I’ve been an Elvis fan since Heartbreak Hotel and a Beatles fan since Love Me Do. The number of books and articles I’ve read about both of them should probably embarrass me. You might think that I wouldn’t need to read any more, but John and Elvis by Matthew Langford takes a different approach and I recommend it to anyone interested in those times and those guys. What Langford has done that is different is to get inside the heads of both John Lennon and Elvis Presley in a way that makes you feel you understand why they did what they did in a way you hadn’t understood it before. I guess the best way of describing the book is that it’s a cross between a documentary and a novel – though a very fact-based novel.
It would be difficult to read this book without coming to the conclusion that Presley was as mad as a hatter and Lennon (to put it mildly) differently sane – but that’s probably inevitable when you reach that level of fame. Lennon pooh-poohs the very idea of religion but thinks it entirely rational to plan major life events on the basis of a study of numbers. Presley meets Ronald Reagan and finds himself wondering whether Soviet brainwashers have got at the President. (That’s right – Ronald Reagan. It would be difficult for most of us to imagine a less likely candidate).
When you get to the end of this book, you feel you’ve learned something about both Lennon and Presley that you didn’t know before. (You’ve also learned a few things about Paul McCartney, and a few others from that time). That doesn’t happen very often nowadays when you’re reading about people who have already been so thoroughly explored in print.
This could be the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read.
I bought this book because I had previously bought and enjoyed History’s Greatest Deceptions and Confidence Scams. That book wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough that I wanted to see what they’d written next. And I am so glad I did. Where Are They? shows what happens when writers gain confidence in what they are doing. This book soars to the heights – both in its subject matter and literally, as a masterpiece in conveying information.
The title comes from physicist Enrico Fermi who said, about theories that Earth should already have received extraterrestrial visitors and yet no convincing evidence of a visit existed, “Where is everybody?” The universe should be teeming with civilisations at one level of development or another – so where are they?
The book examines all the current theories that have been developed to answer this question. It takes no sides. It simply sets out the present state of knowledge. But it does so in the most brilliant, beautiful prose. So brilliant that I would recommend this book even to readers with no interest in the search for alien intelligence, simply because they will enjoy the limpid prose and the humour with which the arguments are presented.
Here is an example:
‘Imagine that you are in the same position as one of those alien astronauts being tapped up for a journey to Earth from the galaxy MACS0647-JD. It’s 13.3 billion light years away, so – if your civilisation has developed a form of transportation that will travel at the speed of light – the time spent on the journey is unimaginable. Would you want to do it? Leave the kids, your husband and your book club knowing that at the end of your journey you would encounter a civilisation a few hundred millennia less developed than yours? And that you couldn’t get home for nearly 27 billion years at the earliest, by which time your planet would in all possibility have come to the end of its life? And that, when you arrived on Earth, your body would have been renewed some eighty times, so you wouldn’t really still be you at all?’
Not a single prominent theory about the evolution of life forms has been left out. It’s also clear that the authors take a dim (they would probably say “realistic”) view of humanity’s fitness to receive visitors from another civilisation.
I’ll say it again: this could be the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read. Do yourself the most amazing favour and READ IT.
I read Required Writing by Philip Larkin when it came out in 1983. It’s been sitting on my shelves ever since and a couple of days ago I decided to read it again. It was a good decision, because there was so much I had forgotten. Like this, from an interview he gave to Paris Review. He had been asked whether he shared his manuscripts with anyone before publishing them and whether he had any friends whose advice he would follow in revising a poem:
I shouldn’t normally show what I’d written to anyone; what would be the point? You remember Tennyson reading an unpublished poem to Jowett; when he had finished, Jowett said, ‘I shouldn’t publish that if I were you, Tennyson.’ Tennyson replied, ‘If it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at lunch was downright filthy.’ That’s about all that can happen.
I read that last night, sitting outside after dinner (the summer here has been wonderful so far and I’d much rather sit outside reading until the sun goes down than spend the time indoors) and I couldn’t stop laughing. When I read it again this morning to write this, I was laughing again. I think it’s wonderful. Don’t you?
