Just read: Britain’s Rottenest Years

I haven’t finalised my list of goals for 2012 but one of them is going to be keeping a track of every book I read.

The first finish of the year was a pop history book: Britain’s Rottenest Years by Derek Wilson. It covers ten separate years from the past 2000 that that make 21st century recession and riots look like fairy stories of the over-enthusiastic media. It was a bit of a random pick-up from Shipley Library – I don’t usually like list books but it sounded more interesting than the others there.

Because it covers ten different time periods/situations, it’s inevitable that some are going to be more interesting to me/the reader than others. I’m usually considerably more interested in post-industrial revolution/20th century history but after reading the excellent Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (a horrible title but essentially just a fab social history of the 14th century) last month, I was more interested in the earlier chapters of Rottenest Years – Boudicca (who I haven’t read about since primary school), the harrowing of the North, the Black Death and the mysterious dry fog of 1783. The latter chapters – 1812, 1936-7 and 1981 – actually left me pretty cold (the latter especially as it felt a little … held back).

As expected, it was an easy read and like all these overview books should do, it’s inspired me to look further into the bits that did interest me. I am glad that I borrowed it from the library rather than bought it though – it’s not the type of thing I’d properly read a second time.

Some books that I possibly like, maybe

A few times over the last couple of weeks I’ve referred to different books being on my “favourite books list” – but yesterday I realised I’ve never sat down and worked out said list so, frankly, anything could be on there.

As a result of that realisation, and in a bid to avoid doing anything actually useful, I decided to make the list of my top 20 favourite books yesterday afternoon. They’re not — by any means — the best 20 books ever written or the most important books to society in general, or anything like that. They’re just books that strike a chord or mean a lot to me for one reason or another, or frankly that I just enjoy and I (have and) will re-read every year or so. I wouldn’t even say it’s definitive as my choice in books depends heavily on mood and context but I can safely say these are books that I probably liked that afternoon, maybe.

(In alphabetical order. I missed out “the” on some of them, not sure why, but I’ll be blowed if I’m renumbering everything now.)

  1. Box Office Poison by Alex Robinson. The only graphic novel on the list – I have a lot of favourite comics but this one makes it onto this list because the characters felt developed enough for a novel.
  2. Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. The first time I picked it up, I stopped on about page 5. The second time, I thought I was a frickin’ fool for putting it down the first time. When someone asked me my favourite book, my snap answer is usually Triffids.
  3. Death of Grass by John Christopher. Like Wyndham, apocalyptica always seems more real when it’s happening in the UK – and when it’s something as possible as a devastating plant virus. Also, Leeds gets nuked.
  4. Drop City by TC Boyle. This book hits all my book-buttons. Love it.
  5. e by Matt Beaumont. Not exactly a literary classic but I love the humour coming from the different points of view. Very fun.
  6. Good Evening Mrs Craven and other stories by Mollie Panter-Downes. There is no word for this book of short stories other than “delightful”. Really evocative of the era.
  7. Happiness ™ by Will Ferguson.
  8. How I Paid for College by Marc Acito. Reminds me of my own not-quire-so-crazy youth. My teenage years didn’t include fraud, blackmail and stealing a buddah but it evokes those heady days all the same.
  9. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. It says in the intro to my book that Dodie read the whole book allowed to her partner to see if each sentence worked by itself – and you can tell. Really well crafted. I also love the characterisations of the animals ;)
  10. Little Children by Tom Perrotta.
  11. Microserfs by Douglas Coupland. Not something I re-read regularly nowadays but a book I used to finish reading then immediately start again. I found it randomly in Southport Library in early 1997 and it introduced me to the idea of geek culture. It inspired me to start my first website a few weeks later :)
  12. Miss Pettrigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. I felt so uplifted when I finished this book. Talk about carpe diem.
  13. Miss Wyoming by Douglas Coupland.
  14. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. I described it on The Really Good Life the other day as: “in a parallel universe somewhere, I am American, went to boarding school and Sittenfeld stole my teenage diary”. So much detail, so accurate neurosis!
  15. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.
  16. Scepticism Inc by Bo Fowler. I picked this up completely randomly when I very first moved to Leeds in 2000. An absolute gem of a find – really funny.
  17. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham.
  18. The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham. Like Triffids, the first time I read it, I struggled with it. It’s pretty slow/long but it tells such a story – over nearly a couple of decades. Now I’d rate it as highly as Triffids.
  19. The Rotters Club by Jonathan Coe.
  20. The Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman. Another I can barely read now because it’s so clunky but I read it regularly from about 13-19. I didn’t really get it then but like Microserfs, I think it put me on a path – or showed me the path I’d not realised I was already starting on.

