My Favourite Book That I Read Last Year – Great Expectations.

The last book I finished in 2017 was Great Expectations. I read it to my eldest daughter as her bedtime book.

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I’ve never really read Dickens before, and I was expecting the book to be little more than vivid and overblown characterization,  fuzzy sentimentality and unlikely dramatic coincidences.

This book has all of that,  and all that stuff is great fun (“What Larks!” ). But beyond the funny names and fortuitous turn ups, this book is as alive to the ‘stuff of life’ – to psychology and time and space, to love and flesh and home and death – as almost any book I’ve ever read.

The pulse of Great Expectations is about the interconnection between place, movement and thought. The greatest novel I’ve read about the interconnection between place, movement and thought is  Joyce’s Ulysses. 

In Ulysses, the city of Dublin, and the subconscious world, and the conscious words of Daedelus, Bloom and Molly, expand into each other in ways that make the secular sublime and makes the prosaic epic. Dublin breathes as the characters live, and the characters breathe as Dublin lives.

And this is how Ulysses becomes immersed in the ‘stuff of life’.   In page after page,  line after line,   place and character are bound together around memory,  sex,  love,  decay,  children,  bodies,  buildings,  fathers,  food,  transport,  mothers,  desires,  ambition,  words,  sleep,  the absence of God,  time,  other people,  language,  wanking,  reason, the  sea,  movement,  politics,  dreams;  cocks and guts,  snot and flesh,  arses and offal,  seaweed and shit.  God. Tits. Death.  In its complexity and mess, its misplaced longings,  its sadnesses,  and in both its tiny and epic epiphanies,  the novel becomes so like life that it may as well be life.

Ulysses can,  if you make the effort,  be how we talk to ourselves as we find ourselves in the world,  (and specifically in the city – where the world is at its most worldly).  Ulysses seems truer and more real to me than anything  religion or politics or science can offer up.  It is a book that climbs the giddy heights of imagination at its most vertiginous,  and in doing so it is art that makes the greatest sense of us.  It is a book that you can live in and you can find life there.

And much of what I think is true of Ulysses is also true of Great Expectations.  Dickens’s novel is also a masterpiece about the human condition,  full of all that stuff about sex and death and love and families and so on.  It is also the measure of life,  and is a work of imagination so expansive that we can live in it.  We can find life in it. 


In the novel,  the journey that Pip keeps making from the Kent marshes to London and back again, is the axle around which so much of the substance of the book revolves.  As Pip commutes back and forth in horse drawn coaches along the south bank of the Thames, between the Blue Boar and Cheapside, his head is full of love and ambition,  affection and guilt,  money,  chance,  family. His head fills with this stuff as he grows from adolescence into being a young man, and as he becomes increasingly conscious of himself.

But Pip’s introspection and self analysis is really unreliable. In the book Pip is like an erratic Hamlet;  he is self aware,  but again and again he is wrong about himself.  He is also often wrong about Miss Havisham, and Joe, and most importantly he is wrong about Estella.  The nasty, self serving, self centred Estella is way more accurate in her understanding of herself than Pip ever is in either his understanding of her, or in his understanding of himself.  This book makes clear that self knowledge,   as well as being sometimes muddled headed,  is also not necessarily tied to virtue.

So there is a space in the book between Pip’s self awareness and Pip’s self delusions,  and that’s where we come in – pacing around his world, wandering through Dickens’s imagination,  with a much clearer understanding of circumstance and desire than Pip has.  We can inhabit that book almost as moral agents. We can be a little bit God-like as we look down on Pip, judging his faults, measuring his virtues. Lots of books (most books)  invite the reader in like this – but not as well as this.   In this book we’re invited into this world though the gaps that exist between Pip’s subjectivity and the objectivity of the world that surrounds him.   And this is where the book comes alive,  because what exists in the gaps between how Pip is, and how he sees himself, appears to us as something physical – it is the Kent marshes, and the Blue Boar, and Newgate.  It is that road between London and Kent that Pip keeps travelling along.  It is that difference between London and Rochester.