(I was also very taken with his answer to the question, “Is Jorge Luis Borges the only other contemporary poet of note who was also a librarian, by the way? Are you aware of any others?” Larkin’s answer? ‘Who is Jorge Luis Borges?’ Honestly, people regard Larkin as the poet of melancholy but he had a wonderful sense of humour.
How do you choose the next book to read?
If you’re anything like me, it’s a fairly random process – but you do have a small number of authors whose books you know you’re going to want to read as soon they come out. For example, I’ve just finished The Dark Angel, the latest in the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths. I pre-ordered it the day it was announced, because I’ve read all the earlier Ruth Galloway books and I knew I’d want to read this one. (I’ve finished it now, and it did not disappoint).
There aren’t many authors like that – names that are so reliable that you know the book is going to be a great read. Elly Griffiths is one. Jane Davis is another. I first came to her books when I read, I Stopped Time. On 12 April 2018, she’s releasing her new book, Smash all the Windows and you can pre-order it here at a special price. I’ve never met Jane (I’ve never met Elly Griffiths, either), but we have corresponded a couple of times (she put me onto the designer of the cover for The Making of Billy McErlane) and that gave me the courage to ask about the new book – where it came from, and how she went about writing it. Those are interesting questions in Jane’s case, because – unlike most authors – she doesn’t write the same book again and again. Since winning the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008 with her first book, Half-truths & White Lies, everything she has written has been a new attempt to tell her own truth in her own way. This is what she had to say.
Jane Davis talking about Smash all the Windows
My advice if you’re embarking on a novel? Stick to fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian fiction, anything. Just don’t meddle in current affairs.
My novel began with outrage. I remember that so vividly. I was appalled by the reaction of the press to the outcome of the second Hillsborough inquest. Microphones were thrust at the families of the victims as they emerged from the courtroom. It was put to them that, now it was ‘all over’, they could finally get on with their lives. ‘What lives?’ I yelled at the television. Were they talking about the lives that the families enjoyed before the tragedy? Because they clearly no longer existed. And neither did the lives that they might have expected.
For those who don’t know about the Hillsborough disaster, a crush occurred at Hillsborough football stadium during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, killing 96 fans. Particularly shocking at a time that pre-dated the internet was how the disaster played out in real-time in living rooms the length and breadth of the country. The moment the severity of the incident became apparent to senior police officers, there was a cover-up. With no reason to doubt incoming information, sports commentators simply repeated the lies they were fed. Liverpool fans were to blame. From that time onwards, everything done perpetuated a myth, making scapegoats out of victims and survivors alike. It would be twenty-seven years before the record was set record straight.
Elizabeth Strout, an author I greatly admire, warns her writing students, ‘You can’t write fiction and be careful. You just can’t. I think actually the biggest challenge a writer has is to not be careful.’ And I agree. I really do. But none of us exists in a vacuum. The pain I saw on the faces of family members in the aftermath of the second inquest, twenty-seven years after the disaster, was raw. My favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’. Making things up is what I do. And so I combined two of my fears – travelling in rush hour by Tube, and escalators – and created a fictional disaster from which to tell my story.
The previous year, I had suffered a fall on my way to a book-reading in Covent Garden. I was overloaded, having just finished a day’s work in the city. I was carrying my laptop bag, my briefcase, plus a suitcase full of books. The escalator I normally use was out of order. Instead we were diverted to one that was obviously much steeper but I wasn’t prepared for how much faster it would go. I pushed my suitcase in front of me and, holding onto the handle, was dragged off-balance. Fortunately, there was no one directly in front of me. A few bruises and a pair of laddered lights aside, I escaped unscathed. But I can still recall the moment I knew I was about to fall and the recognition that there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it.
