December 14th, 2017


“Brent Cross Blues”

Once again the “Almighty Algorithm” over at's “Early Reviewer” program matched me with a very odd book. Of course, I have something to do with this, as it was one of the books I put in requests for a few months back, but it's always such a crap shoot on that, as the publishers typically toss up a perfunctory paragraph or two describing the book, and one will generally go with those to determine what to raise one's hand on as being willing to get a copy to review. If you'll indulge me in a bit of a gripe, the LTER primarily offers fiction, which I have been notably avoiding for the past decade or so, and the pickings for non-fiction can be quite slim, so my gauge for what I'll request is not too finely calibrated, being something along the lines of “oh, that sounds reasonably interesting, I guess”, which does leave me open to getting books that I might not typically pick up in a retail environment.

It would be easy to assume that the main attraction I had towards Anthony McGowan's The Art of Failing: Notes from the Underdog would be that particular “art”, with which I've had way too much experience, however, the description provided was evocative, asks if I've been “rubbish at life”, and even name-checks Morrissey, so I was hooked. What would have been more useful would have been to clue me in to just how, English this book is (yes, “rubbish” in that context could have been a hint), because that's the number one take-away I had on it … not that this is a bad thing, per se, but it's not just a wry diary composed by an English writer, it is a series of personal scenarios absolutely steeped in English culture (which, oddly, sort of put me off a slight bit). The author has a dozen or so books out, but mainly in the youth market (some of which sound like they're actually surrealist gay porn, like The Bare Bum Gang and the Holy Grail … but I digress), with the current title apparently being a bit of a new voice for him.

Anyway, I have about a half dozen of my little bookmarks in this, pointing to the places I thought were particularly arch, and I'm probably going to be leaning on these heavily, as there's not much of a “story arc” here, except as a “year in the life” sense. The book is set up in four parts, Autumn, Winter, Spring, & Summer, and is composed of little essays/scenes that range from just a title (“There Isn't A Pool”), to as much as five pages in length. My OCD was certainly triggered by the first entry being September 5 of one (not specified, but since this just came out in October 2017, I'm guessing it's 2015) year, and the last entry is September 13 of the next … and while most days have copy, there are quite a few that don't (I talked myself out of counting them), so it's not quite the obsessive journal/diary of that time that it might have been.

This jumps right into a continuity, with the opening paragraph giving both some of the key players, and a sense of what tone the book tends to:

      A limp dappling of autumn sunshine persuaded me that I should walk Mrs McG down to the underground station, efficiently combining this act of conjugal kindness with Monty's urgent need for a morning constitutional. The surging horror of the early commute was over, leaving just the aimless milling of the stragglers and idlers. They reminded me of those defective spermatozoa one reads about, destined never to meet with a comely egg, thrashing in circles, or slumped, broken, at the side of the fallopian tube, or blindly swimming the wrong way through murky uterine seas.
A good deal of the text wanders around like this, which, one might suppose, could be a fairly accurate detailing of what is actually bubbling up in McGowan's head when he sits down to extrude words to page. A couple of paragraphs later in this section (“Bum Ball” – it's a bit too convoluted to explain here) he uses a word that is simultaneously huge, charming, and an interesting alternative to “yuppification”, which I just had to share … in his description of “the embourgeoisification of my part of North London”. You're welcome. Oh, another note I should get in here is about the cover graphic. One of the repeated settings of the book is the British Library, where he goes to write. And, while one is not supposed to bring food to the desks in the reading rooms, the author likes to sneak in a banana for a mid-morning snack, and he had discovered a certain level of amusement with using a marker to add some text to the banana – in the early going here there's an embarrassing scenario played out via this, which (no doubt after much editorial/promotional discussion) is how the title ends up written across a piece of fruit on the cover.

Run the calendar ahead to December 28, with the author visiting his childhood home town:

… Leeds has always been brittle, superficial, vain; less friendly than the other great northern cities. The kind of place where you can get your head kicked in for spilling a pint or looking at another lad's bird. We didn't invent football hooliganism, but we raised it to a kind of Platonic perfection, back in the late 1970s, bringing to it the clarity of line, the mastery of form and colour, of early Renaissance art. Everything that came after was mere decadence and decay.
McGowan goes on (visiting a drinking establishment dating from 1715, Whitelocks) into reminiscing about his youth, which I figured was worth sharing (especially the first and last sentences):

      The patterns in the faded flock wallpaper, every stain in the carpet, even the ancient nicotine shadows on the ceiling were the ghosts of my old friends from teenage drinking days. And though I thought I saw them among the heavy coats of the crowd by the bar, I was looking for a version of the way we were then. Now we wouldn't recognize each other, or what we've become. Nothing to do but dilute my beer with the tears of nostalgia and loss.
Perhaps it's my own refined sense of failure that caused these sorts of bits to particularly grasp my attention, but that does seem to be the case. Given my near-endless job search (seriously, people, it's been 9.5 years at this point!), the following reflection had to be noted … from January 7:

      Few things are as depressing as job applications. You feel the despair and desolation wash over you like Bangladeshi flood waters. And then you realize that the only people qualified to give you a reference are retired, dead or hate you.

