In which The Author battens down the hatches
Last night, after spending a couple of months on my shelves, Christopher Priest’s latest novel The Adjacent finally made its way into my bedroom.
I bought it a few months ago, having paid over the odds for postage, as I related in Further Up the Amazon
. In spite of being stung on the non-free delivery loophole, at least I knew I’d be getting the book eventually. I’d drawn a blank on two visits to Waterstone’s – the Cardiff and Trafalgar Square branches didn’t have it – so I decided against ordering it from them online. If they can’t be bothered to stock the new novel by one of the UK’s leading science fiction writers, they obviously don’t deserve my custom.
While I was waiting for Mr Priest’s book to arrive, I started working my way through some of J.G. Ballard’s short stories, which I’d been pleasantly surprised to find on the shelves at Trafalgar Square, along with two of his novels, both of which I already owned. Yes, that’s right – two! There was no Crash, no Concrete Island, and no High-Rise. There was no Cocaine Nights, Empire of the Sun, and no Super-Cannes. Not exactly spoilt for choice, I bought the anthology.
[A digression: It must come as a double dose of great relief to large book chains (actually, in the UK you can make that ‘chain’, singular) when a respected author dies. In the days and weeks following the sad news, his or her backlist gets a welcome sales boost as curious punters come in to check out the ‘literary giant’ whom they hadn’t even heard of until the obituaries appeared in the newspapers. The sort of snobs I’m thinking about can’t afford to have such a notable gap on their bookshelves, in case their friends call them out on it.
After that one-off peak subsides, the bricks-and-mortar bookshops can quietly trim their ‘range’ to the couple of obvious novels which everyone’s heard of. In this way, they can limit themselves to stocking the bare minimum of backlist titles, which simply pad out the 3 For 2 offers and the TV-tie-ins. Meanwhile, the publishers are happy to let the online retailers pick up the rest of the slack, in what WIRED editor Chris Anderson described as ‘the long tail.’
There’s another unexpected benefit to an author’s death. The chances of him or her popping in on spec, demanding to see the full backlist of titles on sale, and/or rearranging the displays to highlight them, have now been reduced to zero. Everyone’s a winner; all except the customers, of course – but, as Waterstone’s proved, they’re the least of the company’s worries.]
Anyway, by the time I got about a third of the way through the Ballard anthology, I needed some light relief. (If you’re not familiar with his writing, I quoted a brief extract from one of his stories in The Drowned Giant
. Just that one paragraph is a perfect microcosm of his style.) Much as I love Ballard, his relentless pathological pessimism was starting to take its toll on me.
It was about then that I stumbled upon Ben Aaronovitch’s books in The Works in Aberdare, as I told you in On the Up
. I was immediately hooked on PC Peter Grant and his supernatural investigations in contemporary London.
It was while I was reading the October 2013 edition of Doctor Who Magazine that I realized where I’d come across Mr Aaronovitch’s name before – he wrote Remembrance of the Daleks, back in the days when the ‘classic series’ was doing its best not to run out of steam entirely. The first book had reminded me immediately of Torchwood, and I was quite pleased with my own comparison. I was surprised to find that we’re about the same age, give or take a year or so. I’d had him pegged as a much younger man. I finally finished the third paperback, Whispers Under Ground, about three weeks ago. Even so, instead of going for Mr Priest’s new book, I dived straight into The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde, which I’d picked up in one of Aberdare’s charity shops. I was saving the best for last.
I finally opened The Adjacent last night, and was a bit discomfited at finding the first chapter to be sixty pages long. I’d taken my Mirtazapine before going to bed, and I wondered how long I’d stay awake as a result.
I needn’t have worried. Mr Priest had me hooked from the first paragraph, and in the event I read the whole of the first section before switching off the lamp just after midnight.
