He Died with a Felafel in His Hand – John Birmingham

Firstly a warning, the book contains strong language and lots of stories of excessive drug and alcohol use and things that happen when that happens, but don’t let that put you off unless you really don’t think that it is suitable for you. That said this book is so incredibly funny and yet so believable that when Birmingham says that it all really happened to him you have to believe him, and it certainly could be true that he had eighty nine of the craziest people house share with him over the years. I know I wouldn’t last five minutes with any of them. Birmingham is an Australian and all the places he lived are in various Australian cities, starting with Brisbane but including Sydney, Melbourne and others over thirteen different properties. Sometimes he moved because he just wanted to, more often it was to get away from his housemates and at least once to avoid being killed by one of them. Because the book isn’t told sequentially and there is no timescale it’s difficult to tell over how long a period it all takes place but some properties he left really quickly whilst in others he was the last man standing.

Interspersed amongst the text are grey shaded passages written by other people who have also experienced Australian house sharing hell. These are a little confusing at first as they appear right in the middle of stories that Birmingham is telling about his own particular nightmare cohabitants. Initially I tried to read them as interludes but it soon became clear that it was easier to get to the end of whatever horror story we were in at the time and then go back and read the one or two extra bits I had skipped, There are also a few extras that are several pages long and in a different typeface to resemble typewritten sections which are too long to be the greyed inserts but clearly Birmingham thought were so funny they had to be included somehow, all these occur at the end of chapters with a full page greyed out intro.

Milo won the house competition for not changing out of his jeans. PJ and I dropped out at four and five weeks respectively, but Milo, who liked the feel of rotting denim – “It’s like a second skin!” – was pronounced the champion at ten weeks and told to have a bath or leave. It was an all-male house.

There are various comparisons of all-male and mixed sex house shares, being male Birmingham obviously has limited experiences of all female occupation, and the general consensus is that for sheer disgustingness nothing beats the all-male property especially if the occupancy level is well above that intended. Set against that for true angst you need to have at least one woman in there (males tend to descend into their own chilled out pit of squalor) and if two, or more, of the housemates are in a sexual relationship it’s probably time to get out of there fast before the whole thing implodes. The other thing that will definitely kill an otherwise happy house is the introduction of a junkie, not just for the drug taking but also for the petty thefts to feed the habit and the tendency to attract the attention of the police with consequences for all. The title of the book comes from the opening line and ‘He’ was named Jeffrey. Jeffrey had joined an otherwise happy house only recently but it turned out he was a junkie, he had died whilst watching TV after a night out where he had had probably one too many of his drug of choice that evening and had passed out and died whilst eating the said felafel, the yogurt dressing had run down over the puncture marks in his arm. It was apparently Birmingham’s first dead housemate, he doesn’t however say if it was his last.

Whilst looking this book up to make sure it was still in print, it is, I found that it had subsequently been made into a long running play, a film in 2001 and a graphic novel in 2004 so it’s popularity, especially in its native Australia, seems assured. John Birmingham is now an established writer of both fiction and non-fiction, this was his first book although he had written articles and stories for a few magazines before this.

Come Close – Sappho

Sappho died over 2,500 years ago and in the intervening millennia almost all of her poetry has been lost. That she was highly regarded in her time can be seen from contemporaneous sources some of which regard her as the tenth muse ranking her amongst the gods themselves. But sadly she was neglected during the medieval period possibly due to the interpretation of the subject matter of much of her verse which didn’t fit into the strict moral compass of the catholic church and it was the church which performed much of the transcription from ancient texts to works that have lasted into our modern era. However excavations have uncovered fragments of her work even as recently as the last decade and we now have 650 lines of the estimated over 10000 she wrote. Apparently there were nine papyrus rolls of Sappho’s works held in the great library of Alexandria, the first one alone represented twice as much verse as we have available in the present day but those would have been lost in the fire and subsequent neglect whilst controlled by the Roman empire. That this book has roughly 450 lines makes it a positive bargain as it only cost 80p when first published in 2015 and now retails at £2 but still as it represents over two thirds of her extant output this is still money well spent. It is taken from the 2009 Penguin Classic book ‘Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments’ translated by Aaron Poochigian and simply collates the poems without any biographical information or analysis of the works which is the feature of the longer book.

Sappho wrote mainly lyric poetry, that is words designed to be accompanied by music, not songs as such but embellished by a tune, they tend to be in praise of heroic deeds of men and gods along with love songs praising a partner, or potential partner. It is her love poetry that is most famous and was most admired in antiquity but it is the belief that it specifically praises love of a woman for another woman that has given us the word sapphic for women attracted to women and also from her nationality as a resident of the Greek island Lesbos the word lesbian. Having said that this is not a collection of erotic verse, far from it, the lines are expected to be performed, these are expressions of love but nothing more explicit and make for a pleasant afternoon’s reading. It should be borne in mind as well that for the most part these are just fragments of poems, only two works are believed to be complete, so there may be much context that is lost. However I am in danger of writing a review that is longer than the entire book I have just read so let me finish with all we have left of one of the poems.

