Covid Isolation Day 8: Very Almost Nearly

As the end of my self-isolation period approaches, with just one more full day to go, I start thinking about all the things I said I was going to do but haven’t yet found time for–my tax returns, sewing that button back on my chinos, dusting the skirting boards, buying and assembling a new garden shed. That last one is excusable, given how rotten I’ve felt for the first few days.

These reflections weren’t all glum, since they got me to sit down and type up a pile of manuscript for my very-almost-nearly finished novel that I thought at one point I’d get done by Christmas. Like Stephen King says somewhere in IT, when a man writes, he thinks harder. Most of my major blocks and hitches have been because I’m too busy of anxious to think through the kind of details of plot and character that could be solved with five minutes of concentrated reflection. And as I said last entry, it helps that the physical act of typing is so much more enjoyable on this new computer.

Squish and I spend a period working back to back, she at the table and me at the desk, which is a nice way to orient things. She’s dealing with a bit of a nightmare brief at the moment: a complicated product where the company is only willing to shell out for 30 seconds of explanation. It needs a lot of restructuring and fiddly cutting down–I help by eliminating the odd split infinitive.

Not one of nature’s home workers, she’s also a bit disappointed to be working from home until Wednesday, to give her non-vaccinated co-worker a bit of space. I’m also looking forward to going back into school. It’s odd how you start craving some of the stuff you’d never have thought you’d miss–reminds me of the month I spent backpacking around New Zealand in t-shirt and shorts, and how at the end of all that I had an odd craving to wear a shirt and tie!

We order sushi for dinner, which is very satisfying, because unlike the last time we did this I can actually taste what’s going on. Later, I type up my Day 5 journal for the blog, which turns out to be the 100th blog post I’ve written since 2012. Can’t believe how that number’s crept up. Occasionally I think maybe I should try moving to somewhere more trendy like Medium, but nothing here’s broken and a couple of past posts still get regular hits from interested Google browsers.

Covid Isolation Day 7: Tennis, Typing and Teams

Pinch and a punch for the first of the month, I say, tapping Squish lightly on the arm. We lie in for a while watching Love, Death and Robots, an anthology of animated sci-fi shorts which gives us a lot to chew over. Broadly, we hate the photo-realistic shooting ones, which are far too much like videogame trailers–some of the others flaunt their adult animation by using nudity and sexual violence for mere shock value–but there are some real gems here, and some beautiful pieces of animation, and it’s interesting to recognise adaptations of short stories by sci-fi luminaries like Alistair Reynolds, J.G. Ballard and Peter F. Hamilton.

Not much else happens. I type up all the books I’ve read this June, for a long-interrupted blog series, and find great pleasure in the way my fingers rattle across the keys. Since I’ve updated my laptop, I’ve realised that a fair amount of my low writing productivity over the past months can be blamed on sticky shift keys and the general lack of pleasure associated with my old keyboard. All of these blogs have been written up from my handwritten diary entries, which is an enjoyably low-effort manual exercise, and gives me a certain degree of pride in my rudimentary touch-typing skill set.

It being a hot day, I sit out in the sunshine and doodle manicules in the margin of The Anatomy of Melancholy wherever I find an interesting passage–later I sit in and watch the tennis. I try to make a meeting on Microsoft Teams for form tutors at my new school who will teaching Year 7 from September–how exciting is that going to be, having my own tutor group–but I don’t find out what time it is due to differences in the Teams set-up between their email and mine. I come in at the end after everyone’s left and have a quick chat with the Head of Transition, who is very welcoming and understanding. Covid’s played havoc with my plans to visit the school and meet the department, but there’s hope I can squeeze a visit in this Friday, which is an inset day at my regular school.

Covid Isolation Day 6: The Parental Pop-In

By the sixth day of self-isolation, most of my symptoms have cleared up. Occasional coughs and sneezes are the worst of it–and sometimes I can cough so hard it makes my head hurt. But I feel I’m pretty much back to full power, and some faint sense of tast may even be returning, to judge by the tingling on the right hand side of my tongue.

