BLOG POST: Guest blog from regular customer Chris Coates


“I asked the doctor to take my fingers off; he refused, so I pulled them off myself and felt
absolutely no pain in doing it”.

I suppose it’s inevitable that as a middle-aged man I’ve started reading military history, but I’ll say this for Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart’s Happy Odyssey: I don’t think it’s typical of the genre. In a long career, Carton de Wiart was shot in the ankle, ear, face, head, hip, leg, and stomach, survived two plane crashes, escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp, and probably inspired the “fire-eating” Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. He also – as you can see above – lost part of a hand, although not entirely due to enemy action. His finest hour came during WWI, when someone asked him to be a second in a duel over a woman. He went to see the opponent, who was worried about getting into trouble, duelling having been outlawed about a century earlier. Carton de Wiart replied that:

“the war was on, everyone [was] too busy to be interested, and … it would be simple to go to some secluded spot like Ashdown Forest with a can of petrol and cremate the remains of whichever was killed … He promptly sat down and wrote an affidavit not to see the lady again.”

You can probably see why this book from 1950 is still in print, can’t you?

Mind you, Bernard Wasserstein’s The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln, isn’t, and that’s about a Hungarian Jew who became a Protestant missionary, an Anglican priest, MP for Darlington, a Nazi collaborator and finally a Buddhist abbot in China. It’s non-fiction, obviously, because it has a plot no-one could invent. One sentence reads:

“The flight of Hess and the round-up of the mystics ensured that Trebitsch would be given no opportunity to conjure three wise men out of the wall for the benefit of Hitler.”

…and I think it would spoil it if I tried to explain. Plus we’d be here all day.

Moving forward to the 1980s, I bought a copy of The Satanic Verses at Red Lion Books in August after someone who needs to read less narrowly almost robbed us of its author. Unlike the copy I bought in the 1990s, though, I actually read this one. Wild, strange, sometimes hard work, but rich, rewarding, and – all too appropriately – brimming with life in the face of death:

“…how beautifully everyone behaved in the presence of the dying man: the young spoke to him intimately about their lives, as if reassuring him that life itself was invincible, offering him the rich consolation of being a member of the great procession of the human race…”

I re-read one of Rushdie’s friends and contemporaries, too: Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. It’s still glorious.

“We must all make do with what rags of love we find flapping on the scarecrow of humanity.”

I mean: blimey. Alex Pheby’s Mordew, from Galley Beggar Press, is another book that conjures up a fully realised world and leaves you with that feeling when you finish it of having to adjust back to reality. And it has great lines like:

“When he bent, the fabric on his arse stretched so tight that it looked as if two bald priests
were sharing the same felt cap.”

In a similar vein, Andreas Eschbach’s The Hair Carpet Weavers is set in a detailed alternate reality, and – even if you’re into science fiction – will be nothing like anything you’ve ever read. It’s recently come out in Penguin’s science fiction classics – which have beautiful covers, and are that old-fashioned thing: a paperback you can actually fit in a pocket.

Back in the real world, my sister’s friend Ruth d’Alessandro published Calling WPC Crockford, a fictionalised account of her pioneering 1950s police officer mother. I read the online preview, thinking patronisingly to myself, “Well, I’ll have a look, and probably find it’s fine, but not for me”.

Reader, I ordered a copy immediately.

There’s a lovely scene where Gwen Crockford is pushing bits of swede unenthusiastically around her plate in Mrs Cunningham’s boarding house, and makes a lifelong friend in West Indian nurse Suzette.

“You looking for the beef?” she whispered. … “You’re going to be looking for a long time …
I’ve been looking since 1949, and I still haven’t found any.”

It’s one of those things you can’t put down, and which makes you feel you’re in good company throughout. Thanks to my local indie bookshop, I’ll be transported to more places, and put inside other people’s heads, in 2023 as well. If the team will forgive me, though, I wonder if anything will match the joy of finding a book called Cotswold Privies by Archers actress Mollie Harris and photographer Sue Chapman in the Oxfam shop for £1.99…@MulberryCoates