Stand and face me, dear; release
That fineness in your irises

May you bed down,
Head to breast, upon
The flesh
Of a plush
Companion

Dodger – Terry Pratchett

Having had my annual read of Charles Dickens’ classic ‘A Christmas Carol‘ I thought I would follow it with a book not written by Dickens but one where he appears as a character. Set in the early years of Victorian London various real people interact with the fictional Dodger and his compatriots including not only Dickens but Disraeli, Gladstone, Robert Peel, Joseph Bazalgette and Henry Mayhew to name but a few. Of these probably the least well known nowadays is Henry Mayhew whose monumental book ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ sits on my shelves just as it did on Terry Pratchett’s. Without this exhaustive, but surprisingly readable, study of the poor in Victorian London which did so much to raise awareness of the problems that beset them and ultimately helped to improve their lot I doubt if Pratchett would have produced such a leap from his ever popular Discworld series. The book is unusually dedicated not just to Terry’s wife Lyn but also to Henry Mayhew.

Dodger, the star of the book is the nickname of a tosher, a person who scours the sewers of London for things that have fallen or been washed down the drains and got caught up in the detritus down there. It was a step up from being a mudlark, someone who similarly looked for lost items or money but along the tidal banks of the Thames, mudlarks still exist but as a hobby rather than a career but toshing stopped after Bazalgette designed the new, more capable, sewer system for London. Right at the beginning of the story Dodger rescues an unknown woman from two men and his adventure, and rapid rise up the social tree begins as his heroism is recognised by Henry Mayhew and Charles Dickens who come along just afterwards. Dodger is an interesting character, clearly based on descriptions in Mayhew’s book but fleshed out by Pratchett in quite a believable way even if his subsequent adventures do stretch the imagination somewhat especially after his encounter with another fictional character from the period Sweeney Todd, the demon barber. It says a lot for Pratchett’s ability as an author that you are quite willing to allow for the speed of the plot and the people he gets to meet so quickly, and improbably for his social class.

The story fairly races along with Dodger and the young woman he rescued being dragged into an international crisis due to her unfortunate background and the reason she was trying to get away. Because of this however it is almost impossible to discuss more of the plot in this review as it would give too much away for future readers but it is a really fun read which I managed in one, fairly long, sitting but I didn’t want to put the book down until I finished. At the end Pratchett provides a short section on his use of actual and fantasy Victorian London

I have to confess ahead of the game that certain tweaks were needed to get people in the right place at the right time … but they are not particularly big tweaks, and besides, Dodger is a fantasy based on a reality. … This is a historical fantasy, and certainly not a historical novel. Simply for the fun of it, and also too, if possible, to get people interested in that era so wonderfully catalogued by Henry Mayhew and his fellows.

Because although I may have tweaked the positions of people and possibly how they might have reacted in certain situations, the grime, squalor and hopelessness of an underclass which nevertheless survived, often by a means of self-help, I have not changed at all. It was also, however, a time without such things as education for all, health and safety, and most of the other rules and impediments that we take for granted today. And there was always room for the sharp and clever Dodgers, male and female.

My copy is one of several ‘special editions’ produced when the book was first published on the 13th September 2012, this is the specially bound, stamped & numbered, slipcased edition limited to 3000 and sold exclusively by Waterstones, there was also various un-numbered ‘specials’:

  • 20000 copies exclusive to Waterstones with 500 for Australia with a special jacket and an extra section ‘The Wise Words of Solomon Cohen’ at the end.
  • 30000 copies for W.H. Smith along with 3000 for Easons with a bonus scene at end, Dodger goes to Bedlam to see Sweeney Todd. Both are the same except for different stickers on jacket.
  • 25000 copies exclusive to Tesco with post cards inside the front cover.
  • 6000 copies exclusive to Asda with a map of Dodger’s London at end.

This means that the ‘special editions’ outnumbered the ‘normal editions’ at publication in the UK of which there were 77000 copies. The ‘exclusive’ extra chapter in the edition for W.H. Smith and Easons was subsequently included in the UK paperback when this was published by Corgi on 26th September 2013. The Wise Words of Solomon Cohen do not appear to have been available in any other edition than the Waterstones special, they are not in my copy despite that also being a Waterstones exclusive. Bibliographic details are taken from the website of Terry Pratchett’s long time agent Colin Smythe which is a fount of knowledge on the subject of Terry’s works and is a fascinating read.