The Last Days of Jack Sparks – Lord Arnopp Aces It

I’m going to get a nasty reputation for myself out of all this. I just know it. I’m going to get a reputation as a guy who clings sadly to the coat tails of all the successful writers here on Social Media. A puny little rat whose only gratification is this lark of pretending he knows great writers. 

Ah well, if the cap fits…

But it didn’t start out like this. Oh no. It started years and years ago on Twitter with a brace of naturally creative folk who often chatted to each other, just for shits and giggles. As the years progressed, and the chatting waned somewhat, an impressive proportion of this loose cohort stepped up to the plate to make tangible waves in the wider world of writing and general creativity. I won’t start naming names but you probably know who they are and there’s more of them on the way, just you wait and see. 

I sometimes equate it to a ‘Cambridge Footlights’ type of a set-up. A bunch of precociously talented people naturally migrated, for a time, to a casual ‘Bauhaus’ of creativity and then moved onward and upward. Of course I don’t place myself on this team. To continue the analogy, I was lucky enough to be an audience member at the ‘Footlights’ as it was all kicking off. 

Good times.

Anyway.

The latest of this mob to step blinking into the limelight of the Big Game is Jason Arnopp whose novel ‘The Last Days of Jack Sparks’ is currently wooing all comers. 

No no no. Wait. Strike that.

I reckon that Jason never once 'stepped ‘blinking' into anything in his entire life. If he’s coming in, he probably going to boot the door down or, at the very least, push the door open with his bum and ease inside with a quirky smile and a killer line or two.

Neither is Jason some feckin’ ‘Johnny-Come-Lately’, stumbling short-sightedly onto some ill deserved pot of gold. 

No, sir. Jason has earned these spurs of his. He’s been putting in the hard yards and filling the sweat buckets with his writing work for many the long year and seeing him righteously ascend with his new book is a joyous thing to behold. Respected commentators and celebs alike have queued up to sing the praises of this tome and, only in the last few days, it has become the current choice for the BBC Radio 2 Book Club. So, while the entire listenership of the BBC is having their eyeholes opened by the book, you can have a go at it too.

Fuck all that, Ken, is the book any good?

Why, yes, yes it is. 

‘Jack Sparks’ is a horror novel. This works because Lord Arnopp is literally steeped in horror. He has studied and immersed himself in and rolled about in horror all of his life. He is, for want of a better phrase, a big bucket of horror. And his novel is like a peeled pear, dropped into this big bucket of horror and left overnight and then lifted out and squeezed gently onto some virgin pages. It’s reverential, informed, knowing horror and fans of the genre will lap it all up like one of those post-modernist toothless vampires we see now and again. 

But, wait once more, ‘Jack Sparks’ is not a horror novel or, if it is, it is also so much more. Whilst being scary and bloody at times, Jason’s novel also goes much further. It captures the zeitgeist of the social media era like few other writers have managed to do. I was reminded of Jay Mcinerney’s debut novel ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ which tasted the 1980’s in much the same manner as Jason sips at the 2010’s. Jason explores the paradox that sits at the heart of Social Media. Although it is hugely interconnected and vibrant and buzzy and alive, it can also be a wasteland of loneliness and pain and poison and negativity. Jason sees sees both of these sides and, out of this seeing, he creates a character who is effectively lost in the depths of Social Media, who pursues an adventure that is often several steps removed from truth and reality and which is probably, ultimately, a lie. This is a strong metaphor for we the people born of the internet age. 

Jack Sparks himself is a wonderfully unreliable witness. His narrative is periodically debunked by his friends and family as he races from event to event. But are the friends and family reliable themselves? No straight horror novel this, it is rather a complex quilt of lies and betrayals and foiled drug-fuelled ambitions. 

Jason has pushed far beyond what he needed to do to write a successful horror novel. Like the best of writers, he has mined his own life experiences to try to find the truths which lie there. The ambition of the writing extends well beyond the street-smart japery at which he clearly excels. Knowing the little I know about Jason and his life, I can see traces of Jack Sparks in there. The Heavy Rock, the Journalist, Brighton. It might be hard to know where Jack starts and Jason ends if it weren’t that Jason is such a good guy and Jack such a burk. 

Another book I was reminded of, while reading this, was ‘The Third Policeman’ by Flann O’Brien. I’ll bet that Jason doesn’t even know of this book’s existence, it being rather Irish and maybe a bit Niche, but the concerns of life, death and eternity were tackled there too and these are big concerns and it takes a big writer to go after them with this level of humour and with no small measure of sympathy too. 

