Dan Sandman

Archive for January, 2016|Monthly archive page

05: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, History, Non-Fiction on 29/01/2016 at 12:00 pm

Primrose Hill SchoolThe post office in Primrose Hill has been closed for refurbishment. I now walk along Chalcot Road to buy my mother’s daily newspaper. On Thursdays I pick up three papers, and on Sundays I get two, but on most days it’s just the one.

The man who runs the corner shop on Princess Road has been there for decades. He has good manners and always calls me Sir. My old primary school is opposite his shop. When I was a child, there were three places where you could buy sweets on the way home from school. One was the corner shop, which always stocked the small 1p cola bottles and the large 10p cola bottles. A cola bottle is a sweet shaped and coloured like a miniature 330ml bottled coke, tasting vaguely like the fizzy drink we all recognize. In those days, if your mother gave you 30p to spend, that would either get you a real can of coke, thirty 1p cola bottles or three 10p cola bottles. All of which was good for your arithmetic, but bad for your teeth.

Since going back to the corner shop, I have been seeing my neighbours. Like my mother and I, decades ago, when a Mars Bar was still under 30p, my neighbours are walking to school each weekday. My old school was built by the Victorians. Like many buildings of this period, it has very high ceilings. In many ways it looks like a prison: huge black metal railings tower above the children trapped inside its looming walls; there are disused signs, etched into eroded stone arches, to segregate boys from girls and infants from juniors. There is a pervading sense of history, seeping from the very bricks and mortar.

During my residency at Primrose Hill Primary School, I was taught that Victorian children were forced into child labour at the age of eight. According to our teacher Sally, minors were enslaved into sweeping up inside dirty chimneys because of their shortness. As she expressed her imagination, using Gothic imagery wherever possible, Sally taught to us to fear the Victorian age. The overall impression was one of abject poverty, cruel injustice and total misery. According to the book of Sally, the Victorians were the villains of history, whereas the Elizabethans were glamorous.

Those were the post-Thatcher days, Britain was about to be ruled by a man in a grey suit. Teachers could be called by their first name. Our school had no uniform. Milk would never be taken away from our children ever again.

Maybe Sally was right to frighten us with stories of child slavery. Perhaps we were lucky to be at school in 1991, where our worst fear was being shouted at by one of the dinner ladies.

This morning, the corner shop was open as usual, and my neighbours took their children to school on time. These days, I get the sense that life has always gone on like this, and always will.

There is a human tendency to rate one historical moment above another one, but we perceive the universe only through our senses and our imaginations.


04: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking

In Books, Non-Fiction, Science on 22/01/2016 at 12:00 pm

The LibraryLast Friday, my mother and I found ourselves in the library again. Browsing behind the biography section, I had narrowed down my choice to two physics professors.

‘It’s either Stephen Hawking or Brian Cox.’ I whispered.

Science was one of my father’s interests. He would have liked this book.

It’s about the important work of scientists: people like Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein. It explains complex scientific theories, using simple straightforward language. Hawking is a writer of absolute clarity, and has a cheeky sense of humour. If you’ve ever wondered why stuff happens, then this is the book for you.

03: Dreadful Summit by Stanley Ellin

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 15/01/2016 at 12:00 pm

Primrose Hill BooksMy mother and I live near a shop called Primrose Hill Books. When I was a child, customers could brave a white spiral staircase at the back of the shop, leading downstairs to the second-hand books. I remember seeing shelf upon shelf of used thrillers, romances, adventures, classics, autobiographies, and almost any kind of book imaginable. As one decade has past into another, that wonderful place, the room that whetted our curiosity, has been sealed up from public view. What now lies at the back of the shop has become a mystery. Most likely it is used to store the stock, as the ever-changing shelves at the front of the shop are filled with new publications. It is also possible that the family who own Primrose Hill Books have been using it as a bedroom, as their children have been growing up into  young people. These two speculations are each likely — or at least as likely as any fiction is likely — but the truth is usually far more complicated than we imagine.