Great Expectations does not have the complexity or the ambition of Ulysses,  but like Joyce’s book,  it is a novel that comes alive around the extraordinary sense of place that you find on the page;  the physicality of the Kent marshes and Soho and so on. The ‘stuff of life’ quality in the book is down to how Dickens makes life course through these places – the places Pip moves through and between.

 Most importantly,  these places become the objective correlative of Pip’s thoughts.   They are the manifestation of the gap between who he is and who he thinks he is. The psychological divisions that exist within Pip are the physical divisions that exist between London and the Kent marshes.

Miss Havisham

And those characters in the book;  those brilliant, weird characters – some of whom, like Miss Havisham – with her rotten, decaying virginity , seem to have crawled out a corner of the subconscious,   are extensions of how place becomes this objective correlative of Pip’s half grasped self awareness. 

Many of the key characters are tied to specific places:  Miss Havisham never leaves the decay of Satis House – and is the dust and death that goes with Pip’s failed love.  Joe is hopeless (but still decent) anywhere other than in his home or at the forge – and he is the home that Pip doesn’t realize he longs for.  Jaggers, with his precision, his amoral agency and his energy,  is London – and is everything Pip expects to be – but will never be. 

Like Dublin in Ulysses, Kent and London – and the characters that go with these places –  breathe and live in Great Expectations.  And when we, the reader, inhabit this book – when we inhabit the gaps in Pip’s psyche that Dickens has made for us, these are the places where we live, in the marshes, in Newgate, in the overgrown garden of Satis House. It is a novel that maps the world and maps life  by mapping Pip’s thoughts and we are invited to make our way through both simultaneously. 

It is so brilliant.

I don’t know if the rest of Dickens is like this but I want to use 2018 to read more.

A Trip To Daglfing Flea Market

Yesterday I went to Daglfing Flea Market which is held at the Daglfing Trabrennbahn race track on the outskirts of Munich. The race track holds harness racing meetings where buggies are pulled by horses. You can usually see the horses being trained on the track during the flea market- so on a Friday morning on the edge of a big city you have the niche little world of harness racing – with its own rules and practices and routines, taking place next to the niche little world of flea markets – which also has its own rules and practices and routines.

The Most Bavarian Stall at Daglfing Flea Market
The Most Bavarian Stall at Daglfing Flea Market


I hate when people trot out the clichè “you couldn’t make it up”. It’s a rubbish sentiment for all sorts of reasons, not least because it has the stench of the comments section about it, but the main reason why I dislike it is because the world constantly makes itself up in weird, daft, funny and occasionally thrilling ways;  ways that are never boring, or wearisome or, most importantly, predictable. Things are ‘made up’ in ways for everyone to see, not just in literature and art and cinema and music (all four of which annihilate the “you couldn’t make it up” sentiment effortlessly), but also in the small details, in the day to day stuff, in conversations, in the lives of others.

I went to Daglfing Race Track yesterday and I watched people practicing a form of chariot racing and I saw a man selling a bear’s head

and that was just for starters…


The first stall I went to had crates and crates of awesome classic rock and pop. I bought these from amongst the seller’s stock.

I didn’t buy the rest of his stock which included more Bowie (pretty much the canon – all German pressings), AC/DC, Beatles, more Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Maiden etc. (you get the picture) because I already own most of them.

The man running the stall was selling his friend’s record collection for him –  his friend was in a wheelchair so couldn’t sell them himself. I said that his friend had pretty similar tastes to mine and the seller told me told me that his friend had always been obsessed by buying records and had spent a fortune but that his friend’s wife hadn’t minded as it had stopped him chasing other women and spending money on chasing other women.

Was this just banter? Had the man’s friend been a cock-happy womaniser? Had he tamed his instincts and found a form of marital compromise by becoming a Bowie completist?

Obviously I didn’t ask these questions. Nor did I ask  the bigger question as to why the seller was telling me this about his friend – a good friend I assume, seeing as he was doing him a big favour by selling his LPs. Sexual infidelity, physical frailty, friendship, classic rock, the shadowy figure of the wife in the background – all component parts of what could have been a rather epic and human tale. But it was a tale that has remained untold. Ah well.