After writing the list, in an effort to avoid doing even more chores, I decided to work out some stats: how many were 50+ years old, how many had been made into films, how many were in which specific genres/themes/styles. I read my numbers out to John and he demanded to know how many fit into multiple categories. A Venn Diagram was surely the answer – and a way to waste even more time! ;)


(There is one error with this one – I Capture the Castle should also be included in “coming of age” as well as “over 50 years old” and “turned into a film” – but even with a lot of shuffling, I couldn’t work out how to fit it in. It’s corrected in the simpler one below.)

Then, on the way to having a curry with the team last night, I was talking to John about the Big Book Venn Diagram and realised that some of the books on the “top 20” list were filler-ish – that I hadn’t had to refine my choices enough and that those “filler” were the ones that would be more likely to change (in fact they did, I made some substitutions during the drawing). So this morning, I cut it down to a “top 10” and drew a new Venn Diagram (although keeping all the same categories). Because it’s simpler, I also tried to make the circles more to scale. Apparently I like books set in other eras ;)


Now I should probably do something slightly more productive ;)

Dream hens, milkshake flashback, polished by nature, naan heaven, distract my dream

1. I dream that our next-door-but-one neighbours have chickens too and that they’re chickens and are chickens are wandering around the gardens together. I wake up smiling.

2. Driving away from meeting the incredibly flexible baby Eva, we both think the same thing: milkshakes. Going into Headingley and to Shaky Jake’s is like reliving a random Saturday from 18 months ago.

3. The cool smoothness of conkers in my pocket.

4. The giant naan is fluffy and smothered with garlic. On the table opposite, I see some people – Omar’s virgins – eyeing it with concern, worrying about how many they’ve ordered for themselves. We’re finished before their food arrives so I don’t get to see their faces but from watching similar scenes for the last decade, I know how their eyes will widen, they’ll laugh and cameras will emerge to record the scene.

5. I start reading “The World in Winter” by John Christopher before I go to sleep and as soon as I start, I know it’s a mistake – the descriptions of the country falling into savagery disturb me*. I’m thankful I have another book – a gentle apocalypse-less book – by my bedside so I can distract my brain before dream time.

(Especially as, like in “The Death of Grass”, Leeds is singled out for a bad-shizz-going-down namecheck – as if the specific details of London’s decline isn’t enough to scare me…)

Many of me, really makes a difference, hurrah for cold weather

1. I love PastLouisa sometimes. Sometimes she’s a good girl. Sometimes she leaves blog posts written and ready for NowLouisa to post when she’s feeling grotty and can’t type. FutureLouisa should learn lessons from PastLouisa.

2. The book is printed in a crisp, clean font. A joy to read.

3. It’s not just a new sheets day (brand new sheets at that), we also switch onto our autumn duvet. Compared to the thin summer one, it’s fluffy and heavy like a luxurious hotel duvet. The fabric is coolly smooth but the weight promises warmth.

Rollmöpse, things past, wish I could Ctrl+F books to find it again

1. The rollmops – pickled herring – are perfect: neither too fishy or too vinegary, just sweet and tangy.

2. I sit on the steps up to the door of our old house and pull grass seeds and sticky buds from the dog’s ears, tail and feathering. I feel nostalgic for all the time I spent on the steps with the cats – a favoured grooming spot but also just a favoured sitting spot in fair weather. As much as I can’t wait to be rid of it, to not have to think about it any more, I’ll be sad when we have to say goodbye to the house – my home for a decade – for the last time. One day, I’m going to make a scale model/dolls’ house of it so I don’t forget the good times there.

3. Re-reading ‘Drop City’ by TC Boyle yet again. I find new things to cherish each time through. “…stone light of dawn” is a phrase that sticks with me this time.

Refreshing, uplifting, productive, coincidence, helping hand

-1. (from last night) I don’t realise how stifling it is in the house until I open the door to let Lily out for her bedtime wee. The comparatively cool air is wonderfully refreshing. I breath deeply and the skin on my arms tingles.

0. (also from last night) I finished reading ‘Miss Pettrigrew Lives For A Day’ by Winifred Watson. A wonderfully uplifting tale about seizing the day. A new one for the favourites shelf.

1. A full to-do list becomes an empty one over the course of two hours.

2. Twice today, when I’ve been watching the chickens, two of them have scratch-scratch-peered at exactly the same time. It looks like they’re synchronised clones in an animation or music video.

3. The job – repotting the 4ft tall tomato plants – is so much easier when there are two of us doing it.