It seems to be generally agreed that in terms of cultural giants shuffling off this mortal coil, 2016 has been a peculiarly horrible year. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Ronnie Corbett, amongst many others, have left us, and now Victoria Wood has died of cancer.* Now up until last year, I used to be pretty dismissive of the outpourings of grief that grip social media whenever a famous person dies, but then in March 2015 I found myself checking twitter on my phone to discover that Terry Pratchett had died, and ended up crying on a bench outside TKMaxx, so my views on people grieving celebrities they never met have softened a little.
And today I find myself in the same position again. Not on a bench outside TKMaxx, but being moved to tears over the death of somebody I only knew through the TV screen, the stage and the written word. It’s difficult to put into words how much Victoria Wood meant to me, and probably to a whole host of other people a bit like me. She was a woman. She was Northern. She was funny. She loved to play with language. And somehow, just by existing and being brilliant, she made that an ok combination of things to be. She was, essentially, the person I wanted to be if I grew up.
She also never rested on her laurels. With most celebrities you can say ‘Oh he was an actor,’ or ‘She was a writer,’ or a musician. Victoria Wood was all of those things. She wrote sketch shows, theatre plays, sitcoms, TV dramas and musicals. She performed as a comic actor, a straight actor, a musician, a presenter and a standup comic. To be as good as she was at any one of those things would probably be enough to get you minor national treasure status. Victoria Wood was brilliant at all of them. Properly brilliant.
Her ear for dialogue was one of the best I can think of. There’s something infectiously joyful about lines like ‘I’m on fire, with desire. I could handle half the tenors in a male voice choir’ and there’s also something gloriously specific about the writing. It’s half the tenors, not all. All would be too much; half tells you something more about the curtailed ambitions at play in this relationship. And half is funnier. Don’t ask me why. It just is. It’s like how seven and eleven are funnier numbers than eight or twelve. I don’t know why. They just are.
I was really lucky to be around the place watching TV while Victoria Wood was writing. I was even lucky enough to see her stand up show live. I really hope that she knew how much joy she brought to so many people, but I realise that I never told her. I’m not really the fan-letter writing sort. It’s always struck me as being a bit weird and overly-familiar to just write to a stranger and tell them they’re awesome, but my resolution for today is to abandon that rather silly little insecurity. I don’t think it’s ever unwelcome to tell a writer, musician or performer that you think that what they do is awesome, so I’m resolving, right now, that the next time I love someone’s work as much as I loved Victoria Wood’s or Terry Pratchett’s I’m bloody well going to write to them and tell them, before 2016’s grimmest of reapers gets to them too.
In the meantime, let’s just imagine Victoria Wood singing The Ballad of Barry and Freda on the great big stage in the sky with Pratchett, Rickman and Corbett in the audience, and Bowie singing backing vocals.
*reaffirming cancer’s status, as if there was ever any doubt, as an entirely stupid and shitty disease
We’re three months through the 52 Weeks: 52 Books reading extravaganza now, and after February’s glut of reading, the pace slowed a little during March, and I only read two books this month, and half of CJ Sansom’s Lamentation. In my defense, Lamentation is really long, and I’ve got it in hardback so it’s also really heavy, which means I can only hold it up to read for relatively short periods. Seriously it’s a massive great brick of a thing. I’m living in terror of dropping it on my face and breaking my nose.
Anyway, the books that I have read were:
The Story of You is a women’s fiction/chick lit (nope – I still haven’t settled on a better term) novel about a community psychiatric nurse. It’s a proper page-turner. I absolutely whipped through it despite there being elements of the heroine’s behaviour that gave me severe range (seriously – patient confidentiality anyone??). It was a really interesting read in that I could write chapter and verse about the things that I didn’t think worked, but at no point did I ever think of putting the book down and walking away. There’s a lesson for writers there – if the story is utterly engrossing, you can basically do anything you like with the rest of the novel.