Jason’s book is extremely savvy, sharp, witty, observant, clever and, yes, dammit, good but it is also something a bit more. It is a metaphor, perhaps, for how we can become lost in ourselves and, if we allow that to happen, how hard it can be to follow the breadcrumbs back to safe ground. 

Jason is currently working on a second novel. I, for one, can’t wait.

Strike that. 

I can wait. 

I mean I have to, don’t I? 

What choice do I have?

Eh?

Swallows and Amazons – Working Out Beautifully

The story of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ occupies a small place in my heart. To be perfectly honest, it occupies several small places in my heart. 

So, this afternoon, I set off, all by myself, to see the brand new film that’s just been released in cinemas. I’m glad to report that those places in my heart are safe and sound and, if anything, have been made just a little bit bigger.

This might be a better story if I could trace my relationship to the book all the way back to my own childhood but I can’t. I read a lot of things but I didn’t read that. The book actually came to me as an adult but there were kids involved and those kids were my own.

Every night, I used to read a little bit of a book to my kids when they were tucked up in bed. In this tiny ‘bit-by-bit’ fashion, huge swathes of literature was read aloud and sleepily consumed. Things like ‘Watership Down’, ‘The Hobbit’, the entire ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, all of the Harry Potter books (except the last one… the reading was finished by then) volumes and volumes of reading in tiny bits, every evening, over years and years.  And one of these books was ‘Swallows and Amazons’ by Arthur Ransome. It was part of a children’s’ treasury collection that I got from somewhere. Little hardback books like ‘Treasure Island’ and such. I thought it might be a nice read and so we launched into it.

I think my son liked it, how could he not? But it was me who fell hardest for it. Here you see, give or take a few elements, was my own childhood transcribed in a book. The lake, the boats, the island, the camp fire, the fish, the adventure. The little story transposed itself effortlessly into the vivid geography of my own memories and validated the adventures of my youth.

If that doesn’t warrant a small place in my heart, then I don’t know what does.

Fast forward then to an entirely separate thing. A friend tentatively made on Twitter. We frequently hesitate to use that word 'friend' when it comes to social media interactions. It can be fraught with misinterpretation and one sided expectations between people who will, most likely, never meet in person. But, sod it, here was a friendship made. At first, a simple exchange about a favourite musical. Later a beautifully written radio play listened to while decorating the kitchen. I know it sounds tenuous and hard to conceive but friendships can be forged with little things such as these at their root. Add in a tight network of mutual online acquaintances – people of the highest quality - and suddenly one cares how things go with people. How things work out.

When I heard that Andrea Gibb was commissioned to write the screenplay for Swallows and Amazons, it was, for me, a moment of great serendipity. A valued pal and a treasured story, thrown together. It was exciting and it was nervy too. It became important that it would all work out.

It has.

It has all worked out rather beautifully. 

Speaking as such a fan of the source material, the brand new film which Andrea Gibb has written and which Philippa Lowthorpe had directed is a lovely thing.

There are additional story elements here, necessary to enable the transfer from page to screen in a completely engaging way, and these work admirably well. But it is the very 'outdoors'ey, adventuring nature of the book that weaves the main magic here. Is that just me? Because I have been out in that breeze and skidded across those grey-blue waves? I don’t think so. I think we all crave a little real adventure. And that’s the thing with Swallows and Amazons, it is a real accessible adventure. You don’t need to be able to fly or leap tall buildings in a single bound to have an adventure. All you really need is a back garden, some conspirators, and a will to venture out. 

That’s why the kids at this afternoon’s show remained enraptured. The parents might have been nervous on their behalf, for where was the million pixel animation and where was the primary-coloured super hero? These heroes point their bow to the centre of the deep lake and, before they are done, will hold real fire in their hands. These are adventures that can be carried out from the cinema and into the real world. Children can see all that. Children know. 

In my own childhood adventures, I was definitely Roger. My elder brothers kept the knives, real and metaphorical, for themselves and always stood a little in defence between me and the world. You could see it clearly in young Bobby McCulloch’s eyes, on screen. The burning need for acknowledgement, to be a bona fide big boy. I was Roger and he was me but each of the Walker children will find a soul mate in each darkened theatre where the film plays. Tatty is so wonderful, literate and feisty and the elder children carry the pressures and responsibilities that come with their station. 

Knowing a little of the screenwriter, it is interesting to see a taste of that strong social and moral sense seep neatly into the writing. Even the villains, for all their cocked hats and ironic smiles, even they have their own code, their own subtle doubts about what they do, their own respect for genuine strength and bravery. 