It’s rougher on Squish, who is still struggling with the gastric aspect of the Delta variant, something which has happily passed me by. She manages a staggered return to work today, taking a little break between projects. With my job there’s nothing I can do from home, so I lounge about playing a bit of Metroid in between frantic two-player bouts of Doctor Mario, reading Simon Armitage’s translation of Pearl to round off the month’s books, and watching the first episode of Doctor Who: The Moonbase, with Patrick Troughton. This is an animated version of a missing episode, as with The Power of the Daleks, but I really like this style: it’s claustrophobic, shadowy and captures Troughton’s incredible range of facial expression well. It’s enough to make one regret that episodes 2 and 4 survive as live action.

There’s someone at the door while Squish is in the middle of a meeting–it turns out to be her mum, Lara, popping down after a visit to Squish’s grandparents to drop off another set of hardbacks, the silliest and most enticing of which is Her Majesty the Queen Investigates: The Windsor Knot. It’ll have to do pretty well to better Alan Bennett’s hilarious novella, The Uncommon Reader, but I’ll admit to a soft spot for royal family fan fiction.

It’s a flying visit from Lara–she asks if there’s anything she can get us, but I’ve already asked a friend if he can bring us a loaf, so we’re pretty good on that front. Nontheless, she turns up half an hour later with fancy choux buns, piled high with cream and fruit–and I can almost taste mine…

Covid Isolation Day 5: Paging Dr Mario

I wake up from various anxiety dreams where I’m wandering around school and breathing on people to the familiar four walls of quarantine. The fear of accidentally giving a bunch of people this virus can be quite paralysing and I’m a bit worried how fast I’m going to adapt to going out into the world again, given how hard I’ve found it to move out of a lockdown mindset before.

A Tesco order arrives, meaning I finally get to eat the bowl of rice krispies I’ve been craving since yesterday, and it certainly brings an interesting texture to the feelingless desert that’s my mouth right now.

I manage to hammer out a review of a poetry collection, but it’s the kind of day when I’m struggling to settle into things. Squish finds out that Track and Trace has been in touch with her office and advised them all to self-isolate until the 3rd. She feels rotten about this, especially since Track and Trace have been dragging their feet and she was hoping they wouldn’t have to shut the office. All her colleagues are getting PCR tests, and we’re really hoping they all come out negative. Squish is scared they will think the worse of her for it; I told her that they understand it’s just one of those things that happens in a pandemic, but she was inconsolable for a little while.

Today’s distraction has been Dr Mario, an ancient 16-bit puzzle game. I bought a mini-SNES a while back for a bit of retro gaming, and discovered you can download a program that hacks it and will let you insert the ROM from any old SNES game, downloadable for free on the internet. It’s a simple game about lining up coloured pills to wipe out cartoon vriuses, but the difficulty is flexible and our competition to finish first can be fierce. Plus, playing it with Covid gives the whole thing a pleasant sense of irony!

Battling coronavirus the old-fashioned way

The Game Boy Advance was my favourite console as a kid, and as with the iPod nano, I’m so comfortable with low-tech 16 bit games and pixel art that I rarely see the appeal of polygons and first person shooters. Sometimes I get so involved that I won’t stop even when I’m not enjoying it any more, and I’ve had to take measures to cut down on my gaming hours in lockdown. Dr Mario, however, hits the spot precisely. It’s just lovely to play a two-player game that we’re both reasonable good at and can get a bit competitive about.

I finish my book, rattle out a diary entry and blog in the evening, which gives a sense of acheivement to a diffuse sort of a day. We watch the next episode of the Harley Quinn TV series, which is punky and good fun–a bit bloodsoaked, but it doesn’t feel as unnecessary in the adult cartoon as it does in the Birds of Prey movie.

