To cope with all this, I've turned, as always, to books. In particular, I've turned to junk food in literary form. Not stupid books, but lightweight, easy ones. Perhaps not the equivalent of a cheeseburger, but certainly a takeaway curry from a middle-ranking establishment. Middlebrow. That's the word I'm looking for. Fun. Entertainment.
For work, I'm re-reading George Borrow's Wild Wales. Published in 1862, it's an easy-going piece of travel writing in which George - an English racist Christian fundamentalist - constantly demonstrates that his Welsh is better than that of actual Welsh people. He moans about the Pope, hates the Irish, and tells a freed slave that slavery was actually the perfect solution to the degeneracy of the African race. All in all, interesting but not very comfortable reading. I'm also reading Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark, a cultural history of the 1930s. I picked it up because that's my period, but I immediately got hooked on it - such width, such careful, close reading of interesting texts - the kind of book which makes me want to go back to doing actual serious academic work myself.
But I digress. I am reading these books, but I'm cramming lighter stuff in like the fat kid at MacDonald's closing time. On Wednesday I read Norman Spinrad's Song From the Stars. God it was good. Spinrad's a proper child of the 60s, but he's managed to retain the joy and light from that era without becoming a spoiled hippy scumbag. Most of his novels are science-fiction fantasy which treat the open-minded and positive aspects of the 60s as a serious possibility for human society. Karma, for instance, features heavily, which is not something I ever thought I'd type in a positive context. Heavily dosed with (actually quite coy) sex and discussions of social potential if we could find it in ourselves just to be a little bit nicer to each other, it's great reading as long as you can dredge up some empathetic optimism, which is what I find rather difficult. He also has the wit not to be too starry-eyed about what we're really like too.
Then yesterday I read Phill (yes, that's how he spells it) Jupitus's Good Morning Nantwich, partly a memoir, partly a polemic about the state of British radio broadcasting. (In classic local journalism style, I notice that the book's major point of interest to the Crewe Chronicle is 'Nantwich Named in Title of Phill Jupitus' New Book'. I'm sorry to disappoint denizens of the (not very) metropolitan district of Crewe and Nantwich, but your town was chosen for it's alliteration, not because it plays a central role in the story of a man from Essex who became a DJ. This bathetic truth is sadly reported in the story, which incidentally is a prime example of lazy journalism: the guy hasn't read the book and if you're reduced to looking for mentions of your town to fill your paper, it's time to nuke the place from orbit and start again.
Due for release in August, Jupitus says he chose the name Nantwich because he liked the sound of it and that it could have been named after any other town.The memoir bits are often touching but once you've understood that he's a fat man with a lot of records and not as much confidence as you'd think, that bit's done. The really good bits are when he goes off on one, because it turns out that he's actually a very, very good writer. At one point, he reproduces - over many pages - his notes on a (sadly unnamed) morning show to which he forces himself to listen. Every excruciating comment, tone of voice, clumsy link and patronising moment is reproduced beautifully. My favourite section, however, is his description of the 5 seconds before he pressed the button to become BBC 6Music's first host. It's a beautifully modulated stream of consciousness which ratchets up the tension (terror, really) of those few seconds over many pages. Technically, it's a virtuoso piece of writing, really making the reader share the agony, communicating the way a few seconds can easily become enough time for every thought you never wanted to have.
Then last night and today, I read David Nicholls' One Day. I've read 250 pages, with probably another hundred or so to go. His Starter for Ten was a nice piece of comic whimsy which became a decent film - a bildungsroman based around University Challenge and the travails of the 1980s student searching for love and a settled, comfortable identity. One Day doesn't stray too far from the template, but it's brilliantly done. The basic plot is very neat: two students almost have sex on graduation day and become friends, meeting over the years as their lives unfold in different directions. They have fun, they fall out, they sometimes almost get it on, life becomes complicated in ways they never foresaw… it's almost chick-lit (except I hate that term) but there's a deep emotional empathy at work, and a clear-eyed view of the way in which we're worn down by each other, life, work and the gap between idealism and reality. It's poignant and sad in many places, but it's also very funny, too, often in ways which sneak up on you rather than provoke belly laughter. It's the perfect book to read in dim light, rain on the window, mug of flu remedy next to you. Unfortunately, I'm at work, typing this nonsense for you lot. Ho hum.