During my last year in high school we were allowed to get out of PE if we did voluntary service instead. I leapt at the chance to keep my trousers on and spent my Friday afternoons working in a charity bookshop. I took on extra days during my gap year before university, and went back during summers too, and in the course of my time there picked up several hundred books. On my first day there I picked up Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell and Fatherland by Robert Harris. Nineteen Eighty Four I read immediately. I’ve only just got around to Fatherland.

Having now read it, it’s interesting just how much the two books I picked up that first day have in common, in terms of the societies they depict. Fatherland kickstarted the sub-genre of ‘counterfactualism’ – fiction that poses a ‘what if?’ question about how the world might have turned out had certain historical events gone differently. In this case, Nazi Germany triumphing in the Second World War.

Unlike other books that followed in this sub-genre, Fatherland isn’t about how the rest of the world deals with the success of the Third Reich. It’s about how it affects Germany and individual Germans. We are used to looking at the creeping totalitarianism of Nazism between 1933 and 1939 as steps that would inevitably lead to war and ultimately defeat and liberation for Germans. Here the resistance to totalitarianism has been vanquished. Fascism is now normalised. Hitler’s goals have been achieved. In 1964 Germany stretches from Alsace to Moscow. Nazism has brought Germans the peace they wanted on the terms Hitler dictated.

They are living in the calm of despotism that Thomas Jefferson noted all timid men prefer to the tempestuousness of liberty. But Xavier March is not a timid man. He’s not particularly a rebel either, however, even if he resists joining the Nazi Party and only wears the SS uniform because it’s required of all Germany’s police. A quiet, somewhat despondent loner, the detective only investigates the death of an old Party man because his partner can’t be bothered to get out of bed. When the Gestapo’s version of events doesn’t add up, March senses a cover-up. Already knowing too much, March has nothing to lose by finding just how far (and how far back) the cover-up goes. And, indeed, what exactly it is they are covering up.

It is the human story of an individual’s quiet realisation of the truth (much like Winston Smith’s in Nineteen Eighty Four) amidst the system’s attempt to destroy it that lifts Fatherland beyond being just a clever political thriller. Harris’s ‘what if?’ question about the success of totalitarianism is not purely counterfactual either. In Fatherland the Soviet Union is a rump of a country, vilified for its atrocities committed during the war whilst Nazi Germany’s, as victor, are ignored. Simply a reversion of who benefited from our collective denial, then. I also expect it was very well received in some quarters when, despite depicting a Europe in which pretty much everything else has changed, Harris describes a Treaty of Rome that has remained entirely intact.

Happy Hagfish Day!

Today is Hagfish Day, which was not set up by my publisher to help promote my book, but was started by the people at WhaleTimes.org and is now in its fourth year. They started it to celebrate ‘the beauty of the ugly’ and to entertain and inform people about the ugliest, strangest and most disgusting creatures in the ocean.

Naturally, How to Snog a Hagfish!: Disgusting Things in the Sea is the perfect accompaniment for the occasion. And naturally, none of the creatures featured in it are ugly, strange or disgusting (well, not much) once you get to know them. That includes the lobster with the pee gun, the fish that explodes when brought up into the air and the hermaphroditic flatworm with two penises that decides who will carry its offspring by duelling them (with its two penises).

Anyway, here’s a video of a hagfish tying itself in a knot and running that knot along its body as it excretes copious quantities of slime to escape a foolish human’s hand:

The book has recently been released as an ebook, which is currently cheaper on Amazon than the print edition. Don’t know how well the pictures appear on a Kindle, but they look better than in the print edition on the iPad.

Earlier this year I also authorised the charity Listening Books to record an audiobook version of the book. Listening Books supplies audiobooks on CD, as a download or streaming free of charge to adults and children in the UK who have an illness or disability (from having learning difficulties to being physically unable to hold open a book) that would make it difficult for them to otherwise read. They very kindly sent me a couple of copies of the recording by actor Paul Vates, which I very much enjoyed. It’s a great charity and I am happy to enthuse about them!

The Perks of Being a Wallflower


Except for a few pages to send me off to sleep (For Whom the Bell Tolls is still working a bit too well in that regard), most of the fiction I read I do so on my twice-daily commute. I only read on the mainline leg of my journey. Once I get on the Tube it’s only 10-15 minutes to the office, so it’s hardly worth the time. In fact, there is only one book I have ever read on the Tube, about five years ago now: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Faced with the prospect of going a full working day without getting to read any more, I grabbed those 10-15 minutes and kept going. After I finished reading it I felt somewhat bereft, and read two young adult novels about nuclear war one after the other.

I do believe there’s a right time to read certain books. I probably read The Catcher in the Rye too late. I probably read The Great Gatsby too early. The way things are going, I’m not sure there would ever be a suitable time to read For Whom the Bell Tolls. In my first year at university I read Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis. That was definitely the right time. I tried rereading Less Than Zero again a few years after graduating. I didn’t get very far. For the same reason, though I will never get rid of my copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I have barely dared open its pages in the last five years, because then its place in my heart will remain perfectly preserved.

Reading the Independent’s review of the new film adaptation of the book, I also think there are certain books that can only appeal to certain types of people. Perhaps I am just not the right type of person to take anything from For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s obviously beloved by enough people to have garnered the reputation and the sales that have kept it in print so long. The dismissive reviewer for the Independent obviously enjoyed high school too much to get anything from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which is the story of a teenage loner discovering where all the other loners hang out together and his being taken under the wings of two older kids.

The film has been marketed as Emma Watson’s step away from the Harry Potter films, but neither the film nor the book revolve around her character. Indeed, of the three leads, she is the least strongest (it would be unfair to say the weakest, because I thought of her as Sam rather than Hermione throughout). The two male leads inhabit their roles perfectly, the kid playing Charlie especially. It’s disjointed in places, but in much the same way as the book, epistolary as it is.

The ending made me reconsider the ending of the book, something I might not have been prepared to do had the film not been directed by the author of the book. I was sceptical whether, as author, he would be too close to his material to adapt it himself. Perhaps the Independent’s reviewer is right. Perhaps he hasn’t. And perhaps I am just too close to what he created for me on that Tube train several years ago to be able to view it objectively either. I don’t think so, however. I can see teenagers catching the film randomly on TV a decade from now, and the next day they will wake up and things will seem slightly different somehow, in much the same way as after I saw Stand By Me randomly one weekend in December 1993. I hope it inspires them to read the book. As satisfying as the film was, it could never be as good as the book.