I am wary of doing this. It seemed like a good idea last year. I would write a blog post about every book I read, which didn’t seem especially difficult or problematic. And, indeed, it started well; I kept up with the project until well into March. But then, in March, things fell apart. No, I don’t think there is a connection, but, well, there is that twisting thread of doubt that starting this same thing all over again can only be tempting fate.
And then there is the other problem: reading. Let’s put it this way, back in my late teens, in the two or three years before I went to university, I kept a list of the books I read. Those lists have long gone, but I know I was regularly getting through 200 books a year back then. How? Today I cannot begin to imagine how I ever found the time. I don’t think I ever came close to matching that score in all the decades since then. Though at the same time, up until lockdown I was consistently getting through 70+ books a year. Again, I now find it hard to imagine how I could do that. Lockdown knocked me back psychologically, and the number of books I was reading tumbled year on year. And then the horrors of last year completed the hatchet job on my psyche. In the last two years together I read fewer books than I would regularly manage in a single year before the world fell apart.
As I start to reinvent a way of living following Maureen’s death, I have begun to learn how to read for pleasure once more. But that doesn’t mean that reading is again quick and easy. Far from it. Reading a book, even when I am enjoying it, is still a painful and laborious process. As I write this, January is just over three weeks old. In that time I have been reading three books simultaneously, a fairly normal practice for me. One of those books, Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson, I finished Sunday, exactly three weeks after I first picked it up. I will be writing more fully about it below, but suffice it to say it is a book I enjoyed, a book that I found to be a real pleasure, where I seemed to be turning the pages eagerly to continue with the story. Another time, another me would have devoured that book in a matter of two or three days at the most; but no, 21 days! Why was it so hard? I don’t know, but the problem lies in me not the novel. A second book, which I began on the same day as the Atkinson, I will finish today (probably before I finish writing this post). That one is non-fiction, but not hard, not particularly demanding. Again, in more normal times another, earlier me would have taken a week at most to read it. But the third book, sitting downstairs on the coffee table in the lounge even as I write this, I began reading back in, I think, November. It is, in truth, a book I admire more than I like, but it is not a hard book, it is a book I want to read, yet in three months I have advance little more than 100 pages into the book.
Why do I find it so hard to read? It is not that I don’t enjoy reading; on the contrary it gives me immense pleasure. It is not that the books themselves are difficult to read; the Atkinson, as I say, is an unalloyed pleasure, she is easily one of my favourite writers and this is a superb example of her craft. It is not that I don’t have the time; quite the opposite, I often have more time than I know what to do with. But when I settle down with a nice cup of tea in one of the tub chairs in the bay window downstairs, I am strangely reluctant to pick up a book to read. Once I get over that initial obstacle I read with pleasure, though not so quickly as I used to. But that obstacle is real and persistent. I can sit for ages with the book within reach and not pick it up. It is something of a cliché that writers will find any excuse to avoid sitting down at an empty page or a blank screen, but these days I find it much much easier to start writing than to start reading. It shouldn’t be that way. I know it is wrong, but that is the way my mind is working, or perhaps more accurately, how my mind is not working. What do I fear in the books? What taboo do I break when I turn the page? It is, I know, somehow connected to the psychological damage of lockdown followed by Maureen’s illness, followed by her death. But I don’t know how it is connected, and I don’t know if there is a way through this tangled labyrinth. I don’t know if I can find the way out, or even if there is an out to be found.
But I persist with the labour of reading, because that is the nourishment my mind craves. And it is supposed to be fun. It is fun. Isn’t it?
Ma Meyrick. You can’t read much about those frenetic, jazz-filled days of the 1920s in London without coming across her. And she keeps cropping up. She has a supporting role in one episode in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, for instance. And now here she is again, at the tremulous heart of Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Shrines of Gaiety. Those titular shrines are the nightclubs owned by Ma Meyrick, here renamed Nellie Coker.
Back in the 70s and 80s, when I was first getting into British fandom, any alcohol-fuelled get together, at a party, a bar, or a convention, would be greeted by cries of “fun, desperate fun!” It was a cry that always struck me as rather sad: any fun that is desperate isn’t likely to be fun. But desperate fun seems to epitomise those frantic years between the end of the First World War and Spanish Flu pandemic in 1919 and the Wall Street Crash in 1929. They were years in which the Bright Young Things felt as though they had been born again, having escaped the horrors of trench warfare while the effects of those horrors were all around them in the injured beggars they saw in the streets, in the way that women of a certain age vastly outnumbered men of that same age, in the memorials to the dead that were springing up in every town and village. They had a new lease of life, even though there was a widespread sense (that a number of the Bright Young Things probably believed as well) that they didn’t deserve it, that they had failed in life somehow by not being in the trenches.
They celebrated this ambivalent escape with bright clothes, short skirts, bobbed hair, loud music, sex, and alcohol. It was an age of excess for those rich enough to indulge and young enough to partake. You see it here in a chapter set in a wild party where everyone dresses up as infants and behaves like children, except for the vast quantities of alcohol consumed. It is a party that recalls similar scenes in Brideshead Revisited and some of the early Lord Peter Wimsey stories by Dorothy L. Sayers. [And as a totally irrelevant aside, writing that made me think that Agatha Christie, despite her youth when she began The Mysterious Affair at Styles, created old detectives, Poirot already retired, Marple already old; these were not people to participate in, or even fully understand, the excesses of the generation in which Poirot at least initially found himself.] The fun, the brightness, the freedom were desperate because there was still a sense of darkness from the past, and because, I think, they felt it was temporary, that they could not long escape those same shadows, those same trenches.
