Thursday, 15 November 2018

Reading the 80s - 1989

Peter Mayle - A Year in Provence

I've said elsewhere that I get why this caught the imagination in late 80s Britain. The proper field to plate, hand reared, hand killed food, the buildings built to last, the wine bought straight from the vineyard, must have seemed a welcome contrast to all the synthetic colours and tastes - shell suits, funny face lollies, food pinged in the microwave, dayglo socks - that the 80s made mainstream.

That said there's really not much to the book. It's just a light, entertaining, well but not brilliantly written journal. Mayle does have a knack for focussing in on the things that make people interesting, and if I were a gourmet I think the food descriptions would be getting the juices flowing, but it's written very simply, a chapter a month, and there's nothing too deep, nothing too analytical.

It's a read once and pass on book, and there's nothing wrong with that. I enjoyed it.

The Disinformer - Peter Ustinov

This is actually a book with two short stories in it.

In the first a retired ex-spy who never cared much about his job while he was in it but is now bored and perhaps quite bitter invents a fake terrorist cell in order to entrap another cell, all at arm's length until it goes wrong..

In the second a young woman rebels against the intellectual and traditional life her parents are bringing her up in.

Both stories left me a bit cold. The spy playing God, wanting to watch the finale without considering that people might die, the young woman understandably rebellious but also quite unpleasantly ruthless in her pursuit of being who she wants to be - and yet I didn't dislike these people actively enough to want things to go wrong for them either.

Also in the second one I could see the 'twist' coming a mile off. Maybe I was meant to?

Bill Bryson - The Lost Continent

This is the one I've read before - not that long after it came out. Not as young as 16 I don't think, but not a great deal older. 

One thing that dates it enormously - that really struck me and didn't last time - is his sporadic comments about fat women, or nubile young women. It's the most old-fashioned thing in the book, this assumption that just because he's a man (who, to be fair to him admits he's no Adonis himself) his opinion on women's looks has some sort of authority or validity.

I wondered as well that Bryson never seems to consciously connect it with something else he notices about many of the places he goes to on his drive around America. That there are so many drive-thru and drive to places, none of which you can travel between on foot, and that often the downtown is dying or dead. 

Hindsight is 20/20 of course, and that lightbulb didn't go off for me either - and yet it seems so obvious now (nearly 30 years on) that the reason Bill is noticing how large women in America are getting in '89 is because they have constant access to fast food, and often nowhere pleasant to walk. You can talk about personal responsibility until you're blue in the face, but the dice have already been loaded.

Moving on from those issues -  as a travel book Bryson does a nice job of taking in the various States, describing the places he visited and giving you small snippets of history, neither sugarcoating or judging too harshly. If I used to find him funnier than I do now - well times change and I've changed, that's all. I probably will hang onto this one, and I will probably read it again in a decade or three.

So.. a bit of a fizzle out for 1989 to be honest. Maybe I should have given Booker winning Ishiguro a go.
This has nothing to do with the above, but I was in Liverpool recently
and this rather attractive plaque is in the library.

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