Books I read in June 2021

It’s been a while since I last posted about the books I’ve been reading. I never stopped keeping records in my journal of what I was reading, but my laptop got slow and the keys started sticking, and I got less and less keen to devote an hour or two to typing when the first of the month roled around. Happily, I’ve got myself a new laptop that makes it a pleasure to rattle my fingers over the keys; less happily, I’ve got nothing but time at the moment, for reasons mentioned below.

I got myself into the middle of any number of books this month, and idly flitted between them without progressing very far with any. However, very late in the month, I came down with that coronavirus that everyone has been making such a fuss about, and I was able to get in some good reading time during quarantine, in between the coughing and sneezing, making eleven books this month in all.

Mathilda, by Mary Shelley

This is a cursed novella, and reading it between the staid, reassuring covers of a Penguin Pocket Classics edition does little to alleviate its uncanniness. Shelley wrote it whilst in Italy, as a means of working through her depression following the deaths of her two young children. It follows the blighted life of Mathilda, whose widowed father first confesses his incestuous passion for her, then commits suicdie by drowning. Shattered, Mathilda retires to a hermit-like life in the countryside while she hesitates over whether to kill herself in turn. Counselled by Woodville, a character transparently based on Percy Shelley, she half-heartedly embraces life, but as the book ends a late night outdoors in the chill damps of nature seems likely to accomplish what Mathilda would not do by her own hand.

Quite aside from the grief Shelley was working through at the time, the death of Mathilda’s father seems strangely to predict Percy Shelley’s own death-by-drowning. When Mary sent it to her own father, William Godwin, he refused to return it to her, fearing that the incest episode, read autobiographically, might ruin his reputation. Knowing the PR disaster that was his own, too revealing biography of his late wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, he may have had a point. Not published until 1959, it’s one of the eeriest and most unsettling survivials of the Romantic era.

The Broken Heart, by John Ford

A love tragedy something like Romeo and Juliet for the unhappy and middle-aged, the most blazing romantic passion in this play is from the woman who agrees to marry her suitor provided her father and brother agree to the match. The inciting incident happens before the play begins, when Ithocles forces his sister Penthea to marry the monstrously jealous Bassanes rather than her true love, Orgilus. What follows is highly poetical and beautifully constructed, but reminds one now and again how much more life and vigour there is in Shakespeare, or even in Ford’s own taboo-busting incest tragedy, Tis Pity She’s A Whore.

Pattern Beyond Chance, by Stephen Payne

Why did this collection resonate with me when so much modern verse leaves me equivocal? The style, for a start–crisp, grammatical, rhythmically composed and aware. It works on my nostalgia for the university in a collection that bridges the academic and the everyday, and I like that the perspective of the poems is slightly out of the common way, grounded on Payne’s professorship of human-centred systems rather than an Eng Lit role. And he simply comes across as very sympathetic–the poems are full of touching human moments, with a wry melancholy that keeps them from being oversweet. I’ve heard him read a few times before, and he’s always come across as confident but not electric. On the page, though, his verses sing.

The Far Side of the World, by Patrick O’Brian, read by Ric Jerrom

All the plot points of this book were muddled in my head with the faithful but dreary film, and it was a delight and surprise to find the book far more various and interesting, with a murder suicide like something out of the Newgate Calendar, an encounter with a boatful of Polynesian warrior women who threaten to castrate our hetoes, and a tense island reckoning that surpasses the usual naval engagement. It’s perhaps a little unwieldy that Aubrey and Maturin contrive to be marooned twice over a period of as many weeks, but this remains a very satisfying entry.

The Gododdin: Lament for the Fallen, by Gillian Clarke

Wrote this up for Wales Arts Review, with some musings on what the long reign of the short lyric has meant for the translation of longer poems.

The Relapse, by John Vanbrugh

Felt like cheering myself up on the first day of self-isolation with a frothy Restoration comedy. This fitted the bill admirably, with plenty of beaus, libertines, cheeky servants and country misses. Of its two plots, only one comes to a truly satisfactory close, but there’s such high energy to the plotting and wit and vigour in the dialogue that this doesn’t matter much overall.