It is, at the end of the day, a story for children and there must be an element of gentle threat and conspiracy and ultimately a general ‘winning of the day’. But lots of adults, like myself, will come to the picture house alone with their furtive popcorn and they, too, will find what they seek. A sense of the outdoor childhood that we all remember a little better than it actually was. A time of freedom and adventure. A sense of home.

So these are the small places in my heart. A children’s book which moved me as an adult and a friend entrusted with the responsibility of keeping it safe in its transition to the screen and doing an absolutely wondrous job.

It’s all worked out well.

Strike that.

It’s all worked out great.


Agatha Christie and The Three Card Trick

A chance Google search led me on a limited but interesting mission this week. 

I had a little hunt for which of the Agatha Christie novels people liked most of all. In the list, which took in a lot of titles, there were two books which were name-checked over and over again. It turned out that I had not read either of them (nor seen them on telly, nor been told ‘whodunnit’). It seemed like an opportunity too good to miss so I got hold of them and I read them.

In this piece of half-assed research, I was also a little surprised to read how people first came to Agatha Christie’s books and how closely their experiences mirrored my own. Almost invariably, people came to the murder mysteries very early on in their reading lives. Many graduated directly from Enid Blyton and the like. 

I don’t think this is terribly surprising. Christie write a rather uncomplicated world, in the sense that the goals of the protagonist were not hard to discern and follow. Reading that bit back though, it sounds a bit pretentious. These were simply rattling good mystery puzzles and it was fun to try to solve them along with the little detective, sometimes to fail, sometimes to rather gloriously succeed.

For me, for better or worse, it was always Poirot never Marple or any of the others. I’ve written here about my immersive nature of my reading of ‘Orient Express’ as a young kid. Studying the plan of the train, interrogating the suspects along with Hercule, never for a moment imagining the audacious solution until it was too late to claim it as my own.

But I digress. On to those two unread favourite books. There was lots of general favourites that I had read. The unavoidable ‘Orient Express’, the very first ‘Mysterious Affair at Styles’ and the very last ‘Curtain’ which I also love. In among these, though, were the two unread ones which had jumped out at me. They were a) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and b) Five Little Pigs. I got hold of them, one from the Library (it was filed away in the back-of-house area) and the other from the Charity Shop in a nice compendium of four Poirot novels, including my own favourite (see below)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: Okay. I loved this book. I read it as if I was twelve again, seeking to solve the mystery right along with the inestimable M. Poirot. When I came to three chapters from the end, I stopped and assessed everything I knew and, yes damn it, I came up with the correct culprit. No spoilers here. I can see why this book is greatly favoured and admired. It is archetypal Christie with all the required elements beautifully intact. In reading more about it afterward, I noted that it is often in the running for critic’s choice as the best murder mystery ever written. I also noted, with interest, that Lord Mountbatten played a considerable part in the conception of the very interesting solution. Granted there is an awful lot of stuff happening around the old Manor on the evening that poor Roger gets dispatched and the suspects are, at the end of the day, a familiar enough motley crew of gentlemen and ladies. Nonetheless, it is a wickedly clever example of what Agatha Christie did when she was at her very best and you could do a lot worse that getting it and reading it and seeing if you, too, can find the killer... before it's too late.

Five Little Pigs: for me, was a surprise entry into the list of favourite books but only because I knew nothing of it. In looking into it, I saw that Christie here took the ‘Moonstone/Rashomon’ approach of having a number of diverse witnesses give their account of a crime from their own particular bias and through the mists of elapsed time. I found it to be a slightly frustrating read because each of the five protagonists must be revisited several times to go over and over their testament. Setting that aside though, it is the solution here that made my sit back and mentally applaud the technical dexterity of Agatha Christie. She really knew people’s minds and, if that was not always evident in the writing, it was certainly evident in the way she could play her audience, the readership, and lead them by the nose to wherever she needed them to go. 

Without wishing to give too much away, I had this one ‘cracked’ quite early on. Even though I had cleverly worked it all out, I also clearly saw how Christie was leading me away from my conclusions . Further, I saw how she was laying the groundwork for the reveal which I knew had to be right and which would also prove to be satisfying in every respect. It was lovely but, this time, I had beaten her.

But Agatha Christie played the Three Card Trick on me and she won and I lost and I absolutely loved the losing. I loved it.

