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I don’t know how many copies of this book I have bought, over the years, but it’s a lot. You never know when you’re going to have a conversation with someone who might need one.
Esther Freud once said hello to me when she entered a room that I was in. A lifetime of feelings surged up in me, of things I wanted to tell her about her writing and her life and how it had made me feel. What a fan I was. How deeply I had thought about her and her worlds. The particular things that she had said that had stayed with me for decades. And who I was, that I was a writer too, a little tiny bit of one. So I just said ‘hello’ back. We’re English.
Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara
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It was thus with great joy that Sophie agreed to take part in my Desert Island Books series. Having chosen an eclectic selection of books to take with her – from a festive tale to a tome penned in 1794 – here are the eight books Sophie would take with her were she to be marooned on a desert island.
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A Journey Around my Room by Xavier de Maistre
Cat’s Cradle is about a made-up religion called Bokononism, on a Caribbean island where our hero arrives and becomes the unexpected leader. Satirical sci-fi I suppose – a gleeful madness.
Someone I don’t really know once sent me a DM on Twitter and said my writing was like Kurt Vonnegut’s. Best day of my life. The next day she messaged again to say she was so embarrassed, she’d been drunk the night before and hadn’t known what she was saying. I was gutted. I think she should drink more.
Every Christmas, I read this illustrated children’s book to my daughter, and we feast on it. We quote it the rest of the year round. It’s the story of one woman with a sprawling old house where everyone she has ever met comes to stay one cosy Christmas Eve. My daughter always counts up everybody sleeping in the house – there’s over thirty of them – and then we fantasise about owning a house like that and of having all our friends and relations spending Christmas in it. Sometimes, quote honestly, it is all I can think about. One day, if it takes me the rest of my life, I will own the house on Exeter Street, and you will all be very welcome there.
The Rules Do Not Apply by Andrea Levy
Even though Hideous Kinky is the book where she goes to Morocco as a child, with her mum and her sister, on the hippy trail, living outside of English society’s confines. Where people do things other than just say hello. Alright so it’s a novel but it’s her life story too. Kate Winslet starred in the film of it, which could never have satisfied me and thus didn’t. You need to read the book, but you also need to be about 17 years old, living in Yorkshire and dreaming of North Africa.
Frank O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950s New York, and on his lunch break he would walk around the city and see Manhattan come to life in the post-war cultural explosion. He’d walk past the artists, past the nightclub where Billie Holiday sang, past the billboards telling of Hollywood scandal, past the burger bar where he’d stop and buy a malted milk and drink everything in. And then he’d go back to the gallery and type up what he had seen.
My Wild and Sleepless Nights by Clover Stroud
Bez was in an incredible band called The Happy Mondays who were the beating heart of the Madchester scene and consumed 95% of its drugs. His memoir of his time in the band is absolutely hilarious – partly because they were very funny people but also partly because, as far as I know, his wife helped him write it. So there will be one paragraph where he and Shaun Ryder are at a party in a New York hotel room full of hookers and cocaine and their own stardom, and then the next minute he’s gone to bed for an early night and left the rest of them to it. It doesn’t add up, which makes it even funnier.
Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud
When I was confined to my bedroom with Covid, this was the one thing I wanted to read, apart from endless online data reminding me how statistically unlikely I was to die. If I say that the book was first published in 1794 you might not guess how funny it is, but it’s a hilarious pisstake, written by a 27-year-old French soldier who was locked in his room for six weeks for duelling. He quite literally travels across his bedroom, going off into flights of lyrical fancy which are beautiful but self-mocking. He also wrote a sequel where he goes as far as his window ledge. Oh come on that’s funny.
He wrote about his boyfriends, about acting perfectly disgracefully, about smoking too many cigarettes and loving someone too much. I don’t think I’d be the writer I am without having read this book a hundred times. Which wasn’t enough, so I’m going to read it again now.
Freaky Dancin’ by Bez
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Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
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This is only about 40,000 words long, half the length of most books, yet you’d never know, because it hits you like a truck. Ariel Levy works for The New Yorker and wrote an essay you might have read about going to Mongolia on a work assignment, only to find herself losing her baby in a hotel room. That story forms part of this astonishing memoir, which is also about falling in love with a woman, and perhaps with a man, and wanting to have everything, only to have to face having nothing. It made me seriously question all of the wanting that I and the rest of my generation have been doing for our whole damn lives.
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Christmas in Exeter Street by Diana Hendry
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I very, very rarely re-read books. Given that I plan on being buried with every tome I never got around to finishing, opting to re-read something – however much I loved it – feels like an indulgence that my ever-growing pile of unread books would resent me for. And yet, there has been one book I’ve re-read, not twice, but thrice since its first publication last year, and said book is The Hungover Games by Sophie Heawood. Hilarious, poignant and utterly unputdownable, there’s no doubt that were I to ever find myself shipped to the shores of a desert island, Heawood’s memoir would come with me.
Kurt Vonnegut is such a soothing writer, and I’d put Richard Brautigan in the same category. Doesn’t matter if they’re writing about something wonderful or something horrible – it’s all largely imaginary anyway, and you’re held in the same kindness of language. The same generosity of spirit towards the brutal or the tender from their vivid roaming minds.