Timewyrm: Revelation, by Paul Cornell

I’ve spent a little time trying to nail down the perfect reading material for free periods at my job. Long poems by Robert Browning, unsurprisingly, were not the answer. Blogs are good, but too much archive diving cloys. Digital comics are entertaining but expensive. Free pdfs of out-of-print Doctor Who novels absolutely hit the spot. This one was famous in its day, a surreal adventure through the dreamscape of the seventh Doctor’s mind, written only a couple of years after the series was cancelled in 1989. It’s both a grand epic on a mythic scale, and something that feels almost parochial compared to the Time War mythos that underlies Doctors nine to thirteen.

Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, trans. Lewis Campbell

A Victorian translation from 1890, this is not exactly up to date, but I’ve always had affection for it as an excellent rendering into Shelleyan verse, with some really inventive stanzas and verse forms used for the choral sections. Otherwise, what stands out to me on a reread is just how much Clytaemnestra is mocked, patronised and spoken down to by the chorus, and the fact that despite this, she never gets the chance to claim the audience’s sympathy by speaking her mind. It’s an opportunity Euripides was quick to percieve and made stupendous use of with Medea and Hecuba.

Windfalls, by Susie Wild

A collection of two halves, each of which would make a fine pamphlet on its own: ex-boyfriend poems and 2020 poems. Wrote a review for Wales Arts Review, which should be out in a few days.

The Warrior Queens: Boadicea’s Chariot, by Antonia Fraser

This is an interesting book–in part a reception history of Boadicea, in part an investigation of the psychology of nations under female war leaders, but centrally and structurally a series of short biographies of the Queens themselves, running from Cleopatra up to the somewhat unlikely figure of Margaret Thatcher. Familiar figures like the Empress Mathilda and Queen Elizabeth I mix with lesser-know royals like the Rani of Jhansi and Queen Tamara of Georgia. The argument for a certain constancy in the figure of the warrior queen across millenia of eastern and western history is surprisingly concise and convincing, and I rather regret that there’s no additional, updated final chapter, analysing the shades of Boadicea that linger in the public images of Theresa May and Hilary Clinton.

Pearl, trans. Simon Armitage

I’m not a great fan of his very acclaimed Gawain and the Green Knight translation, because I think it’s too focused on the big dramatic set pieces and doesn’t pay enough attention to the less conspicuous verses. This, however, I remembered being impressed by, and I still think it’s one of the the best things he’s done, catching the sombre mood of a Middle English poem about losing a daughter in a way that can often be unbearably moving. He also makes the wise choice to keep the alliteration and repitition of the orignal, but abandon the unduly constricting rhyme scheme. It’s hard to imagine this being done much better, and my remaindered hardback edition is a beautiful piece of printing to boot.

Covid Isolation Day 4: Rice Krispie Cravings

I wake up with an intense craving for rice krispies, which I think comes down to a yearning for foods with very identifiable textures now that my sense of taste has gone to the dogs. I also feel really odd for the first few hours, in a woozy, out-of-my-skull sense. I wonder if this is simply a side effect of being able to breathe properly for the first time in days. Both my nostrils are in reasonable working order, and while I’m still coughing a bit and my energy levels are prone to crash unexpectedly, I would probably have gone into work if I wasn’t still infectious.

I do a few chores and finish watching The Power of the Daleks, remembering how, as a kid, I could devote myself to a solid Saturday morning of watching one Doctor Who episode after another. Now it seems I can barely do ten minutes without checking my phone or seeing what’s happening on another tab.

While Squish is still feeling terrible, I think I’m getting to the stage where I realise my days will need a bit more purpose if they’re not going to turn into lockdown number four, without even the option of a wander in the park.

