Saturday, 19 October 2013

Book Group

Imagine a restaurant on a Friday evening. Let’s give it a name: Millennium.  It is a restaurant that claims to specialize in modern British cuisine, but serves mostly burgers (made of bread that has the taste and texture of a wet log of wood) to the accompaniment of hand-cut chips (which, you discovered, after reading The Sense of an Ending, are not really hand-cut on the premises).

In one corner of the restaurant is sitting a gaggle of men. At the head of the table is sitting a giant. He is—what’s the acceptable term these days for physically impaired people?—handicapped. You have no idea, however, of the nature of his disability. He walks waving a walking stick, and you are not sure what purpose the stick serves other than to beat people with. His voice is deep and stentorian, not unlike that of the police officer brother of Raymond in the hit American sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. As it happens this man is American; but he has lived in the UK for decades. He however likes to say, whenever he can introduce the subject (roughly once every half an hour), that he is not overtly fond of the English; that he is not an Anglophile (which rather begs the question what the f**k he is doing in this country for years). He is the oldest in the group; his age could be anywhere between 65 and 139. He is probably an intellectual. In the past (distant past, judging by his looks), taught English in some polytechnic which became University in the years when Labour were in power.  He has a straggly beard. He is by far the biggest, if not the fattest man in the group. He is Bob.

At Bob’s end of the table is sitting a man wearing sensationally offensive pair of ears. The only two beings whose ears can compete with this man’s ears are the British television actor Martin Clunes and the Hindu God Ganesh. This man—Dick—does not work. He used to run an organic greengrocer’s shop which he sold a few years ago for a quarter of a million pounds (the rumour goes). Since then he has not worked; he now spends his time lecturing unsuspecting victims on why Britain these days lacks in entrepreneurship, to the accompaniment of a generous dose of moaning about how the man who bought the shop from him gyped him. Bob’s wife is rumoured to be very bossy and Bob is rumoured to be very henpecked. Perhaps for that reason he is the bossiest in the group. He did a creative writing course a few years ago, but has either not managed to write a novel; or has managed to write a novel but not find anyone willing to publish it (probably because it is crap); or he is still writing this novel and will carry on writing it till he dies. The man takes pride in his literary tastes; he fancies himself as a reader of high-brow fiction and is always bandying about phrase like such and such a writer ought to take more risks, such and such a writer has experimented boldly with the form etcetera.  He then looks around as if he is expecting a round of applause. Dick is a bit of a bore. Not a bad sort, mind, just the sort who, once he gets going, would make you, within two minutes, dart desperate glances towards the nearest exit.  

Opposite Dick is sitting a short, unattractive man sporting a five-day stubble and starving looks of a vampire. The phrase ‘sporting stubble’ is generous; the truth is the man’s personal hygiene is questionable and he has in all probabilities not bothered to shave in the previous month.  It is not known what this man did for a living; he may well have been a waste-disposal manager in the local council. He is retired now, and has developed a predilection for visiting Istanbul in winter, picking blackberries in the graveyard next to his house, and reading novels. He is Dracula.

Next to Dick is sitting a man who looks as if he is inflated by a bicycle pump. He has the unhealthy look of a man who is in the early stages of liver cirrhosis, brought on by, you are convinced, excessive alcohol consumption. According to Dracula this man has mental health ‘issues’. Dracula is not sure about the exact nature of the man’s difficulties: it could be chronic fatigue syndrome or recurrent depression or memory lapses. Whatever it is, you suspect, alcoholism is not helping the condition. He is in his late thirties or early forties. He used to be in the advertising and entertained clients in posh London restaurants (apparently), which is where, you think, he cultivated his alcohol habit. When he was made redundant, he became a taxi-driver. That ended when he crashed his taxi (probably while under the influence of alcohol). He told the group, once—although no one had shown the slightest curiosity—that he was once threatened by a drunk who took offence when he asked for the cab fare. (Maybe it’s PTSD he suffers from.) That was the last time he worked. After that his disabling mental condition made it impossible for him to work. You don’t know how the society dealt with the inadequates in the past.  Maybe they got carted off loony bins where they weaved baskets; these days they frequent modern British restaurants, eat crap food, and give crap opinions on novels.  The (ex)taxi-driver does not strike you as a man of broad culture. If he is looking happy, it would, in all probabilities, not be because he has finished reading the first volume of Jean Christophe. If you asked him which book Salman Rushdie won the Booker Prize for, he would glower at you as if you’d asked him a trick question, and would spit out, ‘Satanic Verses. Everybody knows that.’  We shall call him Robert De Nero—not because he looks anything like De Nero but because he was a cabbie and has mental health issues.

