecture Studio set.

2). Paul Morley’s book on Bowie, one of those books which one would have felt obliged to read at some point without really wanting to, so getting a remaindered copy felt right.

3). A bluffers’ guide to the Plantagenets, because I was trying to make sense of Richard II and thought it would be good, when reading Shakespeare, to know something about Kings and Queens, without needing to make this an academic project.

4). A collection of John Betjemann’s poems, which I bought for no other reason than the fact that it included a poem about the bells ringing at Christchurch in Swindon’s Old Town. No other reason.

5). Michael Bilton’s Wicked Beyond Belief, one of the huge range of true crime books you can always pick up at The Works, not a genre I am generally inclined towards. It’s a book about the culture of policing in the 1970s, deeply disturbing, I’m not quite sure why I bought it, other than always remembering the effect on me of reading Joan Smith’s account of the Yorkshire Ripper case in Misogynies way back in 1989.

Now I live in a University town in Devon, half the size of Swindon. Better bookshops. I still check out The Works now and then. I look forward to being able to do so again one day soonish, and to finding something else to read that I probably shouldn’t admit to enjoying.

Favourite Thinkers VI: Michael Chabon

Is a blog, which this is, by an academic, which I am, necessarily an ‘academic blog’? I’m not sure, and I kind of hope not.

Anyway, I came across this little essay by Michael Chabon, on why dreams are over-rated. It’s typical of how he writes about grand things by locating them in the mundane stream of ordinary living. Chabon has accidentally become one my favourite thinkers recently, even though I have only ever read one of his books – The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, obviously, almost a quarter of a century ago (I keep trying to read Wonderboys, and we have a couple of his other novels kicking around the house, but they are so thick it’s off-putting).

But his non-fiction is great. He has a collection of ‘criticism’, Maps and Legends, which is  all about being a fan of genre fiction, and how all literature is really genre fiction, that I picked up in a wonderful book shop in Greenwich village a couple of years ago. This was shortly after the film adaptation of The Road had been released, and lots of the discussion about it presumed it was an allegory for environmental catastrophe. Chabon’s essay, written before the film, puts the novel into the perspective of the whole sweep of Cormac McCarthy’s work, and specifically, presents it as working the line between two genres, those of epic and horror.

The horror, for Chabon, derives from the way in which The Road works as “a testament to the abyss of a parent’s greatest fears”:

“The fear of leaving your child alone, of dying before your child has reached adulthood and learned to work the mechanisms and face the dangers of the world, or found a new partner to face them with”.

And some other fears too. I liked this account not least because it captured something of my own experience of reading the novel (I haven’t been able to find time, or face up, to watching the film) – it really did interpellate me as a parent, provoked a series of anxieties that I don’t think it would have done before then.

More lightheartedly, the other collection of Chabon’s that I have read, more recently, is Manhood for Amateurs, a book about being a dad, husband, boyfriend, son, and other assorted manly roles. It sounds like one of those ‘guides to being a dad’ books, I know, but it really isn’t. I bought it for 1.99 at The Works in Swindon’s Outlet Village (second best bookshop in town, in the best public space). It contains a series of little pieces on all sorts of topics, some of which don’t quite translate for an American context, some of which do – a wonderful account of the guilt inducing struggle to manage the mountain of pictures and drawings that one’s children bring home every day from nursery or school without succumbing to the sense that you are destroying the archive of your, and their, future memories; why the introduction of human mini-figures by Lego was indicative of a larger shift in contemporary toy culture that shrinks the scope of the imagination (it’s more fun than that makes it sound); the importance of pockets in men’s lives, and the difficulties of finding appropriate bags-which-are-not-purses – and the search for the perfect “murse”.

Chabon also writes abuot how he suffers from the ‘delusion’  that, despite knowing he’ll never see grandparents again, or dead dogs, or 1976, that he will return to these times and places and people sometime in the future:

“always lurking somewhere in the back of my mind is the unshakeable, even foundational knowledge – for which certainty is too conscious a term – that at some unspecified future date, by unspecified means, I will return to those people and to those locales. That I am going back”.

Again, this strikes a chord with me, it’s a constant feature of how I process memories. So does Chabon’s wider point about the delusion of yearning for the return of ‘normal time’ – a time in life when it seems that the rhythm of everyday life is not interrupted or imperilled by rain pouring through the bedroom ceiling, cats with urinary tract infections, children with conjunctivitis, having to look after the neighbours chickens.

Anyway, I have nothing profound to say about any of this, other than to recommend Chabon’s writing on the ordinary aspects of growing up and growing old.