In the evening we order out for sushi, which has an enjoyable texture, but the fact I can’t taste the salmon continues to depress me. Also, in the most depressingly obvious metaphor imaginable, my watch stops. It will be another six days before normal time resumes.

Covid Isolation Day 3: Getting Up Steam

Wake up at 8 this morning to the deeply distressing discovery that I can no longer tell earl grey from regular builder’s tea. All my bergamot receptors are kaput.

To cheer myself up, I watch Patrick Troughton’s first Doctor Who story, The Power of the Daleks, on BritBox. The whole thing’s missing from the archives, so they’ve done an animated reconstruction, with cartoon actors and computer generated Daleks synchronised to the original audio, plus colour and wide screen. It makes a great Sunday morning cartoon, and I’m finding the slower pace easier to handle than the more high-concept stuff that’s been developed for the streaming wars.

Squish has the canny notion of turning our bathroom into a steam room by turning the shower to its hottest setting and running it full pelt. We spread blankets over the floor, chuck cushions about and settle in–it’s not a very environmentally friendly idea but the steam does do our lungs a power of good. A single nostril service resumes and I get through 100 pages of book while Squish has a refreshing bathroom floor nap.

In the evening, I have my first zoom quiz of the entire pandemic–as with catching Covid, I’ve managed to push it back to a very late date. The competitors are a mixture of Covid positives, self-isolators and free men. We rock the general knowledge and musicals rounds, but crash and burn on the music questions–plus we miss out on several drag queen questions that provide easy points for other, queerer competitors! We come third overall, with 55 points, and so exhausted we fall asleep almost immediately afterwards

COVID Isolation Day 2: The Care Package

I wake before 5am for the second morning in a row, thanks partly to our cat, Dizzy, who is a great one for jumping onto your tummy, mewing, and thrusting her nose in your face until you either feed her or throw her out. Sleep is impossible thereafter, so I lie in bed and listen to my iPod until dawn breaks.

My iPod’s been indispensable to getting as much done as I have so far. Listening to energetic music takes me out of myself enough for me to commit to the necessary chores, like doing the washing up or hanging out clothes to dry. I have a theory that sooner or later, everyone encounters their happy medium of tech upgrade, after which everything else is in someway a step backwards, and the 7th generation iPod Nano is mine. It’s smaller than my smartphone, has awesome battery life and as I refuse to access music on a subscription model, the lack of wifi bothers me not at all. It does one thing and does it superlatively well.

Most importantly, it has a headphone jack that’s eminently compatible with the t-loop hooks I like to use in place of headphones. As a wearer of hearing aids, the near industry-wide decision to abolish the headphone jack is probably the most ableist thing ever to affect me personally.

After the sun rises, I shower and write up my diary while Squish dozes on. I tiptoe out to phone my Mum shortly after 7, and a DFL courier rings an hour later, waking Squish up. Masking up, I shuffle to the front door in my slippers, where I discover I get a certain kick out of yelling “I’m COVID positive, mate, I can’t sign anything!” through the glass. I think about adding “Flee for your life!” next time.

I lug the hefty parcel through to the bedroom, where we discover that Squish’s mum, Lara, has sent us a care package from Selfridges crammed full of chocolate, cupcakes, face masks and other goodies. This perks Squish up no end, and she gets up and makes us hot toddies — a scandalous thing to be drinking at 8 in the morning, but this is also the point where I realise that the anosmia has kicked in and I can’t taste or smell anything. Which is a disappointment — I was enjoying having a sense of taste for the first few days, and I’d really hoped I’d skipped that symptom. We watch a few episodes of Love, Death and Robots, by way of Saturday Morning Cartoons. It’s the animated equivalent of Black Mirror, but with greater variation in both themes and quality.

