Most Improved

Countless lists of ‘Books of the Year’ have been printed in recent weeks, and I am shocked to see my soon-to-be-completed memoir, Conversations with Speyer, appears on only two of them. Max Doczek of the Prague Times describes the book as ‘memorable, in its own peculiar way’, whilst Julie der Pritzinger of the St Helena Quarterly Book Club Gazette as ‘a law unto itself’. She adds: ‘I have only read two autobiographical works this year, and the other one was by Morrissey. On this basis, Riecke wins the gong for best memoir’. I know not of this Morrissey character, but I will take this as a compliment.

In other news, a literary magazine based in Haapsalu, Estonia, has awarded me the title of ‘Most Improved Critic of 2013’. Considering that I produced almost no criticism this last year, this also comes as something of a surprise.

Of the Seasonal Sort

It is perhaps inevitable that, having agreed to transcribe the remaining pages of my adventurous memoir Conversations with Speyer, my old friend Jean-Pierre Sertin has (in his words), ‘succumbed to an illness of the seasonal sort’. In light of this, I ask my readers to be patient in their wait for the next part in the series.

I could, of course, fill up the space with witty and perceptive anecdotes relating to my new life here in America. Unfortunately, in the face of such institutions as sweet potato chips cooked in maple syrup, words fail me.

A Little Light Consoling is Required

J-P Sertin writes again:


I returned to your house last night. It’s not a bad place, all told. A little damp for my liking, but that’s par for the course in this part of the city, is it not? It might also have something to do with the windows. Forgive me for pointing this out, but I do worry about your books. Don’t you think it might be better for me to look after some of them whilst you are away? Granted, my own flat has had its fair share of disasters (three months since the latest fire and counting) but at least they’d go down being read. There’s nothing sadder than a great collection of books sitting in an empty house. It is too cruel of you to have abandoned your babies! If you listen hard enough, you can hear them whimpering away. They miss their owners. They want to be read again; to be held again; to have their spines caressed by your fat stubby fingers.

Needless to say I am doing what I can to soften the blow of your departure. I have always been the consoling sort: you know that. If I see a book, or a woman, in distress, I put on my consoling hat, my comforting jacket, and my calming shoes, and I step forward into the fray. You cannot hold me back when a little light consoling is required. One loves to soothe, does one not? Oh yes, you have left your book collection in a fine pair of hands, dear Georgy. I will cradle your books. When they ask for solace, I shall provide. When they scream for relief, I shall come running. ‘Succour’ is my middle name. Jean-Pierre Succour Sertin. It has a ring to it, has it not?

As I march around your dear deserted house at night I like to think of myself as an officer in the foreign legion, defending a fort in the dark. And lord knows there is much to defend! Perhaps you should have employed an armed guard to ensure that your collection does not fall into enemy hands? We wouldn’t want anyone to get their grubby hands on your complete compendium of early twentieth-century Castilian comics, would we? And that peculiar sculpture of which I spoke last week. The more I see it, the more I am convinced that it is a masterpiece. I mean to say, it’s a horrible piece of work. But this is horribleness of the very highest order. It is the sort of thing which will not, nay cannot, be understood within our lifetime. It is too great for the times – which is why it needs to be looked after carefully. Future generations will thank us, profusely, for having the foresight not to throw it out, however much we feel we should. I only have to glance at it and I feel compelled to smash it to pieces. And yet I resist, if not for my own sake, than for the sake of future generations (god bless their little unborn souls).

When you gave me the key to your house (still lost, by the way: wherever could it be?) I must confess that I wasn’t too excited. By and large I don’t enjoy doing menial tasks for friends. My brother once asked me to water his plants for him whilst he took a holiday. I bowed out after the first day. It wasn’t the job for me. But this one has turned out rather differently. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I am actively enjoying my role as guardian of your property. I am not only enjoying it: I am somewhere close to taking it seriously. It’s not often that one is given the opportunity to snoop around a friend’s house. And to snoop at one’s leisure, over the course of several weeks! This is too good to be true. You have spoilt me, dear Georgy!