Ma Coker’s empire of nightclubs was the very locus of that desperate fun. Stumble down a staircase from the street, pay the entrance fee, sweep aside a curtain, and suddenly you were in a different world. It was a world of glitter and glamour, where dance bands played brightly even when a fight broke out, where pretty young women would dance with you for a small fee, where illicit alcohol and drugs were readily available, where you could mingle with the rich and famous, with royalty and with gangsters. After the too recent horrors this was all you wanted of the world, a place where the bright lights chased away the poverty, the industrial unrest, the grime and violence and dullness waiting just up those stairs, just outside in the narrow, ill-lit streets. That Ma Coker’s empire was itself sleazy and criminal and dangerous was irrelevant, it was the illusion that mattered.
Atkinson captures those contradictions beautifully, all through the differing characters of Ma Coker’s family, and those that circle around them. Like Kate Meyrick, Nellie Coker was the lone indomitable head of a large family whom she was grooming to inherit her empire. Or to be precise, it was the daughters who were going to inherit. Her eldest son, Niven, had been in the trenches, it had changed him, and though the family were still family, he stood apart from them and from the business empire. The younger son, Ramsey, had also been changed by time abroad, but in his case it was in a Swiss sanatorium, and now his engagement with the business is vague and ineffectual, and his real interest is in becoming a novelist, though he has no discernible literary ability.
The Coker family, the central importance of Nellie and her four daughters, epitomise something important about the novel: this is a world in which women dominate. All the strong central figures, even apart from the Cokers, are women. There is Freda, the waif-like young woman who comes to London seeking stardom on the stage but ends up dancing in one of Coker’s clubs. There is Florence, the clumsy, unimaginative friend who comes to London with Freda, then disappears into the mysteries of those dark streets. And above all there is Gwendolen. Liberated by an unexpected inheritance, she quits her job as a librarian in York and comes to London, supposedly to seek the daughter of a friend, Freda, but really in search of excitement, which she finds variously as a police spy and as the manager of one of Nellie’s clubs. Around these figures dance (and a maypole dance in which Freda once performed in a stage show in York is a repeated figure throughout the novel) a variety of other strong, independent women. There is Freda’s first landlady, a procuress and abortionist; there is the woman with whom Freda had once modelled knitwear and who is now a prostitute who gives Freda a home; there is Nellie’s cell mate at Holloway who has her own criminal network; and there are the “forty thieves”, a loose affiliation of pickpockets and bag snatchers who are not above a little violent mayhem when needed.
Against these women, the men tend to be villains (the corrupt policeman and the gang leader who both, separately, plot to oust Ma Coker and take over her business), victims (the society gossip columnist who meets a grisly and unexpected fate), or hapless onlookers (the unhappily married police inspector who is tasked with rooting out police corruption and who is working with Gwendolen in the hope of finding out why so many young girls are turning up dead in the Thames, but who proves to be ineffectual and unable to control events).
It is a large cast, and to accommodate them there is a large number of intersecting story lines than make for a very complex plot, made the more complex by Atkinson’s delight in shifting the viewpoint character from chapter to chapter (and sometimes within a chapter), plus her liberal use of cliffhangers. Because timelines and stories intermingle so intricately there are moments when, for instance, a minor character expresses sadness at what has happened to X, though it is another two chapters before the focus shifts back to X and we learn what prompted this sadness. The stories we are told are various. There’s a romance (though it would not be quite right to describe it as a love story), there’s mystery (as we try to sort out what has happened to the various missing girls), there’s intrigue (how will the different plots against Ma Coker play out, and how will she respond to them?), there’s coming-of-age (both Freda and Gwendolen grow into roles they could never have expected to play before coming to London), there’s even a ghost story (Nellie Coker is followed throughout by the ghost of a girl she had killed). But it would be wrong to describe the novel as any of these things. The many different stories, just like the many different characters, are just brush strokes delineating a rich, complex, and convincing portrait of one segment of London society at a key moment in the middle of the 1920s.
I find it hard to explain why I find Atkinson’s writing so compelling. The prose isn’t particularly lush, with grace notes that make you stop just to appreciate the beauty or the strangeness of a phrase, yet neither is it spare and precise and purposeful. It works, I think – and this feels like a rather graceless way to describe something that is full of grace – because it has a job to do, and it does that job well. It has a story to tell that is complex and yet never confusing. It has characters to introduce and manipulate yet it does so in a way that makes them feel drawn from life. It has a scene to set that is vivid, colourful, and feels as though you could step into it alongside the characters and witness it through the eyes of the time. It doesn’t race along, it takes its time, and yet it never relaxes its grip on you. It is prose you can relax into, confident in what it is doing, in the effect it is generating. It is simply a pleasure to let her tell you a story and know you believe her, know you trust her.
It helps, of course, that there is an air of tragedy about the book. A tragedy that seems inherent in the time and place: the darkness is too recent and it doesn’t feel like it can be truly over, there is another darkness waiting to return, to reclaim the world, hovering just beyond what we can sense. And for all the artificial gaiety, the desperate fun, there is still an underlying awareness that it cannot last forever. And so you keep reading, aware of the shadow, needing to know who will fall victim to it and who will not. The characters are too well drawn, you are invested in them, you know that doom awaits, but you need to know what doom and who will it claim, who will emerge into the light. With such a large cast you know that some endings will be tragic, some will be happy, but you also know how smoothly Atkinson can whip the rug from under your feet. And she does, of course, and there are tragedies, though not what you expected, and there is happiness but not necessarily what you anticipated. And in the end it just feels like the inevitable consequence of this particular time, this particular place.
And after all that it feels like I ripped through the book in no time, even though it took three weeks.