Feeling well taken care of

An Amazon guy comes along a few hours later with even more goodies — a stack of hardback thrillers and a bottle of Bollinger we decide to keep until the last night of isolation. Unfortunately he wants to see ID for the alcohol, so I have to shuffle out in slippers, clutching my passport, and I probably expose myself to the whole street whilst trying to work the front door latch hygenically with the corner of my dressing gown. In any case, bless Lara for the gifts — they cheer us both up and make it easier to be missing the big family reunion today. We have a well-lubricated video call later, when the O’Connors are in the midst of a long alfresco lunch.

I spend most of the morning lying in bed and grousing about how dreadful I feel, but after I get up and set about the washing up I start feeling perkier. It helps to discover that my particular friend Irene, who I had round the day before I went into isolation, has tested negative. She’s due to fly home to Malta on the Monday, and I was really worried I’d end up wrecking her plans. She later goes out to get us a few odds and ends from the shop, and adds in flowers, crisps and strawberries of her own accord, making our third care package of the day.

Squish seriously sets about reading all four thrillers in a day — about 1500 pages in total — and succeeds. Her reading speed approaches that of light. She proclaims Hostage, by Claire Mackintosh, to be the best of the set. By contrast, I manage a chapter of my book on Warrior Queens and then fall asleep for two hours. It’s a truly wonderful nap.

In the late afternoon, I subscribe to BritBox for something to while away the lockdown, and spend the evening watching the first episode of Thunderbirds. It looks terrific — pin sharp and full of colour — but I know I’m not the first to point out that a nuclear-powered passenger plane that will scatter radioactive debris over a wide area if it crashes and irradiate its passengers if it stays up too long should never have made it off the drawing board.

COVID Isolation Day 1: It’s the End of the World as we know it and I have a New Continuous Cough

Waking up at a quarter to five, I roll over to check my phone and there it was on the NHS Track and Trace app: “Continue to self-isolate for nine more days. Your Coronavirus Test is positive.” I swear and wake Squish, my partner, who discovers she’s positive as well. And we get no more sleep that night.

In many ways, the hardest part is waiting until the time is right to phone work and family and let them know the news. It’s particularly tough on Squish, who works for Jammy Custard, a small animation company in Cardiff Bay. I’m at a school that has clear procedures to follow and where the decisions about who else, if anyone, needs to self-isolate happens out of my sight and hearing. Squish has to message her bosses directly, who read the guidelines, decide whether or not to shutter the office, and announce the decision on the company groupchat. It’s tough for her, but happily the people she’s most stressed that she might have passed it on to turn out to be double-jabbed.

We’ve also planned on visiting Squish’s parents over the next two weekends, the first of which we’ve already had to cancel since we were close contacts. So our relief is palpable when business hours arrive and everyone proves sympathetic.

We were lucky enough to self-isolate early, and that’s principally down to the Track and Trace app. It alerted us that we’d been in close contact with a confirmed case and would need to self-isolate; I used it to book a PCR test within the hour, on realising that my cough was a) new and b) continuous; and it was the first thing to tell me I was COVID positive. Without it, I might have gone blithely into work on Thursday morning.

It got an avalanche of bad press on its launch and doesn’t seem to be much trusted among my neighbours and friends, which I think largely unjustified. A lot of pieces of software get bad press for being ramshackle at launch but improve massively after a few updates and patches, and that seems to be the case here: one peer-reviewed paper says it may have prevented hundreds of thousands of cases, and thousands of deaths.

Tea, chores and Tesco home deliveries dominate the morning. Track and trace call in the afternoon and spend a long time checking my symptoms and going through my movements all the way back to June 9th. The woman concerned either has a slow laptop or is a bad typist, and data entry takes ages. It’s further complicated by the fact that my phone connection is dodgy at first. I’m grateful for my emergency landline as well as for my working knowledge of the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, which I’ve never used so extensively.

Shattered after all that, Squish and I round off the day with two movies. First up was The Lovebirds, a rom-com about a likeable hipster couple thrust into a crime plot, where they subvert the genre, bicker humorously, solve the mystery and save their relationship. Just the pick-me-up we needed.