There is a foreigner in the group, an Indian. Come to think of it there are two foreigners, if we include Bob. The Indian is in his thirties. He is bald as a coot (make it two coots), and, in keeping with recent style, has shaved his head completely. He probably applies some cream or lotion to the dome of his bald head which always looks sweaty and shining. He is either a doctor or a corner-shop owner. Listening to the Indian is a strange experience. He speaks fluent English (his English is probably the best in the group) in the chirpy, singsong accent of the subcontinent (very pleasant to hear, you have to admit), but without any expression on his face. Listening to him is like listening to a literary audio book.

Finally, there is you.

You are here because Dracula invited you to the meeting. To discuss books. This is a book group. Not just any other book-group, but ‘men only’ book group. Women are not welcome to this group. The book-group has no interest in discussing Time Traveller’s Wife, thank you very much. Women—according to Dick—insist on meeting at each other’s houses, and are more interested in gossiping (and each one is preoccupied with showing that she is a better host than others in the group) than in discussing books. (How does Dick know? He knows: his wife was a member of two ‘women only’ book-groups, both of which fell apart: one because the members disagreed vociferously and viciously about the book choices; and the other because the members fell out rancorously on account of what some or more of the members of the group were alleged to have said to some or more members of the group about the culinary skills—rather the lack thereof— of some or more members of the group.)

The book to be discussed tonight is Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue. Why was this book chosen? You have no idea. You like Sharpe; you have read half a dozen books by him, one of them was Porterhouse Blue, which you read many years ago. Porterhouse Blue was chosen because it was the only Sharpe novel of which several copies were available in the local library. Most of the book-members, except the Indian and Bob, refuse to spend money on books. The book-group has opened an account at the library in Dracula’s name. Dracula then distributes the books amongst the members. The Indian rarely borrows books, saying that he has the book in his ‘collection’, which, you think, is a tad pretentious and smug. (No doubt he calls the corner in his bedroom where he stacks up books as his library.)

“Let’s talk books,” Dick orders.

“I didn’t like the book,” Robert De Nero declares.

“It is a bit dated,” Dracula agrees.

Just then the waitress comes to take orders. She is wearing tight black trousers.  Which is unfortunate, as she has a big behind. 

“How are you darling?” Dick asks. If you didn’t know better you’d think he was flirting. “Busy today?”

The waitress nods and gives a five minute talk on the hectic evening in the restaurant which is having a deleterious effect on her muscle strength. “I need a roller-skater,” she concludes.

Bob looks sceptical, no doubt thinking that’s what waitresses are supposed to do. If you are in the army you don’t moan about bullets flying past you.

Everyone orders. Except Robert De Nero. “I will just have tea,” he says to the waitress. The waitress narrows her eyes and gives him a look most these days reserve for Lib Dem politicians, but does not say anything. Maybe De Nero is poor. He can’t afford to spend money in pretentious modern British restaurants serving tasteless food in minuscule quantities you need a bank loan to pay the bill of. Maybe De Nero is on benefits.

“OK,” Dick brings the conversation back to the book. “What did you not like?”