I can only hope that you are enjoying yourself as much as I am (though I doubt it, having left all your good books back in England). You must write, you know, and tell me of your adventures. How is your dear wife getting on? How are you coping with her continuing success as a poet – and your enduring lack of progress as a writer and researcher? I simply must know!

Ever yours, in theory,

J-P Sertin

P.S. I suppose you are wondering whether I have tracked down your memoirs, as requested? The truth is that I haven’t yet found the time to step up my search. I’ve been looking, in a casual sort of way, but nothing systematic as yet. Maybe later in the week?

 [see Sertin’s earlier letter here]

Back to the Ek

Waking this morning at six o’clock a thin thought, about the length and width of an adolescent slow worm, winded its way through my sleep-deprived mind. What in heaven’s dear name has happened to Edmund Ek? It has been more than three years since I last reported on his self-imposed exile to a lake-side cabin in Northern Norway. Immediately following his move to the middle-of-nowhere stories of his strange behaviour dominated Scandanavian literary magazines. Every sighting of him, or his cat, fueled new rumours. He was writing a Buddhist manga, said one.  He had changed his name to ‘Edmund the Honest’ said another. Others claimed that he had stopped writing altogether. He was drawing, mostly. Or he was writing a series of erotic sonnets, such as the world has never seen. Then again, maybe he was re-writing his second novel in the first person (or was it his first novel in the third?). Or was he, perhaps, adapting Shakespeare for the banjo?

For the last few months, however, there has been no news of Ek whatsoever. Not a solitary, lonely little bean. I know not whether he is still in the wilderness, or whether he has wound his wilful way back to Oslo.

What I do know, though, is this. About ten years ago Ek came to give a talk at a certain university on the East Coast of America; the same one, as it happens, where I am currently residing. It was early days in his career, and he was still basking in the glow of The Incredible Expletive Shock, for which he had been branded ‘the Norwegian Salinger’. His talk (which took place in the same auditorium my wife is expected to fill in a few months) attracted huge numbers of devoted fans, many of them women. What no one realised at the time, however, was that the man who gave the talk was not Ek at all, but an actor impersonating Ek. The writer himself was seated in the audience, in the fourth row. This arrangement had not been planned, but was sprung upon the hapless organisers only minutes before the event took place. Did Ek have stage fright? No, not at all. He simply loved messing with people.

As it was, he couldn’t bear to be upstaged by his impersonator. During the talk he kept up a running commentary from his seat, frequently shouting out words such as ‘rubbish!’, ‘nonsense!’ and ‘wrong again!’ When it was time for questions he dominated the floor, hauling the poor actor across the coals, and bemusing almost everyone else. At one point he launched a vicious attack on his own book, describing it as a ‘pitiful, poorly written, cry for help, which should never have been published in any language, let alone fourteen’. The more it went on, the more embarrassing it got. Who was this impertinent man in the fourth row, thought the other attendees? And why doesn’t anyone throw him out? The truth, of course, was that the organisers knew exactly who it was, and hadn’t the confidence to throw the writer out of his own event.

Exactly what Ek was trying to prove – if he was trying to prove anything, remains a mystery. Suffice it to say that this will go down as one of those events that annoyed everyone at the time, only to be remembered fondly. As one organiser admitted to me: ‘on the night I wished I’d been someplace else. In retrospect I couldn’t be gladder that I was there’. I, for one, am grateful that I wasn’t.  These young, preening writers are more than I can manage.


