When I was in my twenties, I spent a considerable amount of time jumping up and down in fairly mindless fashion to the excitable rock-and-roll styling...moreWhen I was in my twenties, I spent a considerable amount of time jumping up and down in fairly mindless fashion to the excitable rock-and-roll stylings of a beat combo with the tireless moniker Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine (or, for the purposes of the BBC censor, Carter USM).
There was no other band quite like Carter. There were only two of them, for a start: a fellow in shorts and a baseball cap who played the guitar and was called Fruitbat, and another fellow called Jim-Bob who also played the guitar and sang.
They were backed by a fearsome wall of synths and drums, and came along at the same time (at least, in my memory) as a bunch of other bands who seemed to make one want to jump up and down a lot in old baseball boots, with one’s hat on backwards and cheap lager sloshing around in one’s belly. They were huge, massive, relentless FUN.
What made them different to those other bands, though, was the content of their songs. E.M.F sang in abstract terms about someone being unbelievable, Jesus Jones had some hand-wavy hippy nonsense about how great it was to be alive right now. Carter (lyricist: Jim-Bob) sang about an altogether more down-to-earth bunch of gypsies, travellers, thieves, grebes, crusties and goths – a list which I have mercilessly stolen from Carter’s own song, The Only Living Boy In New Cross.
Jim-Bob’s lyrics were filled with pop-culture references – The Only Living Boy In New Cross features, among others, David Frost, Evita, Simon and Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. There were puns – the Evita reference is ‘fill another suitcase with another haul’, which in a song about life at the bottom end of the heap is fabulously on it – and there was a good deal of anger about the state of post-Thatcherite Britain and its dreary selfishness. Perhaps their most famous song, Sheriff Fatman, is an early one from 1989, which rails at slum landlords, including Rachman and, in Jim-Bob’s own deathless adaptation, ‘Nicholas van Whatsisface’.
Oh, and they headlined Glastonbury.
But I come here not to praise Carter USM, but to bury them. Their last ever gig will be this November (and I can’t go, chizz chizz chizz), and these days Jim-Bob is a solo recording artist. His last album, What I Think About When I Think Of You, is fantastic and I commend it to you.
So Jim-Bob hasn’t gone. But he has begun to change, like Seth Brundle in The Fly, into an altogether more disturbing creature: a novelist.
There have been two novels under Jim-Bob’s name already: Storage Stories and Driving Jarvis Ham. I commend them both to you. His third, though, is under a new name: J.B. Morrison. I don’t know why he changed it. Perhaps it’s considered more grown-up. But I’m delighted to say the novel, The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick Age 81, is full of everything that I loved about Carter and everything I love about Jim-Bob, but without the wall of synths and the beer in the belly. It’s a charming story, beautifully told, about an 81-year-old man living on his own and the relationship he develops with the woman who comes to care for him for an hour a week.
I couldn’t help feeling some sadness reading this; my dad died in 2008, and he’d be touching on the same age as Frank Derrick by now. And Frank’s story does have its sad moments and its tiny tragedies. But Frank’s brain is as sharp as those old Carter lyrics – as sardonic and bitter but also as witty and affectionate. His hair is too long, and his best mate is an ex-punk called Smelly John. He loves films and had once planned to build a cinema in his shed. His wife Sheila died years ago, lost to dementia – and Jim-Bob/Morrison’s use of sea-swimming as a metaphor for the loss of Sheila’s mind is as fine and terrible a piece of writing as I’ve read this year.
The novel rescues the elderly for us, paints them as just older versions of ourselves, with the same anchors in shared popular culture and the same wish to be interested, involved, inspired. There are no easy answers in Frank’s life, and the novel doesn’t pretend there are. At one point, I thought the novel was going to settle for a bleakly obvious ending, and it does toy with us as if it might. But it doesn’t. It carries on – Frank carries on – with warmth and acceptance and, ultimately, love. It made me realise, actually, that love was what Carter were on about, a lot of the time, too.
It is beautiful. It is deft. It is as well-constructed as anything I have read. It is thrilling. It has no...moreI have just this minute finished this book.
It is beautiful. It is deft. It is as well-constructed as anything I have read. It is thrilling. It has no easy answers. It is funny. It is, at times, cruel. It makes me despair that I have never visited Glasgow, and it makes me want to write more carefully, because it was obviously done with such great attention to its craft.
Wonderful book - think French Chandler, with jazz and pastis instead of big bands and hooch. Set in Marseilles in the 90s (I think), a racial melting...moreWonderful book - think French Chandler, with jazz and pastis instead of big bands and hooch. Set in Marseilles in the 90s (I think), a racial melting pot filled with resentment, racism and rancour. Izzo writes beautifully, and his main guy, Fabio Montale, is a fabulous creation, a man who loves women and honour and booze and food and is doomed to destroy himself with love. Very much reminded me of James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux books, and can think of no higher praise than that.(less)
I bought Joanne Harris's latest book, The Gospel of Loki, at its launch. Joanne signed it for me (look,...moreLook, I'm going to name-drop now. Deal with it.
I bought Joanne Harris's latest book, The Gospel of Loki, at its launch. Joanne signed it for me (look, Joanne signed my book!). Joanne also gave me some blurb for my second book, and was one of the judges when I won Literary Death Match.
Yes, look at me, I am awesome. I know Joanne Harris, and I'm hugely grateful to her as a new author who's received her prestigious support.
So take what comes next with as much salt as you want, but The Gospel of Loki is magnificent. Take the darkly rich Norse mythology of Odin and Asgard, and transmit it through the amoral, witty and restless voice of Loki, birthed in and birther of chaos. What you get is a series of Tales and Trickery, by the end of which you are at home with some of the weirdest and imaginative beings which ever sprang from human hearts trying to explain what was outside in the Dark.
The book it reminded me of most was Robert Graves' The Greek Myths, not because of any essential similarity in the telling, but because in both a writer with a singular voice and attitude brings alive a world with such energy and assurance that you wonder how these myths were ever told without that voice. It took the endless Northern nights of telling and drinking to give birth to Loki; it took Joanne Harris to rescue the trickster from Marvel Comics and make him speak again. First class stuff. (less)