“I just didn’t find the book very funny,” De Nero begins. “OK, there were a few occasions when I chuckled; but I didn’t laugh.” He looks around to gauge reactions of bookgroup members. Bob looks at him, his facial expression suggesting that he is wrestling in his mind with the possibility that he might be in the company of an idiot. The Indian’s head is wobbling; it is impossible to know whether he is agreeing or disagreeing. Dracula is scratching his stubble and looking thoughtful. May be he is trying to think whether there were any passages in Porterhosue Blue which induced in him a belly-laugh; more likely he has got itchy skin. “Take Wodehouse,” De Nero continues, “When you read Wodehouse, on every page there is something that is terribly funny, or there is a nice turn of phrase. There was none of that, here. It was OK. But nothing more than that.”

“Why did you think it was dated?” Dick turns his attention to Dracula. Dracula looks a bit scared. “Umm . . .,” he begins. “Umm . . .,” he continues. Then his face brightens. “The setting seemed a bit dated. Cambridge, 1970s. That sort of thing . . .”

There is silence. Then Bob says, “Well, Cambridge universities are a bit dated. They have been around for hundreds of years.” You are beginning to like this guy, his faux-disability notwithstanding.

“Also,” you point out, “I don’t think the period of the novel is clearly defined. For All you know, the novel is  set in the 1950s.” 

“That would make it even more dated,” Bob says, with a twinkle in his eyes. Dracula looks at Bob, suspicion clouding his face that Bob is taking the Mickey.

“Also,” Dracula continues, “it’s not an authentic view, is it? It is a view of an outsider who didn’t know much about our culture. Wasn’t Tom Sharpe South African or something?”

The Indian looks at Dracula as if Dracula insulted his grandmother. “Tom Sharpe was very much English,” he informs Dracula. “He did spend a decade in South Africa when he was in his twenties. That does not make him South African any more than living in England for twenty years makes me English.”

“What is the South Africa connection, then?” you ask.

“He was a Photographer, I think,” Indian says, “when he lived in South Africa. He was deported from South Africa for anti-apartheid activities.” The guy has obviously devoted a great deal of time studying Tom Sharpe’s biography.

“OK,” you say. “Ravi has established beyond doubt that Tom Sharpe was born in this country, although he also spent many years in South Africa. Does that,” you turn to Dracula, “mean you might change your mind about the book?”

“I’d still say that I didn’t much like it.”

“What about the authenticity?” you ask. “Would you still say it is an outsider’s view?”

“No, obviously not, if you are saying . . . em . . . that he was English.”

“I am not,” you say, “saying that. It’s Ravi’s claim that Tom Sharpe was English.”

“I read it in WikiPedia,” the Indian gives his reference.

Three and half minutes have passed since Dick last spoke. That is clearly intolerable. “Let’s not digress,” he says. “What about you?” he asks you.

At this point the waitress reappears with the orders. She says loudly the name of each dish in the manner and tone of an auctioneer. “Enjoy,” she orders. “Does anyone want pepper?” The Indian does, as he would, on the outside chance that pizza is not spicy enough. The waitress sprinkles pepper on his pizza, hovering over him while he tilts his bald head to one side so that it does not press against her boobs which suspend mid-air—tantalizingly, you think—over it.

“So?” Dick looks at you. He hasn’t forgotten. “What did you think?”

“I liked the book,” you begin. “I thought it was very funny.” You look at Robert De Nero. He is staring at the cup of tea in front of him. “I don’t know how authentic it is,” you continue, “because I didn’t go to Cambridge. But it strikes me that Sharpe does not have much of sympathy for any of the characters in the novel. No one comes out well, really. The only character for which you might have a smidgen of sympathy, Zipster, is bumped off half way through the novel.”

“The episode with Zipster is hilarious,” Bob agrees. His uncontrollable lust for the fat woman—what’s she called?” Bob pauses.

“His bedder,” The Indian promptly provides the information.

“Yes. Bedder. I didn’t even know that that’s what these cleaning ladies were called in Cambridge,” Bob chuckles.

“I won’t be surprised if they are still called that,” you say.