The records were priced  lower than what I would normally expect to pay at a stall run by someone who knows the going price – and the seller was haggleable so i got a reduction on the ones I bought. I was very happy with all 5 purchases

1. Never Let Me Down.

I own most things on vinyl that Bowie released between 1967 and 1982 and I own almost nothing post 1982. I keep meaning to sort that out so finding Never Let Me Down at a fairly reasonable price is a good place to start.

2. Best Of Uriah Heep

I saw Uriah Heep last Monday In Berlin supporting Status Quo. It’s the first time I’ve seen them and I liked their daft brand of hippyish, proto metal and slightly proggy nonsense. I just delight in the daftness of stuff like this and I’m pretty much committed to continuing to take seriously the act of not taking some stuff seriously

3. Best of Jethro Tull Vol 2

This is an Italian compilation which I’ve never seen before. I love the cover with Ian Anderson playing a clarinet.

4. White Album

Years and years ago I left my copy of the White Album behind in a flat that I finished renting and I’ve never got round to buying a replacement. This one was in nick good and the price was ok – but it didn’t have the poster or photographs that originally came with it. I’m pretty happy with this. (The photo makes the cover look tan. It’s a bad photo. It’s white).

5. Bowie Rare

This was the best thing I found yesterday. I had this on cassette, taped off a mate, when I was 15.

I’ve written more about it here.

The First Job Lot

I could have bought all of the records at this stall for about €1000 I reckon – I have just about enough money in my business account to do that –  and I think if I sold them on at carboot sales in England over next summer they would sell quickly and I would end up with a profit of at least £500. If I’d been in the UK, with my car I probably would have done that – but I’m in Germany and I don’t have a car so I walked away form that little business deal. I’m still dwelling on this decision.


The woman at this stall spoke good English. She kept saying “bloody” this and “bloody” that  but in a way where the emphasis was ever so slightly ‘off’, it kind of gave her fluency charm. The ability of almost everyone in Germany to speak English, sometimes almost colloquially, seems to me to part of that German openness to the world, a mark of this country’s outward looking ways – ways that are increasingly looking like being our best chance of salvation what with every other major industrial nation going mad.

She asked me about how long I’d lived in Munich and asked me what I had seen and done. I told her that I had hardly been into the City so she got a map out of her glove compartment and began to mark places I should visit; where the best Turkish cafes and Turkish market is, where to drink around Munchener Freiheit – where the best cafes in Schwabing are, where the best pizza, burger and Mexican restaurants are. We talked about our kids (her eldest was teaching in Nairobi) and our holidays (she was about to go to Marrakech) and she gave me her card. Her name was Kim, she was a masseur, she did house calls, she charged €50 an hour. This isn’t the first card I’ve been given at a carboot or flea market – it’s quite common to be given them – but it’s the first one that offered me a massage by a qualified masseur at competitive rates.


As well as being a qualified masseur Kim also worked one day a week for an agency. I wasn’t clear as to what the agency was but I think it was an advertising agency. She was selling piles of brand new CDs by artist like Chvrches, La Roux, Imagine Dragons and Tocotronic (who are my favourite German band). I bought a few and I bought a couple of records from her. I paid €2.50 for each of them

2 Records: €5
2 Records: €5

The Second Job Lot

I should have bought all of Kim’s CDs. She had about 50.

4 CDS - €2:50 Each
4 CDS – €2:50 Each

If I’d bought more I think I would have got a lower  price than €2.50 per unit and most of these CDs are currently going for about a fiver at Amazon. I sell the bulk of my stuff at Amazon using the FBA (Fulfilled by Amazon) method. I ship my stock to the Amazon warehouse and they do everything else. Ah well. The 2nd opportunity of the day that I missed.



One of my favourite stalls at Daglfing are the house clearance men who have a stall – or rather an area of rough grassland, and a small shed, at the edge of the carboot. I’m not sure where they’re from;  S.E. Europe I think, but I learnt a long time ago that at carboot sales (or in Nth London cafes) it’s not always a good idea to ask too many questions about where people are from. Anyway – I don’t know where they’re from but where they’re at at 10 am on a Friday morning involves drinking, and chain smoking and arguing with each other – really arguing with each other.