Why am I in America? As noted earlier, my wife was invited here by a certain East Coast University to bolster their already burgeoning reputation for the study of Eastern European poetry. She is expected to give three lectures each semester, and to take part in ‘x’ number of symposiums, seminars and champagne soirees. In addition to this she is under orders to be ‘as productive, in a creative sense, as circumstances allow’; which is to say that they expect her to write at least two stonkingly brilliant poems a month. At least one of these poems, they hope, will reflect on her new life in America, with particular reference to one of the following: a. the marvellous eccentricity of campus architecture, b. the stupefying beauty of the surrounding countryside, c. the relationship between ‘family’ and ‘community’. Just after Thanksgiving she will be expected to give a public reading of her 1990 poetic cycle Tightening the Threads Till the Camel Comes. This is expected to sell out the largest University auditorium, named after the only daughter of a mildly successful entrepreneur who died during the Civil War (the entrepreneur that is, not his daughter, who went on to become a highly popular circus performer, and not the scholar her father wished for).

I am expected, merely, to behave. Only time will tell whether this is beyond my capabilities.

The Madness of Moving

It is as I suspected. I have left my memoirs back in Britain. In the madness of moving, several boxes were misplaced, one of which included my hand-written copy of Conversations with Speyer, only half of which has been typed up onto the computer. This is not a tragedy, but as readers of the introduction will appreciate, it is rather ironic. Hopefully I can persuade Jean-Pierre Sertin to leave his shady corner at The Crippled Bee one afternoon and steal over to my house to retrieve the guilty boxes. Till then, we are stranded at the end of Chapter Six, Part Three.

In other news I have, as you can probably surmise, officially left the country. Once an Old Englander, I can now claim to be a New Englander. This wholesale relocation ought to have brought with it a torrent of new impressions, ideas and anecdotes. In one sense it has. Yet it has also brought with it a certain mental numbness. Or to put it another way: it has worn me down. I have been stimulated, yes, but the fruits of this stimulation have yet to ripen.

When they do so, suffice it to say that you, my dear readers, will be first in line to take a bite from the juicy peaches of my new found wisdom.

Road Rage

I like to think that this blog has, over the past five years, canoed its merry way across a vast ocean of curious subjects, from the psychedelic properties of pineapple juice to the presence of economic facts in fiction. There is one topic, however, which I cannot claim to have covered in any shape or form. This is motoring.

Why have I never steered my worthy vessel in this particular direction? The reason is, as all good reasons are, rather simple. I know absolutely nothing about it. Show me a car, a lorry or a tram, and all I see is an assemblage of painted metal and plastic: a cramped, angular sculpture in which humans willingly trap themselves for hours on end in bare-faced denial of the existence of legs.

It is probably fair to say that I have more interest in the molecular structure of sparrow faeces, or the mass production of plastic figurines in Southern China, than I do in motoring. To me, this is no bad thing. It does, however, it put me at a grave disadvantage when it comes to conversing with other human beings. Having nothing to say on the subject of motoring is, in many circles, tantamount to lacking the basic language skills. People simply don’t know how to deal with you.

Granted, in literary circles (or any literary shape, for that matter) motoring is not brought up with as much frequency as it is in other walks, or motorways, of life. To say that it is absent as a topic would nevertheless be a lie. Many are the soirees I have attended that have been dominated by talk of turbo engines, fuel consumptions and the relative merits of various global positioning systems. Sometimes I wish I knew what all of these things are; most often I’m glad that I don’t. It is enough to shuffle my feet nervously and request directions to the nearest bathroom, wherein I can whip out a copy of Don Quixote and imagine a world in which gear sticks did not exist.

What is it about motoring that excites people so? Roads have never done much for me. I care not if the A76 meets the M42 just outside Doncaster, or if the driving style of most Americans suggests a repressed suicide drive. Cars, to me, as are stimulating as car-park architecture. We could be chatting about Tosca Calbirro, the Bulgarian Farm Poets, or the latest issue of Gdansk Haunting. So why are we discussing the quickest route from Exeter to Stockport? From exhaust pipes to windscreen wipers, hub-caps to road maps, motoring must be one of the most tedious subjects I have ever encountered. It drives me mad.