Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of I Don’t Want To Go To The Taj Mahal, by Charlie Hill, pub. Repeater Books 2020

This is subtitled “Stories of a Birmingham Boy” and is indeed basically memoir, but in the form of mostly bite-sized reminiscences. There is a chronological thread running through, but the scenes themselves are short and self-contained, rather like scenes in an American sitcom. There is a lot to be said for doing memoir this way; by focusing on the high (and low) points that swim naturally to the surface of memory, one cuts out the often-plodding link bits.

The trick, obviously, is to choose one’s vignettes carefully, with an eye to memorability, variety and – at least for me – some sort of progression, a narrative thread. Some are powerful in themselves:

“One day, it was colder than a January in Amsterdam. My brother and I passed a man in the doorway of a barbers shop along from Zaffs, and through drifting snow we asked him into the warm.
His name was Smurf. We sat in my small front room off Runcorn Road and offered him a beer but he said he didn’t drink and sniffed gas from a can he had hidden up his sleeve. He slept in front of the fire and the next morning I told him he could stay again that night but my girlfriend was coming back soon and if at all possible he should find somewhere else to crash — me and my brother would be out all day but we’d be back at eight if he was stuck. At about a quarter past eight we returned and there was a pair of footprints on the doorstep, lightly dusted with fresh snow, as if a ghost had come to visit.”

Others are more insubstantial but rendered memorable by the writing style:

“New Year’s Eve, after the pub, I am escorted round the back of an independent bakery —Lukers, in Moseley — by a woman uninterested in pastries. I am being forced up against a pile of pallets when the security lights come on and she bails, a circumstance that leads me to question my hitherto rock-solid antipathy to the nascent Surveillance State.”

Some are deceptively simple but pack a punch:

“I work part-time in the library of the University of Birmingham. I move books from one place to another and struggle with the realisation that, in this environment, books are no different to angle brackets, or pelmets.”

One problem, for me, is that around the middle of the book, some of them can get a bit samey, revolving around drink, drugs and failed relationships. Authentic this may be, but pace the book’s title, I’d happily have gone to the Taj Mahal and similar destinations rather than hang around yet another squat in Moseley thinking “oh, pull yourself together, man”.

Fortunately, progress happens in the form of a wife and family and a couple of books published, though the lack of difference that publication actually makes to life (for all but a very few lucky writers) leads to a disillusion and frustration most writers will recognise ruefully, even if they don’t go so far as to react to a tick bite in this way:

"By this time, although I loved my wife and kids, my job was unsatisfactory, even poor, and I was excited at the prospect of contracting Lyme disease, which can prove fatal if not caught. It is identified by a circular red rash, like a target and quite spectacular; unfortunately, I was fine."

The last few vignettes look like an attempt to find some meaning in death, life and the pursuit of writing. Wisely, however, they avoid coming to any tidy conclusion:

"The other day I clicked on a clip on YouTube that showed a long line of traffic on an icy road. It looked promising. A car went to overtake another and skidded across the road and I steadied myself for a guffaw. Coming the other way was a lorry with a three-storey cab doing sixty or more and when it hit the car side on, the car disintegrated, I mean it just disappeared, there was nothing left, and I sat there unable to move or comprehend what I had just seen or why."

Tags: book reviews, non-fiction

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