My second book for the month was an impulse read that I picked up the day after Terry Pratchett went for his walk with Death. I’ve loved Terry Pratchett since I was a teenager and am still in love with his work right through to today. He used an entirely imagined place to say very serious things about the real world, but without ever slipping into preaching or lecturing. Everything he wanted to say, was said through story. Guards! Guards! is the eighth Discworld novel, and the first to focus on Sam Vimes and the City Watch. The Watch are probably my favourite set of Discworld characters, although I do like Death, and the Witches, and well, the point is Discworld books are awesome. When Terry P’s death was announced via Twitter I was sad to a level that seemed kind of unbecoming over a man I’d never met. If you’ve never read any of his work, then you’ve got lots of be happy about – there are forty-one Discworld books, and further children’s books, and stand alone novels written alone and in collaboration with others. (Good Omens, written with Neil Gaiman is particularly brilliant.) Read one today.
So far as 52 Weeks: 52 Books goes, it has been a slow month. This partly because of the massiveness of Lamentation, but also because I’ve been doing edits on my soon-to-be-released novel for Choc Lit, which means that I’ve read that book three times during March, and I’ve probably got at least one more read through to go. I think editing and revising a manuscript probably puts the brakes on reading even more than actual writing does. Revising is all about holding the intricacies and the structure of a story in your head and mentally tweaking and adding and taking away until you feel like the whole thing hangs together. I find it incredibly difficult to do that whilst also giving attention to other stories.
So that was March. Come back in a month and we’ll find out how April goes – specifically whether I manage to finish Lamentation without doing myself an injury.
So it’s the end of month one in the great year of reading many books. Here’s how it’s going so far. I steamed through Book 1: Mhairi McFarlane’s It’s Not You, It’s Me in the first couple of days of the year, and I’ve followed that up with:
I’m not going to do reviews on all 52 of the year’s books because a) life is short, and b) the whole idea of 52 weeks: 52 books is to rediscover a love of reading, not to add a whole new level of it feeling like a chore, but I do totally reserve the right to review the ones I feel like reviewing and offer general musings on the whole reading endeavour.
So, my favourite book from this crop was A Night on the Orient Express which I devoured in less than 24 hours. It was all the things I like best in a book – uplifting but with depth and interest. The novel follows five distinct storylines, linked by the setting of the Orient Express. I love a good multiple protagonist story but, even in the best, you often find that there are some storylines you could happily skip over to get to the better bits. That wasn’t the case this time, and, even better, Veronica Henry has written loads of books, so I get the additional joy of discovering an author I’ve never read before who has a back catalogue I can now start working my way through. Yippee!
It hasn’t been entirely reading plain sailing this month though. I started, but abandoned JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, for reasons that I think are only about 15% the fault of the book. The Casual Vacancy is another multiple narrator story, which introduces lots of characters very quickly. I think that would have been fine if I’d had a free hour for my first reading session on the book, but I ended up reading ten minutes here and there and forgetting who everyone was, a problem that was made worse by the fact that I was reading on my kindle. I love my kindle, but it is much harder to flick back and remind yourself who’s who on an ereader than in a paper book. Then I got sick with Weird Hacking Cough Disease* which was primarily eased by sitting in the bath, and used the ‘I don’t want to take my kindle in the bath’ excuse to abandon The Casual Vacancy, in favour of Adele Parks, who better satisfied the ‘I’m poorly – I need something fun to read’ impulse anyway. I suspect that over the year we may discover that I am generally more likely to abandon a book on kindle than on paper, which will be a mildly interesting thing to learn. This has also left me with a quandary about whether to go back to The Casual Vacancy. As I say I suspect the abandonment was more about my fuzzy poorly-girl brain than the book itself, but I’ve just found out that there’s a TV adaptation coming up in a couple of weeks. Given that I probably will watch the TV version, do I really want to read the book straight before it, or would it be better to leave the book until later in the year?
Anyway, I’m now onto February’s reading, kicked off with Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers. I’m not generally a crime girl, but part of the idea of 52 Books is to read as widely as possible, and January has been quite commercial women’s fiction** heavy. Strong Poison was a recommendation from my senior sibling who definitely is a crime girl (fictional crime only – she hardly ever does an actual murder), and I’m quite enjoying it, but technically it’s a February book, so more on that next time.
* Definitely its proper medical name