We follow up with Anna and the Apocalypse, a low-budget zombie musical which borrows extensively from Shaun of the Dead but manages to get a lot of heart and heft into its utterly daft premise. Cleverly, it takes itself seriously as both a zombie film and a musical, rather than letting the two forms sabotage each other for cheap laughs, and some of the songs are absolute bangers.

I have a headache, runny nose and cough all day, while Squish is only starting to show symptoms, but in any case, we get to bed early.

Books I read in September 2020

I was musing today about how a lot of people say that since the pandemic struck they’ve found it much harder to concentrate on reading. Since I read 13 books this month, I certainly can’t say the same. I think it’s long-form television I’m finding less satisfying, especially since, the way I watch it, I’m only a tab away from looking at something else. Cutting myself off from the world for some dedicated reading or listening time is still something I find easy to do. It’s just coming back that’s hard.

Fire and Blood, by George RR Martin

This book is to A Song of Earth and Fire what The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s infamous codex of the founding myths of Middle Earth, is to Lord of the Rings. While Tolkien’s focus was myth, however, Martin’s is history, and the book takes us through the Targaryen dynasty of Dragon Kings from the first conquest of Westeros to the reign of the seventh King, Aegon III; a 130-year span. Written in the character of an Archmaester of Westeros, this should be one for geeks only, so why I decided to spend my time reading a 700-page history of an imaginary country is as much of a mystery as why I devoured it so furiously, in 100-page-at-a-time sessions. As with his novels, GRRM has an uncanny ability to make the pages fly past, and I found myself thoroughly invested in the fate of the dynasty, as well as spellbound by the slow motion car crash effect of the passages where the realm descends into civil war.

Gimson’s Presidents, by Andrew Gimson

An enormously diverting compendium of brief biographical essays on the 44 presidents of the United States (first fun fact: Trump is only 45 because Grover Cleveland gets counts twice. Cleveland was also the only president ever to serve as public executioner). You need to go elsewhere for details of policy and diplomacy, but it’s a rich source of anecdote and character detail. As it approaches the present day, it gets less satisfactory: I thought the account of Regan was too rose-tinted, and the entry on Obama manages the more unusual feat of being dull. Otherwise, well worth wasting an hour on.

Henry VI Part III, by William Shakespeare

Every so often I feel in need of a bit of blank-verse bombast and go browse the early histories and tragedies. There’s no way to understand what’s going on at the start of this play without having seen Part II, which shows impressive faith in the Elizabethan audience. That aside, it’s a runaround, as a series of pasteboard characters fight, capture and betray one another, with occasional spikes in formal quality and character depth hinting that Shakespeare polished up certain scenes and left others to a less talented collaborator. Henry VI fades into the background of his trilogy in a way that no other monarch in Shakespeare does, but his scenes here have a genuine pathos that’s the most moving thing in the play.

The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett

An ideal comfort read. A lot of Discworld fan debate centres on whether you should start here, and if not, where. For my money, it’s impossible to read the first page without being aware that you’re in the presence of the most gifted comic stylist since Douglas Adams. The passage of 35 years has somewhat dimmed the book’s field of reference, obscuring the then-current fantasy tropes that Pratchett’s poking fun at, but the sheer silliness and scope of invention makes the book breathe and live.

Gimson’s Prime Ministers, by Andrew Gimson

Again, enormously diverting, filled with anecdotes and quotations from our 55 Prime Ministers. The eighteenth-century fellows are well enough, but the book really picks up with Lord Melbourne, the first PM to be psychologically interesting. Thereafter we bound along, with Gimson’s gift for terse summary and illuminating anecdote making vivid sketches even of minor figures like Andrew Bonar Law and Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Even on familiar ground, there are one or two revelations: who knew that Gordon Brown once dated a Romanian princess? Or that Boris Johnson’s blond mop is a relic of his Turkish ancestry?