“Yes. Anyway, Zipster. What a name! Like Scullion. Anyway, Zipster’s fascination with the fat bedder and his attempts to obtain condoms were very funny.”

“You really think so?” Dracula looks at him. “I thought it was vulgar.”

“Bawdy,” the Indian suggests a compromise.

“Also, I thought Sharpe dragged the whole thing for too long. The condom episode, I mean,” Dracula complains.

“Sharpe’s humour is not for those who are easily fazed,” Bob informs Dracula. Dracula’s face hardens. He obviously thinks the American is patronizing him, which, you think, he is, deliberately, to make Dracula feel like a fool, which, you think, he undoubtedly is. Dracula opens his mouth as if to rebut, but decides against it; he knows he lacks the intellectual wherewithal to argue with the American.

There is silence around the table. The stage is set for Dick to give the final verdict. He clears his throat and begins by telling the group that he went to Cambridge himself in the 1970s. Not only that, he went to the same college, Pembroke, where Tom Sharpe was educated. (So the f**ker knew all along that Sharpe was English.) However, he would like all of us to remember that he did not come from a privileged background; he went to Cambridge on a scholarship. There was a clear division between the posh students and the scholarship students, apparently; and many in the college held views that would be considered as appallingly racist in these days, but these guys, were ingénues, really; they had no clue—“absolutely no clue, I tell you”—about the outside world. Majority of them were bachelors and had lived all their lives in the college. A very sheltered existence “I tell you.”

“Like E.M. Forster,” the Indian prompts. No one has bothered to ask him what he thought of the novel. Is that racist, you wonder. But the Indian does not seem to mind; or at least he is not showing it in an obvious manner if he does. He seems content to spend the whole evening supplying trivial information no one has asked for and which has no direct connection to the novel being discussed. 

“E.M. Forster?” Robert De Nero asks. “Was he from Cambridge?”

“E.M. Forster lived all his life in Cambridge,” the Indian informs him.

“Is that what WikiPedia says, Ravi?” you ask him.

The Indian looks at you. “I haven’t checked recently,” he tells you with a straight face. “But I won’t be surprised at all if it does.”

“So these guys,” Bob says, “these guys who lived these sheltered existence. Were they also homosexuals?”

“Now, then, Bob,” says Dracula, “careful.”

Dick continues with his disquisition of the culture in Cambridge colleges in the 1970s, which—he is sad to say—was elitist, snobbish, and class-ridden—a world of tendentious insinuations, covert bitchery and ruthless backstabbing—; he would not want to go through it again; once was enough. He believes, based on his own unhappy years in Cambridge, every word of Sharpe’s novel. “It is a high comedy. But very authentic, I tell you,” he finishes.

If Dick was expecting someone would ask him what he meant by high comedy, he is disappointed. No one does, probably thinking that they would rather poke themselves in the eye with a rusty fork than suffer ten more minutes of Dick’s pomposity.

“Time to vote,” Dick declares. Everyone votes. Robert De Nero and Dracula give the novel a miserly five. You and Bob give a high eight. Dick and the Indian give seven.

The waitress comes back to the table. “Can I interest you gentlemen,” she asks, “with desserts?” Jesus. How do they get recruited, these girls? No one wants desserts. “Just the bill, then?” the waitress asks, her tone suggesting that this is our last chance to enjoy the pleasures of a sticky toffee pudding; however, if we were determined to miss out, it is our choice.

“We need to think about the next book for the meeting,” Dick says. Bob suggests “any book” of Faulkner. Robert De Nero suggests a book by Carl Hiaasen. Carl Hiaasen, De Nero informs the group, is a very popular American writer who has cult following. "Very funny, too" he adds. Dick suggests Trumpet by Jackie Kay. “It is an unusual and bold novel,” he informs the group. Dracula says he is game to read anything so long as it is not too long. You suggest Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. No one asks the Indian his choice.

Dracula promises to check with the library the availability of "titles” and we agree to meet next month.