Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Books of the Year - Mark Valentine

A highlight for me was Malcolm Lowry’s previously-thought-lost novel In Ballast to the White Sea. Dense, strange, laced with occult imagery, a high modernist classic, its survival in the attic of his former mother-in-law is a minor literary miracle, and the book forms an important bridge between his youthful novel Ultramarine and his masterpiece Under the Volcano.

On holiday on the Isle of Harris, we stayed in a cottage by the sea where we could watch seals and a sea otter. For the rainy days there were a few shelves of good books, all linked to the island in some way, to read by the fire. Here I discovered Island Going, a book about two young men in the Thirties who go vagabonding and birdwatching in the outermost islands of Scotland. The author, Robert Atkinson, was a naturally graceful and engaging author, his words so good I had to read them aloud.

Another discovery was The Island Is Full of Strange Noises by Angus Heriot. I haven’t been so astonished by an overlooked book for some time. This novel is an extraordinary mixture of Firbank, Corvo, Norman Douglas and Simon Raven, set on an Italian island owned by a wealthy English milord and full of fabulous architecture. To the island goes a young author, and it his writing we mostly see, but we are never sure if he is writing fancy or fact. The writing is assured, cultured, audacious, adventurous, the pace is brisk, the imagination scintillant.

Geraint Goodwin’s Call Back Yesterday, very well written, ardent, slightly experimental, shifts scenes quickly and without explanation, and mixes contemporary narrative with memories of youth. There are some parallels with Machen, in that he came to London from Wales (near Newtown) to become a writer, and was for a while a journalist. There are lyrical descriptions of his home country, and good character drawing. The semi-autobiographical story darkens as the narrator (like the author) gets TB, but the hospital scenes and fellow patients are depicted pithily and even with hilarity.

At the Richard Booth Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye I found by chance a copy of Broken Images by John Guest, a journal of the Second World War. I suppose it must have been the title that drew me to it, as I caught sight of it leaning at the end of one of the long bookcases. I was attracted to the writing straightaway: it was frank, self-aware, observant. He doesn’t avoid the drudgery and absurdities of his army life (he was conscripted to the artillery), but shows how these make him more alert to fugitive beauty and to minor but much-relished pleasures. And his prose is fresh and vivid: the nearest comparison would be the journals of Denton Welch, though he is less precious. He later worked for Longmans and Penguin, and edited a few books, but never published another thing of his own: a pity.

Among contemporary books, I particularly admired Erith by Quentin S. Crisp (Zagava), a compelling study of inner and outer geography. The description of the drab and semi-derelict Thames-side town is precisely observed, unerringly finding the things that represent larger truths about the place. But it is not simply a slice of urban noir: the author finds mystery, even the mystical, in the unlikeliest scenes: a tree at the end of a subway ramp, a hidden and closed church, the sweep of a staircase in a forlorn civic building. Alongside these outer landscapes, however, he also conveys an inner terrain with unflinching integrity. In unpromising circumstances, there are passages of dejection and bewilderment, the more telling because they are told with quiet objectivity. But the book also records moments which, as he says, if not exactly of epiphany or revelation, still seem to offer some form of assuaging. The writing is so good that even the bus and train timetables are made to seem significant, their uncertainty charged with meaning.

Finally, an independent publisher whose books I am enjoying: Little Toller, who offer both original work and classics in the field of landscape, nature and topography. I like the design of their books, which seems to draw on Forties and Fifties Neo-Romanticism, and the clear, crisp typography. Two volumes in particular were distinctive and deeply composed: Beyond the Fell Wall by Richard Skelton, a meditation on the stones, walls and fells around a remote Cumbrian hillside, and Black Apples of Gower by Iain Sinclair, a characteristically elliptical survey of the South Wales peninsula where he grew up, and its artists and writers.


  1. Thank you for sharing with us those wonderfully interesting books, Mark. THE ISLAND IS FULL OF STRANGE NOISES, ISLAND GOING, CALL BACK YESTERDAY, and BEYOND THE FELL WALL sound very interesting and full of esoteric insight.

  2. P.S.
    I am also glad you enjoyed your holiday on the Isle of Harris. There is no other holiday like staying on the Western and Northern Scottish Isles.

  3. An interesting and wonderfully varied choice of titles, Mark. I spotted the books published by Little Toller in Manchester on Boxing Day, both of which are now jostling for my attention from the non-fiction stacks.