House Clearance Men
Angry House Clearance Men
Daglfing Clutter
Daglfing Clutter

God knows what the argument was about this time but it was loud and aggressive enough to have people backing away.

This is my favourite part of the flea market. Stuff is just dumped in boxes for you to rummage through and the prices are next to nothing.

In the past I have found ropey old porn mags and people’s diaries and soundtrack LPs. This week the stuff I found there was just as daft



The House Clearance Gallery

Some of this will be sold in the UK for small profits, a couple of things will be Xmas pressies. Some will thrown away.



As I was leaving the flea market with €3:40 in my pocket I saw a stall I’d missed with a pile of LPs. These LPs, about 40 in all, were a mixture of 80s pop compilations and Schlager (Schlager is German easy listening. It’s hateful). The dealer said I could have the lot for €5* – I told him I only had €3:40. “That’ll do” he said.

So I ended up with a pile of crap records.

Terrible German Records
Terrible German Records

Some of these, the 80s compilations, will sell for a quid each at UK carboots. The rest will, after I’ve laughed at the terrible covers, go in the bin.

The covers really are brilliantly bad


*This happens a lot at the end of carboots – I’ve piles of pirated Bollywood DVDs, entire appalling record collections, boxes of magazines and piles of books all given to me.







A War and Peace Bookmark

One of the books I found in yesterday’s trawl through the charity shops of Thetford and Cambridge’s Mill Road was a 1943 Macmillan / Oxford University Press copy of War and Peace. The book is not in great condition – but it did have a bookmark inside it that lists all the principle characters from the novel arranged in family groups on one side along with the other key characters on the reverse side.

War and Peace Bookmark

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I assume that the bookmark is original and came with the book when it was first published. It is useful and lovely.

The book also had an excellent map on the inside cover and I’m a sucker for any novel that comes with a map.

War And Peace Map.

Disappointed in Thetford

Captain Mainwaring in Thetford

Today I went to Thetford.

I make trips like this every now and then. The way it works is this; I choose a place I want to visit, in this case Thetford, and choose some things I want to see there, in this case stuff relating to Dad’s Army – which was filmed in Thetford, and stuff relating to Thomas Paine – who was born in Thetford, and I set myself the target of paying for the entire day by buying undervalued books/records/cds from the town’s charity shops which I will then later ship to Amazon who sells them on my behalf in return for a commission.

I call these days out Charity Shop Road Trips (though this one was by rail). I’ve been doing them for a few years. (I’ve written about them, or the carboot equivalent, here).  I enjoy them in a sort of daft, carefree way – in the charity shops, as well as buying stuff to sell, I usually find a couple of books or records or DVDs I want for myself, I always end having random conversations with strangers and I get to see the things I want to see. And I always end up paying my way. I usually end up making a profit on the day.

Until today.

Thetford has the usual amount of charity shops – I found five in the town centre and one nearer the station and that should have been more than enough to cover the £23 my day out cost me. But I’ve never seen such desolate shelves.

After 3 hours trawling through the absolute arse end of the consumer society I came up with the following:


Based on the prices I think they should go for at Amazon this lot will make me £17 profit. This meant, that for the first time, my Charity Shop Road Trip made a loss. Whitley Bay, Loughborough, Winchester repeatedly, the Isle Of Wight (all of it) to name but a few – I’d licked them all with my cunning profiteering. But not Thetford.

Moreover – The Dad’s Army Museum was closed for the winter and the visitor centre where you can find the visitor trail for the Thomas Paine Walk and the Dad’s Army Walk was closed for Christmas.  So, dejected and defeated, I left Thetford early – but I will return. Two people there that I spoke to spoke of a giant charity shop warehouse on the edge of town – and  I still want to see the Dad’s Army Museum.

And most of all  I still want to try to measure the gap between the freedom I enjoy on days out like this and the freedom Thomas Paine argued for.


I put everything right in Cambridge – I was back early enough to trawl through the Mill Road charity shops, including the glorious RSPCA bookshop and bought this lot:

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They’re worth loads. So I won in the end.