I would like to keep the sense of mystery behind what now lies at the back of Primrose Hill Books. After all, it is such childhood memories that stir up the emotions that books evoke in our subconscious wanderings. As L.P  Hartley wrote in his classic novel The Go Between (1953), ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

Now, in winter 2016, following the mildest December in Britain since 1926, an icy weather front has finally decided to make its present felt this morning. The man in the post office works his Friday shift, a couple of bicycles ride in for the morning paper, and Primrose Hill Books opens for another day’s book-selling. Silently, I think about the book I finished last night, Dreadful Summit (1948) by Stanley Ellin. It was similar to Catcher in the Rye (1951) because its narrator is an American teenager, expressing himself in the uncomplicated language of disaffected youth.

It was the first time I saw her face real good, the way the kitchen light was shining on it, and it was all like dough, and a smeared mouth, and stupid’ (pp.92).

Composed in short chapters, this book was originally marketed as a novel of suspense. Written with the confessional honesty of the diary form and set on one day in New York, it tells of a sixteen year old teenage boy who seeks revenge for his father. Carrying a gun inside his overcoat, this is the story of his violent passage into manhood.

I picked up this time-worn paperback for the first time last Saturday, from the books table that daily stands outside Primrose Hill Books for seven days of the week. I had just come from a day of overwhelming lectures and tuition for my masters in English, in which I had spoken too much during class. My rather topsy-turvy vocal analysis of the two texts for Block 2 — by which I mean overly digressive — had led to an unsurprising craving for an easygoing crime thriller; a short novel of which I knew nothing about. Most assuredly, on Sunday I still craved the green Penguin I had skimmed on the previous day. Gratefully, it was still there the next day in all its antic glory. I went inside to purchase.

‘I like that you keep the books outside.’ I said, shyly handing over two circular pound coins and a hexagonal fifty. Gold and silver. ‘You can…’

‘See if you fancy something.’ Said the bookseller.

‘That’s right.’ I replied.

02: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

In Autobiography, Books, Non-Fiction, Travel on 08/01/2016 at 12:00 pm

Dog in Primrose Hill‘I’m going to turn 52books.me into a book based memoir. That’s my new idea.’ 10.22 AM

‘Awesome’ 10.34 AM

‘How?’ 10:34 AM

‘It begins with a story’ 10:34 AM

Pressing the home button on my Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini, I carried on typing into the computer. I had a good opening sentence, supplemented with a short footballing anecdote. That was on Friday.

On Sunday, my mother and I went to Foyles bookshop on Charring Cross Road. When I was a child, my father would occasionally take me there.

‘You used to have to ask for the book and they’d bring it to you.’ Said my mother. We were sat in the cafe on the fifth floor.

‘Dad used to say that.’ I replied.

We took the lift down to the travel section on the Lower Ground. My mother was now walking with one crutch, following her hip operation.

‘It’s not listed under Literary Biography.’ I said, referring to the book where Steinbeck travels around with his dog.

01: Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

In Books, Fiction on 01/01/2016 at 12:00 pm

Primrose Hill Community LibraryI live with my mother in a posh part of north London called Primrose Hill, but we are not posh. Many celebrities reside nearby. When I was younger, I used to teach guitar in a private school for the children of the rich and famous. My biggest claim to fame is that I once tackled a Hollywood star on the football pitch. It was a parents versus teachers game. We won seven nil.

There is a community library directly underneath one side of our living room. My mother and I treat it as an extension to our home. Sometimes one of the volunteers puts books outside to buy for next to nothing. Just before Christmas, we picked up one nice Penguin each. They were rectangular shaped, smelling of camp fires and rose petals.

‘Ooh!’ I exclaimed, reading from the blurb.

‘This book “approaches the racial problems of South Africa…”. Sounds right up my street. Ha, that almost sounds like a line from a comedy. I do enjoy the racial problems of South Africa.’

A woman wearing glasses happened to be passing by. She gave me a funny look and then started to browse. I think she had her eye on my mother’s Penguin. She followed us into the library.