To understand the Three Card Trick fully, I think you have to fall for it yourself and I did, once, in Lisdoonvarna in 1980. I was at my first music festival, ragged and wet, with one last five pound note in my pocket to last me for two days. I happened upon a group of rough looking men gathered around another man who was crouched on the ground. He had three cards on an upturned cardboard box and one of them was a Queen of Hearts. The game was simple, as we all know. He shows the Queen, turns the cards over then moves them around face down and, if you find the Queen, you win. If you don’t you lose.

I would never play this game. I knew it was a con and that I would get ripped off. I knew all this but, gradually, I knew something else too. I knew how to beat it.

There was a small triangular crimp in the corner of the Queen card. The dealer hadn’t seen it but I had. I didn’t need to follow the juggling and slight of hand of the dexterous dealer. I just needed to watch the crimp and note where it went for there lay the Queen. I watched the cards and watched the cards and I had scant regard for where the cards went or how they went there. I knew all I needed to know. When the cards stopped, there it was, the crimped card, there on the right, as plain as day.

“Here, wait!” I threw my fiver onto the crimped card, “that’s the Queen, right there.”

It wasn’t, of course, for that is the essence of The Three Card Trick. Not that you are enticed to gamble but, rather, than you are convinced that a secret solution is yours and yours alone. The dealer had placed a crimp on the Queen Card long enough to entice me in, then he had expertly taken the crimp out as he juggled and he had put it in one of the other cards.

Two days of hunger at a festival teaches you something and I won’t ever be fooled so easily again. Or so I thought. In this book, 'Five Little Pigs', gleefully, rather magically, Agatha Christie, undisputed Mistress of Crime Fiction, played the Three Card Trick on me one more time and took my fiver as easily as if I was sixteen years old once again. I love her for it. If you have a fancy, try ‘Five Little Pigs’ and, even though I’ve warned you of the misdirection, see if you don’t fall for it too. 

One final point. If someone had asked me, as they asked so many others, what my own favourite Christie mystery book was, I would have said, “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’. I just thought it was the perfect blend of bloody mystery, privileged suspects and completely left-field solution.

Try it sometime, if you have a mind. 


Downpatrick Head – Just Standing and Looking

For various reasons, I’ve been spending a couple-or-three days at Downpatrick Head this month. I’m actually just providing a bit of transport and backup to my son, who’s doing something there so, although I’m there for seven or eight hours, I have absolutely nothing to do. I am left to my own devices… without any devices. In many respects, it's my summer holiday for this year and I'm treating it as such.

Downpatrick Head is a coastal headland here in County Mayo and right on the western edge of Ireland. The next stop is New York. It’s basically a field or two that runs right to the edge of the Wild Atlantic Ocean which terminates, without fence or barrier, in a series of sheer rocky cliffs with rocks and crashing water below. Most notably, there is also a highly photogenic sea stack called ‘Dun Briste’ and a deep, dangerous, and remarkable blow hole. 

I’d never been there before. When I first arrived, I walked up the field from the car park and I looked down the blow hole and had a look at the highly impressive sea stack and then came back down to the car park and read my book. 

It was great. Except for one thing. I hadn’t really seen the place at all. 

As the hours shuffled on and having finished my book, I went back up the walkway for another look. This time, I took it slow. As I walked further along the precarious edge of the cliffs, I found there was so much more to see. Stuff I hadn’t even been aware of during my first glance.

The cliffs, for instance. The cliffs went on and on, much more then they appeared to at first glance. What seemed like boring fields broke away into amazing precarious sheer faces. To go too close was to feel an actual vertigo and the pull of the wide world on your feet. 

And the birds. 

The birds were not there the first time I looked. The cliffs where they congregate are further along and are not the ones you see if you only run up and glance and then run away again. 

The days I was there, it was all Gulls. Lots of them, soaring around and protecting their cliff-embedded nests, each of which contained a single plump chick.

It was the gulls that really made me stop. I became a bit hypnotised by them I think. I watched a lone chick for God knows how long, waiting for a parent to return from the ocean with food. I watched another pair defend their nook as gull after gull swept in and tried to land on their patch. I spend literally hours on the edge of the cliff, watching the birds and the sea and the sky, breathing the air, feeling the breeze.

Because I had a little time, I stopped and the place seeped into me in a way that no momentary visit could have ever achieved. A place where one could easily stop and take a photo and run away again became, for me, a total sensory experience that I think has been embedded in memory for life.

I have one more day left there. I can't wait to go back. 

The moral of this piece is therefore the simple Ferris Bueller one, made real for me on the edge of an Atlantic precipice.

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”