A Reading List for 2016

I spent the last few hours of 2015 reading Houellebecq’s last novel “Submission”. Quite near the start of the book the central character says:

“Yet the special thing about literature, the major art form of a Western civilization now ending before our very eyes, is not hard to define. Like literature, music can overwhelm you with sudden emotion, can move you to absolute sorrow or ecstasy; like literature, painting has the power to astonish, and to make you see the world through fresh eyes. But only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettiness, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it finds moving, interesting, exciting or repugnant. Only literature can give you access to a spirit from beyond the grave – a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you’d have in conversation with a friend. Even in our deepest, most lasting friendships, we never speak as openly as when we face a blank page and address a reader we do not know”.

Unlike Houellebecq I’m not especially pessimistic about the future of Western civilisation and I am nowhere near jaded enough, as I think he is,  to give up on what was I thought was his magnificent definition of the humanism that is at the heart of literature and of reading – and it was timely for me to read it on New Year’s Eve because like almost every new year I was in the middle of making a list of the books I want to read over the year ahead.

I find making reading lists easy. I’ve been doing it for years. What hasn’t been so easy is reading the books.  Last year, inspired by Andy Miller’s brilliant book The Year of Reading Dangerously, I really went for it  – my list  contained 50 books from what many would consider the canon of great literature. It was an excellent list of which I was very proud.

I didn’t read any of them. 

Instead, last year,  I read 12 books that weren’t on my list. One of them was “ ‘Triffic” the autobiography of Mike Read (the comedian and Eastenders actor). Of the others only 2 of could be considered as literary.

I’m not surprised I didn’t get through my reading list. My life over the last year has been full of drudgery and I work hard (as do many others – I’m not fishing for pity). Last year my wife’s working week was based at the other end of England – leaving me as a single parent to 2 kids, one of whom is 3. Add to that moving house, my job and blah blah blah….

And this year is going to be harder and time is going to be tighter.

But so what – the point of this reading list is not just something to get through. It’s not a to do list – that makes it sound like part of the drudgery. This list is part of a war against the drudgery.  I recently re-read Michael Chabon’s  essay about Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and in it he says this about Joyce’s Ulysses:

“Ulysses struck me, most of all, as a book about life; every sentence, even those that laid bare the doubt, despair, shame, or vanity of its characters, seemed to have been calibrated to assert, in keeping with the project of the work as a whole, the singularity and worth of even the most humdrum and throwaway of human days”

I’m expecting lots of humdrum and throwaway days in the year ahead. But if I stick to my reading list and what I read puts me “in touch with another human spirit” (and I take Houellebecq’s “spirit” to mean life) then at least some of my humdrum days may become singular and full of worth.

The books I intend to read this year are:

January – To read as many of the books I got at Xmas a possible.

These are: Submission (Houellebecq), A Man Lies Dreaming (Lavie Tidhar), Concrete, Extinction (both by Thomas Bernhard), We (Zamyatin), Red Rosa (graphic novel by Kate Evans) and John Aubrey (Ruth Scurr). I also received the The Other Paris (Luc Sante), The German War (Nicholas Stargardt) and biographies of Terry Gilliam, Goebbels and Ginsberg (I always get biographies alphabetically. Next year it’s Sammy Hagar, Hitler and Hefner).

If you are wondering why I got so many books at Xmas it is because, much like Kim Jong-un, I am loved by many many people. I expect. 

If I read 3 of these books I will be delighted. I’ll try to fit the rest in where I can.

And then each month I intend to read one big bastard of a book which I’ve never read before:

February – Middlemarch 

March – Ulysses (which I’ve read before but in 2 goes about 20 years apart)

April – Moby Dick

May – Gravity’s Rainbow

June – War and Peace

July – Atlas Shrugged (which I’ve chosen deliberately because it’s not a book I would normally choose to read)

August – Infinite Jest

And that’s it.  The list only goes up to August because if all goes to plan we are moving to Munich in September and I’ll need a whole new load of lists and resolutions to keep on top of that.