And then you hit send with relief but no hope, like a drunk urinating in a bus shelter.
The last bit of that being the title of the section (of which I opted to spare you the middle ten lines). The next piece I'd tagged had to do with the author's 50th birthday party. I have to admit that the attraction of this probably hinged on one word (being something of a vocabulary junkie, I obsess over words that sound great, but I don't know), plus a neat bit of composition surrounding it (from January 20):

      But there's always sadness to parties, isn't there? The party begins to die from the moment it is born. And when it's gone, it's gone forever. That party will never come back.
      Rosie made Mojitos. It was kind of cute seeing a twelve-year-old girl professionally mashing up the lime and rum. She was the hit of the party. I moved from group to group, trying to be attentive, trying to give everyone that flensed sliver of my soul. But I couldn't summon up the panache and vigour. I didn't have a meaningful conversation, or even a humorous exchange, all evening, and my speech narrowly missed the mark.
{This term, in a more defined setting, also appears in the section from July 8.}

There are various sub-themes (or scenarios) that repeatedly come up, including his doing classes at various schools' creative writing programs, shopping excursions with Mrs McG, book industry events, adventures while walking Monty, and encounters with his “dwarf doppelgänger” who he names (although never actually meets) Heimlich. Many of these get set up with intros like “It being a while since I've enjoyed one of my clothes-shop humiliations ...” or “My bad luck with jumpers continues ...” (another of those British context things – that section would be quite more depressing if it was from an American “first responder” setting). I wish I could efficiently communicate how funny (to me, at least) much of this is. Unfortunately, the parts that had me (literally) LOL'ing tended to crop up in sentence fragments that were hilarious in context, but the background text necessary to make those funny here would take more blockquoting than I think either of us want to deal with. However, I'm going to put in a couple of paragraphs to give you a last-line payoff that I thought was excellent (yeah, “your mileage may vary”, and all … oh, and it's part of “Three Annoying Things”, hence the numbered paragraphs):

      2. I've had some new photos done to replace the absurd one that's on the internet, and which makes anyone who books me on the basis that I might look like it weep or guffaw. The new photos are excellent, except for the fact that they look like me. Or at least a Dorian Gray-like portrait of my soul. So there, staring out with filmy eyes is a narrow-lipped, dissolute, shabby roué, on the lookout for a countess to fleece.
      3. Nobody liked the pan-fried mackerel I made the family for dinner. They didn't like it because it wasn't very nice. And there, glistening unwanted in the pan, grey stripes on paler grey, exuding a vague aroma of failure and helplessness, it looked even more like me than the photos.
The following is another bit that I'm guessing snagged me with enticing multisyllabicisms, but it deals with him meeting a lady at a party. I'm snipping this from several paragraphs to give the flow of what I found most interesting … but it gives the main part of “generational connection”, a topic I've recently been contemplating via making the acquaintance of a couple of gals who are two and three years my junior (and hence “get” most of my now-ancient pop culture references).

June 16. Went to a little drinks party for the Faber Academy tutors. It was fine, although none of the other tutors had the faintest idea of who I was. I'm used to that – there's a fundamental asymmetry at work. Most children's writers read adult books, but few adult writers (unless compelled by their reproductive mishaps) go the other way. So I swallowed down my ego, with as much beer as was necessary.
      One sweet moment was provided by finding out that one of the tutors was exactly the same age as me. It was deeply strange and rather wonderful. She's from Cornwall and I'm generic northern, but we had precisely the same frame of reference. …
      It all made me think how much texture, how much richness, you lose, when you're just a few years apart in age. …
      It also generated a very slight erotic energy – one based not at all on physical attraction, but purely on the fact that we were epistemologically conterminous. …
I think by now you're getting the gist of the book, but I wanted to leave you with another bit of the funny to further the impression that this provided me with more LOL moments that any other few dozen volumes I've read of late. This one's from September 1's “God Bless You, Plucky Norway”, which deals with the author getting an unexpected royalty check for his sales in said country:

      The windfall meant I could thicken the children's gruel with lard, while I feasted on Scandy delicacies – Ryveta and some kind of disgusting raw fish, apparently “cured”, although if it was cured, how come it was still dead, eh?
Badum tish!

As you've no doubt sussed out at this point The Art of Failing was a quite interesting read, especially for a vocabulary geek, full of wry observations, a window into the Brits on a level equal to the Graham Norton Show, and some really delightful composition. That said, it is a bit strange, being sort of a collection of near-daily observations cranked out over just a few days beyond a year, with no unifying theme or specific point to it all. As noted, this just came out a couple of months back, so it's no doubt obtainable in the brick-and-mortars, which could be your number one option for this, as the on-line big boys aren't presently knocking anything off of the (very reasonable) cover price. While this might not be an “all & sundry” recommendation, it is well worth the reading – if nothing else I found out about a near-endless stream of ephemera regarding English to-go food items and their accouterments (wooden forks for curry on chips?), and you're likely to similarly expand your world by reading this.

Visit the BTRIPP home page!