Sometimes poetry exists by itself, and sometimes you find it woven into other things. Songs- really good songs – are poems; as are hymns, sayings, prose. About ten years ago, I was sloping about in a bookshop in Norwich with a voucher burning a hole in my pocket, looking for something new to read. I was hungover and sad, and I remember I had just finished reading Catch 22, again, and I wanted something less…biting. I always judge books by their covers – and their titles – in bookshops. I make no apology for this. Over the years it has led to some poor purchases, but it has sometimes unearthed some otherwise hidden treasures.
That day, I picked up ‘if nobody speaks of remarkable things’ by jon macgregor. (no capitals.) I knew from the title that it would be great; the cover photo just confirmed it. I opened the book. The dedication reads: ‘To Alice.’
The book begins:
‘If you listen, you can hear it.
The city, it sings.
If you stand quietly, at the foot of a garden, in the middle
of a street, on the roof of a house.
It’s clearest at night, when the sound cuts more sharply
across the surface of things, when the song reaches out to
a place inside you.
It’s a wordless song, for the most, but it is a song all the same, and nobody hearing it could doubt what it sings.
And the song sings the loudest when you pick out each note.’
And that’s what Jon Mcgregor does in the book: he picks out all the notes of all the stories of people living in one street, in one city, and he lays them out like a score for an orchestra.
“This novel owes as much to poetry as it does to prose. Its opening, an invocation of the life of the city, is strongly reminiscent of Auden’s Night Mail in its hypnotic portrait of industrialised society…An assured debut.” Erica Wagner, The Times.
I have a copy (we own three copies in total) of this book up on the wall in our house, in a frame. Partly because it has a great cover, partly because I like to catch sight of it out of the corner of my eye every now and then. I always recommend it to people who come over and ask why I’ve put a book in a frame – and then am struck by that particular kind of jealousy you get over reading things for the first time. It’s the way I feel about my children and Harry Potter books. I am so excited about them reading HP for the first time, but jealous too. I re-read books I love over and over, and they are always good. But you can’t beat that first read of a great book. Obviously, I recommend anyone who hasn’t read it buys it immediately, maybe from here, or from a lovely independent bookshop if you’re lucky enough to live near one. Jon Mcgregor’s other books are great too, if you’re looking for a summer read that won’t pulp your brain then try his collection of short stories titled ‘This isn’t the sort of thing that should happen to someone like you.’
(I do love brain-pulping novels too, by the way, The Da Vinci Code is like cat-nip for me, and I collect the Louise Rennison series with titles such as Angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging’ and ‘Are these my basoomas I see before me’, etc, etc.)
I love that every now and then, a book comes along that changes the way you think; just slightly. I can’t sit outside on a long evening in the summer in town, when everyone is still outside and busy, wrapped up in their own stories and not think of the line ‘the city, it sings.’