Ben Brooks is a great new writer and everyone should read his book, Grow Up

The HMV dog is listening to St James' Infirmary by Louis Armstrong. The HMV dog is trying to be ironic, in the hope that it will make death easier. The HMV dog is deluded.
The HMV dog is listening to St James’ Infirmary by Louis Armstrong. The HMV dog is trying to be ironic, in the hope that it will make death easier. The HMV dog is deluded.

I was shopping in HMV in Hastings on Thursday looking for some pre-death bargains. Trouble was, even with the last rites having been read, the bargains were still not that good. It was only 25% off some stickered items, which shows they are continuing their unrealistic pricing policy to the very last. But I wanted to buy something, for the souvenir carrier bag if nothing else, so I picked up two books for a tenner.

I’m glad I did so because my last purchase from HMV might well be one of my best. In fact, I’d be prepared to say that this purchase was second only to buying the GZA’s Liquid Swords back in the 90s. Because one of those two books was Grow Up by Ben Brooks.

I was attracted by the pleasingly mordant front cover, and the quote on the inside sleeve from comedian / poet Tim Key who says Grow Up is “sickeningly good. So confident, so stylish. An unacceptably witty and confident debut.”

That was good enough for me. And if that’s not good enough to persuade you to pick up this book as soon as possible, I hope the rest of this blog will be. Because for the rest of this blog I will mostly quote little bits of the book and tell you to read Grow Up by Ben Brooks.

Grow Up, would you believe, is about growing up. There isn’t what you’d call a plot, just a series of incidents involving the main character and narrator, Jasper Wolf, who is a teenager who likes taking drugs and having sex and does not like revising for exams. He also does not like his step-dad, who he thinks did a few murders and is going to kill his mum.

Here follows some quotations from the book. You will notice Ben Brooks is really good at writing.

The comedown from mephedrone is my least favourite type of skiing.

Jasper on his counsellor: Sugar is pouring out of her lips. Sugar is only good when it is in tea. It is not good when it is coming out of the mouths of overpaid women in suits who think that they are emotionally shampooing me.

The shipping forecast is an extremely comfortable duvet.

Jonah’s mum has watched the news every day since her husband died in Afghanistan. She is just looking for someone to swear at. She swears indiscriminately. I have witnessed it often. She swears at Trevor McDonald, Hannah Montana and Gok Wan. She calls them all cunts.

The first Harry Potter film is playing on the television. A flock of bright boats are shifting over black water. I have seen this film more times than I have had sex. That is a statistic I need to reverse. I will begin by not watching it again.

Read Grow Up by Ben Brooks. It’s on Canongate Press. You can probably get it in a dying HMV branch, or if you care little for the fate of the High Street you can get it on Amazon. I’m ambivalent about where you source your copy. The main thing is you read it.

Noel Fielding thinks this book is great, as does Tim Key. But it's totally up to you if you want to waste your life reading something that isn't as good instead.
Noel Fielding thinks this book is great, as does Tim Key. But it’s totally up to you if you want to waste your life reading something that isn’t as good instead.
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Why a Kindle is not for me

 

I was recently in the British Heart Foundation shop in Brixton with my friends Shonagh and Alex. They were buying a sofa bed, and were spending an age getting it measured, looking at the price, wondering whether it was too much, and generally procrastinating in fine Sunday shopping style.

After a while I became tired of this charming scene, and wandered off to the records and the books. Flicking through the vinyl, I picked up some absolute crackers: a 12-inch single of ‘Let the Music Play’ by Shannon, and a Boney M album.

Holding an armful of vinyl,  I ambled over to the bookshelves and saw a nice volume, entitled Modern Short Stories, on Faber. This had a few old favourites in it: Dylan Thomas, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other worthies whom I’d never read. It was a pound, so I bought it before rejoining my friends at the sofa bed.

When I got home, I read the F Scott Fitzgerald like a greedy child eats ice cream. Having sated my Fitzgerald craving, I settled into a more relaxed perusal of the contents. On the inside cover I noticed a name and year written: Gordon Smith, 1987-88. There was also a stuck down sheet, torn so it only said, ‘The Edinburgh…’ So, this was a school book. Perhaps something to be read at ‘O’ level, as it would have been then.

Flicking through, on p41 young Gordon had written ‘I want to die!’ My heart went out to him, all teenage and Scottish back in the late ‘80s. What could have caused him to despair so?
 
It may have had something to do with the story on which this plaintive statement was written: ‘My First Ball’ by Katherine Mansfield. It appeared that Mansfield’s prose style was not appealing to Gordon. I imagined him there, sitting at his desk in an austere Edinburgh classroom. All he wanted to do was get out and listen to the Proclaimers on his Walkman, but instead he was forced to read about some girl going to her first ball.
 

I turned the page and found that Gordon’s spirits had returned somewhat. He had defiantly drawn a dick and balls. This took me back to my own school days. I remembered a period of about a year, at the age of twelve or thirteen, when the first pubes are growing (or perhaps not quite) and all a boy can draw is the dick and balls. However, Gordon had gone further. No doubt feeling insulted to have been made to read Katherine Mansfield’s girly nonsense, he drew a shower of piss coming out of the dick.

Yes, that’s right, Katherine Mansfield! Gordon Smith is pissing on your prose. Pissing all over your silly story. Gordon Smith doesn’t care about Leila or her first ball! Doesn’t give a damn about it! He’s got a great shower of urine cascading over your turn-of-the-century vignette!

A fine example of the 'dick and balls' school of art

On the following page (I had almost totally lost interest in the actual story by that stage) Gordon returned to his artistic theme. But this time he had drawn just a dick, arising mischievously from the bottom of the page. He’d arguably done a better job here, with detail to suggest the foreskin, and a more mature shower of piss.

Gordon made no further artistic additions to Modern Short Stories, clearly feeling his work had been done. He had survived the Mansfield ordeal, and was possibly stronger for the experience.

What path that book took from the Edinburgh classroom to the Brixton charity shop we will never know.  What I do know is that I felt a gentle thrill from having held the book that provoked such despair and defiance from a Scottish schoolboy.

It also made me realise why I will never get a Kindle. Books are more than words on a page. They are things to be loved and hated and, if necessary, drawn upon. This was an experience I could never have had with a Kindle. Books develop a character over the years whereas a digital file will always remain useful, convenient, but ultimately impersonal.

Thank you to Gordon Smith, and indeed Katherine Mansfield, for reminding me that books, quaint though they might be, remain things to be treasured.

Showing greater artistic maturity: G. Smith's 'dick with piss'