9 · From Hell
While books about Australia dwell on questions of national identity, books about Britain, judging by the ones I’ve read this year, dwell on questions of class and Englishness.
Even Charles Jennings’s Faintheart: An Englishman Ventures North of the Border ends up saying more about the English (or at least this particular Englishman) than about the scene of its travels. Jennings makes some interesting observations about the cities of Scotland, but missed the chance to venture into the country too deeply, ignoring the Northern and Western islands completely. Scots would no doubt find Faintheart irritating, but shouldn’t: it isn’t really about them.
A better book about the English was Jennings’s earlier People Like Us: A Season Among the Upper Classes. This also drew snippy comments from some reviewers who thought it smacked of an inferiority complex, subtly implying that they know an inferior when they see one. Thus is the age-old edifice of English aristocracy reinforced; inheritance taxes may be turning half of the upper classes into tour-guides around their own stately homes, but they can still look down their noses at the plebs. Jennings’s account of his attempts to infiltrate posh society should at least reassure the plebs that these aren’t noses you’d particularly want to look up.
Even leaving the class confines of Britain is no escape, as Toby Young demonstrated in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, his tale of being paid large sums of money to do not-much for Vanity Fair. The New York magazine world has simply replaced forelock-tugging with celebrity-worship. Young failed to conquer Manhattan, but his book won me over in the end, especially once it moved away from the Condé Nast building; he may have been just as obsessed with celebrity as his American colleagues, but at least he can laugh about it. (By the way: James, who put me onto the book in the first place, has solved one of its mysteries.)
With all of this reading about aristocracy and journalism, it’s appropriate that I finally also read Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, which deserves its classic reputation, even if some of its attitudes are showing their age. There’s not much to say about Boot and The Beast which a thousand high school students haven’t already regurgitated, so I won’t.
But the best book I’ve read this year about class and England (or more specifically, London) is Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell—proof that a mammoth graphic novel about Jack the Ripper can stand up to any literary competition. (The endnotes and appendices were a book in themselves.) Their depiction of London’s East End resonated with my own visits to the area in recent years, retrospectively darkening memories of all those Whitechapel churches. Watchmen may still be Moore’s best-known work, but this may well be his best.
And one last thing while I’m on the subject of comics: at the beginning of the year I finally succumbed to Stephen Notley’s constant self-promotion and bought all of the Bob the Angry Flower books. They’re even better on the page than on the screen—particularly the early ones, which don’t look so good as low-res gifs. There’s even one about speedy snails—so as the man says, buy books!
Here’s what people said about this entry.
Just so you know, Rory -- never, under any circumstances, waste money or minutes on the crappy film adapatation of FH (which is indeed a triumph and a fascination). Perhaps you knew enough to stay away already. But it was irritating enough as an experience to risk redundancy in sounding a warning.
Added by BT on a Tuesday in December.