March Reads

As a bookish fest, we take it as our not-so-solemn duty to keep your shelves updated with the latest in papery entertainment. Here’s Creative Director Colin Midson, who programmes our literary stages, on the new book releases that should be gracing your bedside table.

When Ian Marchant began teaching at university in Birmingham he was struck by an absence among his students: where were the agitators, the protestors, the politicized? Where, he mused, was the counter-culture?

In A Hero for High Times (Jonathan Cape), rather than examining the counter-culture’s demise he looks into what brought it about in the first place. And his vehicle for telling the story is a man who has had a gift for being in the right place at the right time – the ‘hero’ of the title, Mr. Bob Rowbery.

Whether by luck, judgment or opportunism, Bob rode the counter-cultural wave from its post-war beginnings right through to its fag end in the 90s.

Bob, then, was a bona fide beatnik, hanging out in Soho’s hepcat haunts. He stole a march on the hippie trail and claims to have brought the first Afghan coats back to the UK in the mid 60s. He ran the backstage crew at 1970’s notorious Isle of Wight festival. And – Ian’s favourite anecdote and the one that set him out on this journey – the band Procul Harem were named after his cat.

With Bob providing the first-hand narrative Ian gives us the context. He digs into the New Age and its origins in the 19th Century Theosophy movement; explains Alienation and Structuralism; revisits Greenham Common and the Battle of the Beanfield; asks what it meant to be a punk, a raver… or a greebo.

Most of all A Hero for High Times makes a case for why we should continue to rant and rage and dance and sing and shout and jump up and down. For anyone interested in festival culture – from the Elephant Fayre to Port Eliot and beyond – this is a must read.

If winter is getting you down and you want something that will lift your spirits read Dear Mrs Bird (Picador), a novel that is sure to become a phenomenon in 2018.

AJ Pearce’s debut charts the wartime experiences of the resourceful and enthusiastic Emmy Lake, a heroine cast from the pages of a Dodie Smith novel. While the set up might be a little clichéd – Emmy lands a job as what she thinks a roving reporter in a London newspaper but turns out to be the assistant to an Agony Aunt on a stuffy women’s magazine – it’s done with such amiable style and enthusiasm that all is forgiven. She passionately evokes the grim realities (as well as the spirit and cheer) of London in the blitz, its tragedy and laughter, its hopelessness and redemption.

Much fun is had with the agony aunt letter format, and Pearce’s ear for the rhythms and cadences of 40s dialogue are bang-on. And it’s all infused with a deliciously offbeat humour and unselfconscious style. Above all else, in Emmy, AJ Pearce has created a protagonist that people will fall in love with and return to again and again.

It’s the 70th anniversary of the NHS in July this year and there is some fine writing around on a medical theme. Dr Sam Gugliani is a clinical oncologist based in Cheltenham but in his debut novel Histories (Riverrun) he reveals himself as a writer of enviable talent. Set in an unnamed hospital Histories provides us with snapshots of the lives of its staff over the course of an average week as they wander its wards, corridors, and operating theatres.

We meet a female oncologist musing on the narcissism of her male colleagues; the trainee doctor whose confidence has abandoned him; the chaplain struggling with his faith in a world of pain and inequity.  And many others, each criss-crossing paths, observing the same events from a subtly different persceptive. It’s beautifully written and reveals the complexities of a world that is too often presented to us in films and on TV in stark shades of black and white.

A good companion read is provided by Christie Watson, who first came to our attention in 2011 when she won the Costa Debut novel prize for Tiny Sunbirds Far Away. At the time – and for the previous 20 years or so – she had worked as a nurse, an experience she recounts in her memoir The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story (Chatto & Windus). It can be a grimy and troubling experience – she does not hold back – but it’s tender too, and much like Histories it shines a light on the murkier corners of our healthcare system, where morality, ethics and compassion jostle for place. It will makes you reflect on the way that we all interact with one another, and on the empathy – or lack thereof – that can govern so much of everyday life.  More than anything it makes us realize that we must prize the work that nurses do, and never take them for granted.