Even while avoiding writing about Hillsborough, I intended that my fictional disaster would share many common elements. Because both incidents happened before the explosion of the internet, people’s voices weren’t heard as they would be today. Photographs weren’t taken on mobile phones and posted online. In both instances there was someone in a position of seniority who was new to the job. There were elements of institutionalised complacency. (It’s said that the most dangerous sentence in the English language is ‘But we’ve always done things that way.’) Facilities dated from decades when the relationship between pedestrian traffic-flow and human space requirements wasn’t as well understood as it is today. Risk assessments had failed to consider the possibility that more than thing might go wrong at any given time and how multiple-casualty emergencies would be dealt with. Both disasters blighted the lives of many hundreds – survivors, witnesses, families, friends and the police, doctors and nurses who had to deal with the aftermath. I wanted to reflect the extraordinary pressure endured by the Hillsborough families following their treatment when searching for loved ones. Similar insensitive treatment was seen in the aftermath of tragedies such as Lockerbie/PanAm and The Marchioness). This has led to a report calling for three crucial cultural changes: a charter for families bereaved by public tragedy; provision for proper participation of bereaved families at inquests and the creation of a ‘duty of candour’ for police officers.
But even when writing about a fictional incident, I soon found myself facing difficulties of a different kind. Broadcasts and broadsheets were dominated by large-scale disasters, many of them terrorist attacks. Paris was already on my mind, but Nice, Berlin, Manchester… Then in May 2017 came the London Bridge attack, an incident that took place within the setting for my novel. I witnessed first-hand the bouquets of red roses that spanned the full width of the bridge. Handwritten messages to loved ones gradually blurring in all that London’s weather could throw at them. And the photographs of the victims, all those devastating, beautiful obituaries.
Susan Sontag said, ‘Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape.’ I couldn’t avoid that imagery overlaying my research. There is no doubt that some of will have made subtle inroads onto the pages of my novel, no matter how hard I resisted. But I had to make conscious decisions about if, and then how, I should let these disasters change the shape of the story I was writing. I had already realised that I didn’t want to write a book about blame. I felt this would do an injustice to the many individuals who behave heroically in the most terrible circumstances. Added to which, all of my research about accident investigation told me that any finding that an individual to blame is not only likely be biased, but the investigation will have failed to get to the root of how the disaster happened. Corporate Manslaughter remains an option, but I’m not sure there has been a single successful conviction since the concept was introduced, and there are dangers in blaming organisations. Unwittingly, in setting my disaster in an Underground station, I picked one of the best examples of an organisation that is subjected to crippling external pressures, London’s rapidly growing population being the most obvious. Add to this the inherent difficulties in expanding the Tube network. And nowhere are these problem more concentrated than in the City of London. I certainly didn’t hold London Underground to be responsible for my fictional disaster.
Then in June 2017 came the Grenfell Fire, the most heart-breaking tragedy of recent years, not only because of the enormous scale of the devastation, but because facts quickly emerged to suggest that the spread of the fire and its horrific consequences could have been prevented. Inadvertently, in avoiding writing about Hillsborough, I now risked creating the impression that I was commentating on two London disasters and, given that I live in London rather than Liverpool, wasn’t this more likely? Of course, having made a decision to write about unblame rather than blame, I was also seriously out of step with public opinion.
Fortunately, the focus of my novel isn’t the disaster, but human drama. My real challenge was to translate the emotional fallout onto the page with delicacy and honesty and in a way that gave the characters dignity. That meant capturing all of the guarded memories, the survivor guilt, the hidden sorrow of a man whose wife will no longer leave the house, the man who mourns not only the loss of a daughter but his unborn grandson and the end of his family line, a woman who beats herself up for having been a bad mother, the daughter who must assume position as head of the household, the sculptor who translates all their grief into art, the sheer heroism involved in the act of getting up day after day and going out into a world that has betrayed you. Then there’s the perseverance, all of that drive and fight for justice, getting it down on the blank page and delivering something that gives cause for hope. There always has to be a story. Mine is about human resilience and the healing power of art.
What’s Smash all the Windows about?
It has taken conviction to right the wrongs.
It will take courage to learn how to live again.
For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.
Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.
If only it were that simple.
Tapping into the issues of the day, Davis delivers a highly charged work of metafiction, a compelling testament to the human condition and the healing power of art.
Written with immediacy, style and an overwhelming sense of empathy, Smash all the Windows will be enjoyed by readers of How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall and How to be Both by Ali Smith.
So who is Jane Davis?
Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis is the author of eight novels.
She spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she wanted after all. It was then that she turned to writing.
Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008. Of her subsequent three novels, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless’. Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and has been shortlisted for two further awards.
Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she isn’t writing, you may spot her disappearing up a mountain with a camera in hand. Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.
Also by Jane Davis