His latest novel opens in Britain in the near future, and the country is being hammered by a hurricane, the latest in a series of similar weather systems triggered by extreme climate change. He describes the ‘temperate storm’ in graphic detail, from the point of view of a character holed up in a flat in North London. Trapped in the midst of the chaos, with no electricity and only tinned food to see him through, Mr Priest’s protagonist is alone when the full fury of the weather is unleashed:
It was impossible to venture out. He spent hour after hour sitting by the window, looking down Canonbury Road, watching fearfully as the violent squalls skirled along the street, carrying water and debris, thrashing against the concrete stanchions that blocked the roadway and shooting cascades of water against the walls of the old buildings. A small office-block directly opposite his apartment was demolished on the first night, and every scrap of its wreckage and contents was swept away by the gales. Sheets of metal, cables, parts of car bodies, traffic signs, branches of trees, skidded endlessly along the street, adding to the cacophonous racket of the howling gale. The sight of the endless damage was awful but the screeching of the wind was the true terror. It seemed never to let up, never to vary, except, impossibly, to worsen. Tarent had rarely felt more alone or vulnerable than during those two days and nights. He was no worse off than anyone else, or so he imagined, and that became a consolation of sorts. For all that he remained uninjured by the violent weather, and indeed safe and dry, he suspected he came through the storm better than many, The building remained intact, the windows did not blow out, or at least not those in his apartment, and he was too high above street level to be affected by the flooding.
(Christopher Priest, The Adjacent, 2013, Gollancz.)
Anyway, I hope that reading that piece last night wasn’t another one of my famous coincidences. You see, according to the UK Meteorological Office, one of the biggest storms since the famous ‘hurricane’ of 15-16 October 1987 will hit our little islands on Sunday night.
[A digression: The Great Storm, as it’s become known, complete with its own capital letters, has passed into folklore. It wrought havoc across a large area of western Europe, felling an estimated fifteen million trees, including six of the seven oak trees after which the town of Sevenoaks were named, and claiming at least 22 lives here and in France. The weather forecaster Michael Fish ensured his place in television history after the news evening bulletin:
One branch of my family was living in Walthamstow, in north-east London, at the time. The following morning, Auntie Elaine took a phone call from one of her work colleagues, wondering if she’d be going into work. Elaine was a bit surprised, and her colleague told her to look out into the street. When she did, she saw that a large tree was blocking the road. Somehow, Elaine had managed to sleep through the whole thing.
Some time later, my friend Stu, who is an observer with the Met Office, was at their headquarters in Bracknell, not far from Reading. He told me how he and some of his colleagues were having lunch in the canteen on the top floor of the building, and outside another terrific downpour was in full flow. Outside, a car pulled up at the far end of the staff car park. They all laughed as a chap got out, wearing a shirt and trousers, but with no coat and no umbrella. He sprinted the length of the car park, and as he got closer to the building they recognized his face.
‘Oh, it’s Mike Fish,’ one of the boys chuckled. ‘He’s believed his own forecast again.’]
Anyway, last weekend and the first half of the week were bad enough, with torrential rain hammering down on South Wales throughout Saturday, Sunday, Monday and most of Tuesday. At one stage the village of Oxwich on the Gower Peninsula, where we used to spend our holidays when I was a kid, was on the verge of being completely flooded. There was one consolation – I had planned to spend Saturday in the great outdoors, taking photographs in and around Barry, right on the Bristol Channel. Luckily for me, there’s a protest march against the Bedroom Tax in Cardiff this Saturday, and I can’t afford to go down twice in a fortnight.
In the event, I went to Aberdare as usual, did a little bit of shopping, and got home before the deluge really started. I didn’t go out again until Tuesday, when I caught the bus into town to pick up a few things. Even then, I managed to get soaked just walking to the bus stop.
I’m going to go into town tomorrow to make sure I’ve stocked up on bread and milk, in case the storm of 2013 matches the Great Storm of 1987. There’ll undoubtedly be panic buying just before it hits, in the same way that the first few flakes of snow leave the supermarkets looking like they’ve been looted by rioting gangs. I’m not going to get caught out. Then, depending on the forecast tomorrow night, I’ll either go to Cardiff as planned on Saturday, or lock my door and ride out the storm all weekend instead.
With perfect timing, Jamila has just posted a lovely photo of herself on Facebook, back in her family home in Nigeria. She commented underneath that she won’t miss the British weather. Who can blame her?