There are currently eighteen large boxes of novels lining the L-shaped fork of the landing in my parent's home. The procession begins a few feet from the top of the stairs. At the corner it passes opposite the door to the spare room where my brother once lived. The line of boxes continues, like one of those never-ending freight trains they have in the US, in an easterly direction, alongside a row of floor-to-ceiling wall cupboards that probably date to the 1930s. Opposite, occupying a windowed alcove, is my father's wine fridge and a diminutive suit wardrobe that belonged to my grandfather, and that is now filled with the books that were read to me as a child – the first three Enid Blyton Faraway Tree novels, in their unexpurgated forms, bursting with Dick and Fanny, and that gruesome old pervert, Dame Slap (it is hard to get across how ubiquitous Enid's Blyton's books once were). There is my grandfather's anthologised copy of Grimm Fairy Tales, dating to a pre-fainting couch era, where the editors were happy for children's stories to end with a witch being forced into a pair of red-hot iron shoes and thereafter compelled to dance until she died. It obviously made an impression on me – I can't listen to the Lana Del Rey song 'Dance Till We Die' with its pointillist dabs of electric guitar, without also incongruously thinking of the ghastly fate that befell the wicked stepmother in Snow White. There is also, to my considerable amusement, a copy of a school hymn book that once belonged to my grandfather, although apparently its original owner was one H. Isaacs. On the inside cover there is an unusual two-part dedication:

H. ISAACS [in blue ink, underlined]

[In black ink, diagonally crossed out in both directions to make a diamond pattern]





signed By order

H. Isaacs.

[Pencilled underneath in cursive script]

Bequeathed to

Heald on my

sad departure

H. Isaacs

The parade of boxes ends respectfully at the door to my parent's bedroom, opposite the Christmas cupboard, which is where the festive season goes during its lengthy fallow period. My parents have decamped somewhere warmer and will not bear witness to this upsetting spectacle.

The carpet of my brother's former bedroom is covered in piles of cardboard, that have been arranged roughly in order of shape and size. There is a sachet of wallpaper paste, a small plastic tub, and a paintbrush with a badly-corroded ferrule.

The aim of this herculean labour is to graft pieces of cardboard onto the exteriors of these book boxes and also to insert supporting columns inside, so their contents are better protected. It is a work of piecemeal, Frankenstein engineering that would horrify any qualified architect or bridge builder. The end result is probably what cardboard boxes would look like in the post-apocalyptic Mad Max universe.

As a consequence, I have been digging through the strata of my reading history. In a sense this right-angled line of boxes is like one of those core samples of ice that they pull out of the Arctic. There is an absent period, prior to this, when, between the ages of 7 and 17, I read nothing but science fiction and fantasy. In my late teens I began to actively resent these books and threw them out. I regret it now, though perhaps it was necessary for my development.

There is a rich vein of Kerouac novels – those Paladin paperbacks whose covers are a lively collage of Americana, unlike their dour Penguin replacements. Around the age of 18 there was a resurgent interest in the beats. Suddenly every bookshop included an 'Underground Books' section.

There are towers of novels and collections of poetry by Bukowski (those beautifully designed books from Black Sparrow Press) and Burroughs. There is a large collection of work by an English writer named Jeremy Reed - an inveterate purveyor of purple prose. I found one of his early novels 'Blue Rock' in a publishing clearance outlet on Oxford Street, near to Tottenham Court Road Underground Station. I am not sure if it is a great book – I remember reading it and feeling that there were chapters missing. However, the feral young protagonist did strike a chord – I was also a very feral young man.

Taken collectively, these books represent an attempt to construct an identity. I think that is the reason why they are so hard to return to. I can listen to music from that era and it can be like a time machine – an album like 'Fox Base Alpha' by St Etienne is as close as you will get to feeling what it was like to be young and in London, during the early 90s. With the books from my youth it is different. They remind me of my awkwardness; my attempt to absorb works of literature in the belief that they would somehow transform me into the kind of person who I wanted to be. A few years ago, I re-read 'Desolation Angels' by Jack Kerouac. There is a character in the latter part of the novel – a poet – who is so annoying that I wanted to physically reach into the text and punch him.

Were your father alive today he could have self-published his novels, and sold them anywhere in the world, for the price of a proof copy and any costs associated with legal deposit laws. It is an irony that Amazon – often cited as the destroyer of bookshops – is home to a thriving independent publishing boom, made up of writers who would not get past the front desk of a publishing house.

Expand full comment

I loved this book. Your father was a good man. It reminded me of how we are shaped by our fathers even when we think we are not, because in the alternative paths we take, maybe we are choosing the ones they wanted to take but could not

Expand full comment

I feel as if I am with you on this walk into your past, understanding as we go much I’ve failed to see about the limits of the written on both sides of the manuscript.

Expand full comment

Such an apt title this piece has.

Expand full comment

You seem to be heading towards how to read literature as an author. Personally I am not that interested in how to read like a professional. But to see how an writers reads as they go would be fascinating.

Expand full comment

It’s a bit left field, but can you remember much about your time in West Kensington, 1976ish, the Nashville, etc? You were living in Challoner crescent in the front room on the ground floor. Behind you lived three friends of mine in a tiny flat, Simon woods, Simon fuller and Ian bowes, who existed in a life of total chaos, drugs and petty crime. (My wife Pam and I lived round the corner in comeragh road overlooking a little square inhabited by alcoholics.)

Ian is dead now, but I’m interested in what stage you were at in those days. Did that time and place have much of an influence on you? I never met you, but they used to mention you occasionally, and Ian used to listen through the wall when you having sex. I know, I caught him at it.

What can I say? I was horrified when I heard what had happened to you. I can only send you love and thanks for your work that I’ve followed over the years.

Dave Darby x

Expand full comment

Wow. That's lovely. Thanks.

Expand full comment

I’m also a disabled writer on substack and I’m very inspired and motivated by your writing practice! ✨

Expand full comment

A book about so many things...read it in 2004...saw you read passages from it in Birmingham...then asked you to take part in a BBC doc...-it is a book I have kept coming back to over the years...

Keep going dude...great stuff...

Amir x

Expand full comment

Hanif thank you for this - to think that you read not only Enid Blyton (very much my saving in those early years) but E Nesbit too! Wish I had made lists like you - your writing is like a long continuous absorbing thread with no end - like the reels of thread I inherited from my great uncle who was a tailor, so sort of industrial they are never ending. Coming across writings family writings is something other - joining in with them at a different time. I read how my dad died in Mum's diary - she wrote everything in there - I wonder what you will read then. Hoping your state of being is bearable and you will continue to write these things - again thank you.

Expand full comment

I gave you a shout out, Hanif, on the shout out thread. I am moved not only by your beautiful and authentic writing, but by your courage to be creative in a time of great personal suffering. Thank you for your writing and your spirit.

Expand full comment

A great book indeed. When I briefly met you in a Parisian bookshop, I got confirmation that the "man (you) worked with, a Pakistani singer now living in Birmingham" was actually Faheem Mazhar, whom I knew from Lahore where I had worked for 4 years. He was Nahid Siddiqui's brother in law then....Keep up the fight, all my thoughts of slow but sure recovery go out you!

Expand full comment