Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Weeks Eight to Ten - Jude

The City & The City by China Mieville (2009)
Recommended by Dan Cuthill

Reading is an escape, an adventure, a pleasure, an opportunity to run away from the world and lose yourself in another. But sometimes, you just can't. Sometimes your brain just doesn't work. Sometimes it is everywhere else but on the page, and for good reasons. The last three weeks have been like that for me. The words have been there on the page – I can see them, all inked and set, and I can read them – but the words go in at my eyes, swirl around my brain, and dribble out of my ears.  Things are getting better now, but it's taken time.

This is a book recommended to me by one of my oldest, dearest friends. Dan Cuthill, Danny, Welsh Dan, the daft lad from Penllergaer who apprehended me one lunchtime in the Gorseinon College canteen in his holey jumper, and started talking about PJ Harvey, and said he'd make me a tape. Who *was* this odd boy? He made me a tape. He made me many tapes, most of them copies of albums he'd bought – Tori Amos, Throwing Muses, Nine Inch Nails, such cheer – then recorded over dodgy cassettes from the United Arab Emirates, which had a tell-tale piece of sellotape over the gap at the top. Now there's a detail that will mean nothing to teenagers these days. I don't know why, but it really wish it would. These little details, this little pieces of day-to-day life, somehow seem to hold so many tiny bits of meaning.

Dan and I have so many stories together that we should write our own bloody book. Our teenage years have enough. Nights out in Barons and The Zone in Swansea (details: coats piled on floors, getting sore ankles jumping to Cannonball, snogging boys (me), girls (him), being sick in the toilets (both of us)). Nights after the nights out at Dan's house in Top Hat Road (details: Gary Crowley on TV, the Whitney Houston poster with the bifter, Tiger sitting on my head, me sitting on the kitchen floor crying into a pizza, and Big Jude, Dan's mam, laughing at us all). My favourite memories are of a night driving down the Kingsway in Swansea in Dan's car – she was called Polly – playing The Dancer from To Bring You My Love at full-blast at a crowd of kids trying to get into Ritzy's (what knobs we were). Then there's that night in Fallowfield, when Dan was at university in Manchester, first drinking Lambrini on the swings, and later swopping tops (I wore his 70s shirt, he wore my Orbital t-shirt and pulled in it). Then there's the sadder stuff. Big Jude dying and the wake in The Old Inn. Always helping each other through difficult times. Dropping everything, texting, going round each other's houses with a packet of biscuits, and a book to read. Those little details again.

I've read Between The City and The City, but I haven't really taken it in. It's about a strange township divided into two places, Besz and Ul Qoma, both of which have different languages, customs, and rules, but – as we slowly find out – they share the same land. When you're in one, you have to unsee the other. Sometimes though, the two cities join at cross-hatches, although you still have to unsee anything and anyone belonging to the other place. And if you cross the divide between the two places, you face Breach, a thing, a force, that no one understands. The only thing people really know is that it has power to do anything it likes, which it wields.

As this book gets going, the two-city landscape in which its narrative it set is described simply and matter of factly. The idea is that we, the readers, understand this world in obvious terms. Of course, we don't. Mieville is trying to show us how readily we accept the absurd, as well as the cultural divisions in our minds and in the world. Besz and Ul Qoma also make us think, of course, about West and East Berlin, about Israel and Palestine, while Breach makes us think about George Orwell's 1984. Thie book's a compelling world to be in, but also incredibly unsettling. I didn't know where I was, but that sort of made sense. The characters in the book had convinced themselves that they knew where they were, as I was trying to, as I read. I didn't quite get there, but the mood, and the moments within it, spoke to me. I got there.

After this book, I'm going Coasting, travelling around the shoreline with Jonathan Raban, coming out of the mists. Then I'll slowly try to catch up with Jeanette. I'm determined to, even if it will take me more drawn-out bits of time, or shorter books. I want to. The thing this project's taught me so far, above everything, is about how nice it is to be able to escape, to have a different kind of adventure, and take your friends with you at the same time. The best ones have always been there for me, after all. You know you have, Danny. So let's go.