High Rise by J.G. Ballard:Why have I never read this before?

If the job of an opening line is to grab the reader’s attention, Ballard’s novel does not disappoint.

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

Now, I am a big dog lover but I confess I was intrigued enough to continue. The book the retraces the previous three months and how an urbane professional such as Dr. Laing ends up roasting an Alsatian on his balcony. 

High Rise is a dystopian narrative of how swiftly social niceties fall apart in a new architectural tower block inhabited by the professional classes. The story starts with Dr. Laing, recently divorced, living in a single flat part way up the high rise. Laing plays squash, attends drinks parties and works as a lecturer at a medical school. He generally enjoys a life of languid isolation, though pressured to engage socially by his sister who also lives in the tower block. Things begin to change for Laing when Royal, the building’s architect and inhabitant of the penthouse, declines a squash engagement,  and a rich jewellers wife begins to disagree with some of the families who live on the lower levels. Minor disagreements are exacerbated as the building begins to experience power fluctuations and occasional blackouts. Then, two deaths occur, an Afghan hound is drowned in a swimming pool and the rich jeweller plummets to his death from the roof.

Ballard guides the reader through the narrative by focusing on a few key characters, Royal the architect, Wilder, a filmmaker who lives with his wife and two children on the second floor and Laing. The women in these men’s lives begin at the peripheries of the story and gradually move to the centre as civilised lives move to tribal packs and then disintegrate into primal survival. Ballard questions the nature of humanity, of the values of class and society in the same way H.G Wells shows human degeneration in The Time Machine. The curious part of High Rise is that, in essence, all the people who live in the tower block are ‘haves’, no one is actually poor, but some are poorer that others. Ballard questions how we live together, what binds people to certain patterns of behaviour and how we identify our ‘tribe’. Though written in the 1970s it remains as pertinent today, almost half a century later, as it holds up a mirror to the idea of a civilised society. 

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The Lie Tree.

  
There are some among my friends who curled their lips when I said I was reading ‘The Lie Tree’ because it is a YA book. They were wrong. This is a great story, original and exciting with a plot that twists and turns whilst questioning the place of women in science and in society in a way which is relevant in the contemporary world as well as the late Victorian setting.

The basic plot is a prestigious palentologist Vicar moves his family to a new dig where he has been invited as he is simultaneously fleeing bad press, exposing his fossil discovery as a fraud. The story centres around his brilliant daughter, invisible because of her sex, who works out what her father has really been hiding all along. The characterisation is excellent as is the evocation of the historical setting. The story slowly comes into focus around the female characters as they grasp for survival in the lower middle class man’s world of the small island community. As well as being a great story the book asks questions about how we believe things, through evidence and enquiry. It explores the very nature of truth and how we are capable of believing lies more than truth when it suits our purposes and it is belief that brings a lie to life.

I want to keep the plot under wraps because this is a story really worth reading, spend a lazy Sunday afternoon curled up reading this book. Then wonder how much I’m telling you the truth…

A Tale of Two Cities.

It’s ages since I read some Dickens, so one of my reading challenges this year is to re-read some I haven’t looked at for a long time and then read some I have never quite got round to, like Martin Chuzzlewit. This has been partly inspired by the BBC’s production “Dickensian”, which reminded me how vividly Dicken’s draws his characters and evokes Victorian London. So,why did I begin with one of his novels that is not set in his own time, but one of his historical novels. Well, one reason is that it was on my shelf. The Penguin Random House cloth bound classics are a guilty pleasure and I do buy a few each year, by a few I mean six- or seven. Book addicts probably underestimate the extent if their habit too. The other reason was because the lady who runs the book club I attend said she hated it as a novel and had never got to the end. The last time I read it I was a teenager and I wondered if the romantic, historical glasses I had worn from the age of twelve had clouded my judgement and memory of the story.

Being honest, it took me a while to get into the story. The first few chapters felt to drift along until Dr. Manette is finally reunited with his daughter and we meet Mr. & Mme. Defarge. I did at times put the novel down and read something a little less weighty, just to let the story sink in. I suspect that this is how it was read when first published as a magazine series, a little at a time. However, once the scene is set and all the characters introduced, I was hooked. Dicken’s ability to immerse the reader in the Terror of the French Revolution whilst showing how life goes on, bakers bake bread, pharmacists trade, wine sellers stay open and bankers hide assets, is almost like reading a first hand account of a war zone. His characters move between strength and failure, especially Dr. Manette whose personality shows the fragility of the human mind when hope is gone. Dicken’s does not demonise the Redcaps even though they threaten to end the life of his hero Darney, but identifies the failure of justice for the common people. Even the bloodthirsty Mme. Defarge is proved to have a motive for her vengeance though it remains ultimately un-sated. Of course, the real hero of the story is Sydney Carton whose self sacrifice for the love of Lucie gives the book one of the greatest of closing lines.

Though, reading the book later in life, I felt he also had a redemptive ‘awakening’, if not a religious conversion, a conversion to live his life differently, erasing the years of alcoholism. As it is nearly Valentines Day as I write this, I think a quote of his love for Lucie is needed.

I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul.

Often, critics comment that if Dickens were writing today he would be writing for T.V. This book is long overdue for a TV adaptation. This is where the BBC should go after War and Peace, the French Revolution ( maybe followed up by a non musical Les Miserables?). 

 

On coping with writer’s block (or the lies we tell ourselves along the way)

Me and the dog blog was born to just make me write!

Black coffee and cigarettes

writing 2

I haven’t written for a very long time.

I joined a creative writing class a while ago to help me through my ‘writer’s block’ – can you call yourself a writer if you don’t write? – and I managed to produce a total of 500 words over the entire four-week course. A paltry amount by any standards, though the course itself was brilliant.

One of the suggestions from my fellow writers was to write about why I don’t write. I’ve been thinking a lot about the reasons I don’t write lately so this seemed as good a place to kick off my writing again as any. And also address why I call myself a writer in the first place – a hard sell in the writing void of the last few months.

In my professional life, I have been a public relations consultant, a journalist and now, an editor. Words…

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Life unfolds

This is my first blog. I decided that I should blog, it would make me write more frequently and in a new format. I went for a walk to choose a subject, thinking it would be education or something reflective on the difficulties of starting your own business. The dog had other ideas. As I mused on the autumn leaves and the warm sunshine this late October day, the dog rolled in the rotting remains of a duck. She got a particularly thick coating on her collar and, despite numerous swims in the river, this remained when we got home. No doubt what followed will one day form a hilarious interlude in a story about an evil chocolate labrador, when my nose has forgotten the stench of something worse than a garage toilet in Delhi. I have learnt it is almost impossible to pin down a soapy lab with rubber gloves in, bare hands are needed. When tided up, a labrador will whimper in a way to melt your heart as you spray her with the cold hosepipe until, that is, she shakes the shampoo and any remaining bits of duck on you. The LAWS OF THE UNIVERSE will also declare that when you strip in front of your washing machine and sprint for the shower, there will be no hot water- then the window cleaner arrived…

Now the wood stove is lit I am drinking tea and completing a job application and I have learned that no matter how much I want to make a dint in the universe, being a Labrador owner will always keep me a step away from pomposity. P.S. the collar is now in the bin…Image