Asylum, by Peter Darvill-Evans

A soothing sort of Doctor-Who-meets-Cadfael medieval who-dunnit. The mystery doesn’t work, because the reader tends to know more than Tom Baker’s Doctor, and the deductions lose their force. Since it was published in 2001, it’s also funny reading it now, after the show’s come back, and seeing how it totally fails to predict the format of the celebrity historical. Roger Bacon is the only famous historical figure we meet, and yet seems unaware he should be played by a celebrity guest actor, or that the whole story should hinge on his genius–amusingly, the Doctor writes him off as a minor figure in the history of science. And that’s how the book feels–entertaining but minor. Part of me would have preferred the invasion of Friar Bacon’s brazen heads!

The Sandman Vol. 1, by Neil Gaiman, adapted by Dirk Mags

A graphic novel adapted for audio is so unusual a project as to be virtually unique, but excellent voice acting, narration and sound design manage the transition from visual to audio with aplomb. Adapting the first three trade editions, it keeps the divide between the original comic book issues, interspersing the long arcs of Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House with the single issue stories of Dream Country, leading to an agreeable variety and the segmented feel of a radio series or podcast. Occasional stories lose something given Gaiman was writing to the particular strengths of artists in a visual medium, but the whole thing holds up astonishingly well.

The Claw of the Conciliator, by Gene Wolfe, read by Jonathan Davis

The second volume in the Book of the New Sun is even stranger than the first–baggier and less well-structured, I would say, but with haunting images and sequences of terrific power. Severian’s battle with the man-apes underground, early in the book, is an object lesson in combining pulp thrills with literary style. I know I’ve trod this road before, and have some notion of the waymarks ahead, but many mysteries and obscurities remain.

Boris Godunov and other dramatic works, by Alexander Pushkin

As with Pushkin’s other verse and prose, these dramas are miracles of concision. Even Boris Godunov, the only full-length play, feels like a Shakespearan history trilogy in a condensed from. The Little Tragedies, as the name implies, are even more bite-size. Pushkin is probably at his most serious in this mode, but his gift for finding the heart of the drama remains.

Watchmen, by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons

I don’t usually put my comic-book reading on here, but this practically invented the graphic novel and stands complete in itself as one of the defining example of what superhero fiction can do. Formally inventive and psychologically compelling, it’s also a very relevant look at the onrush to armageddon and the terrible cost of averting it. Probably my most pandemic relevant read in a while.

The Man in the Iron Mask, by Alexander Dumas

The surprise for me with this book is that the famous part, where King Louis of France is kidnapped and replaced by his secret twin brother Philippe, occupies only four or five chapters in the middle. Good interesting chapters, but there’s a long suspenseful build-up followed by a sense of total anticlimax. The whole plan fails because Aramis revealed it to the Prime Minister of France, who then proceeds to do exactly what a suicidally loyal and honourable character would do. Whenever I sat down to a few chapters, I still enjoyed it–the death of Porthos is beautifully written–but the narrative interest and impetus dies around p.300.

Earthworld, by Jacqueline Rayner

Another old Doctor Who novel from 2001, and a fun little runaround. Rayner’s great on character and dialogue — seeing the standard Doctor Who setpieces from the point of view of Anji, an investment banker, really helps — but she struggles to build a world and make a scene feel lived in. Even as an Olde Earth theme park, Earthworld feels like a sketchy location.

Spain, by Jan Morris

This is an engaging introduction to Spain, working on two levels. On the first, it’s a knowledgeable and readable tour of history, geography, architecture and personalities, accessible to the general reader and diplomatic enough never to rouse me to the growling resentment I feel for most acclaimed travel writers. The second level is that the book itself, written in 1964 and revised in 1979, is a kind of historical document of Spain as she emerges from Franco’s dictatorship and re-engages with Europe. Notwithstanding Morris’s gloomy predictions that the nation is fated by temperament and climate to lapse back into autocracy, there’s an affectionate elegy for the old Spain passing as the new European Spain comes into being that makes me want to go see how much things have changed. If only I could.