Tag Archives: Britain

Book: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

Comical, surreal, unmistakably British.
400 pages, ★★★★★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages takes ‘normal’ British life and makes it increasingly surreal. The story focuses on office worker Polly and her brother Don (who reminds me of the man who nearly adopted Juno’s baby in the film Juno), whose lives become punctuated by increasingly bizarre episodes. The story is set in modern-day Britain, and British references are glaringly obvious on every page.

Bizarre incidents begin after page 53 when Don’s desk snaps completely in half under the pressure of a brass pencil sharpener. What’s equally strange is that it repairs itself on the same page, and this doesn’t seem to surprise Don in the slightest. The book is very ‘normal’ up to this point so I started to rationalise the desk’s breakage logically—Is it a folding desk? Is is actually a portable picnic table? By the time I realised this book was logically irreconcilable, I was already 30 pages from the end.

More bizarre events include shops, houses and streets that vanish (becoming green fields) overnight, Mr Huos being translocated suddenly up a mountain, the introduction of seemingly irrelevant, disconnected storylines, and a Ford Cortina being driven by a flock of chickens. Characters take notice of these surreal events about halfway through the book and start referring to the “It” and then “magic” influencing their lives. The most obvious piece of “magic” happens when Stan Gogerty meets a real-life CGI gingerbread-man copy of himself—an impossible meeting that gives him great insight into the perpetual “chicken and egg question” that emerges later on.

The most subtle piece of ‘magic’ in this novel is when two characters morph into two of the other characters. This could be easy to miss. On page 152, we meet Mary and Martin, whose relationships with Mr Huos and with each other seem remarkably similar to those of Polly and Don, who we met in the first chapter. Then, between pages 152 and 158, the storyline of Mary and Martin becomes the storyline of Polly and Don! Page 152 uses the former pair of names (just once); page 158 uses the latter set of names (twice), and the pages in the middle use pronouns (he, she and Mr. Huos) to disguise the subtle transition. This happens again later when we learn that Rachel, Polly and “dozens of others” work simultaneously in the same office for Mr Huos; and again when Ed Hopkins, Jack Tedesci and some other characters all discover the houses they bought just yesterday have gone missing.

British humour is found throughout. Most obviously, it’s in the sheer absurdity of the plot (we Brits find that funny in itself). Finding humour in futility is also a remarkably British trait, and the introduction of apparently irrelevant storylines (such as the motorcade of world leaders) and the intermittent discussion of the “chicken and egg question” serves that end very well.

I grew up in Britain, and therefore found such overtly British jokes as “…like what would happen if the Tardis’ navigation system got replaced by the computer that runs baggage handling at Heathrow” and “…like the M25 tailback in ‘92 that became so dense it achieved critical mass and collapsed into a black hole” much funnier than if I’d grown up elsewhere. The more subtle jokes, though, such as, “caught the Tube at Livingstone Square” on page 222, might only be intelligible to people who have lived in London for some time. In fact, some of the jokes in this is novel are so British that I question whether non-Brits would find them funny at all.

There are also many similes and metaphors that use animals—I counted a daddy long-legs, a “goldfish impression”, two elephants, three cats, and dozens of chickens and pigs. The best animal reference of all was, “still looked very sad indeed, like a spaniel whose bone was stolen by an Alsatian”. Animal references made me smile in many places.

I strongly recommend this book for those with an appreciation of British humour. When reading it, challenge yourself by seeing how long you can keep track of the logical inconsistencies in this book. Treat it as a mental exercise. I’ve attached a character map below, to which you can refer if you get stuck. ★★★★★

Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

Book: Europe East & West

Europe East & West

Gripping accounts of what Norman Davies learned from writing a legendary history book.
335 pages, ★★

Europe East & West isn’t the legendary history tome that the cover alleges it to be. Instead, (the advanced introduction aside) it’s a series of relaxed, organised accounts of the author’s journey in writing a history book. (The book itself is called Europe: A History.)

This book raises many interesting points. It deconstructs “the west”, and told us how “western” is an obsolete term; not just because eastern countries are now catching up economically, but because for much of ancient history, eastern europe has been remarkably successful. The author’s specific interests in Poland and Wales highlight how both the Celts and the Poles were in many ways more advanced than their closest neighbours, the Germans and the English. I like myth-busting.

Some of the facts are surprising. It tells us that “England is not an island”—that’s the author’s Welsh interest becoming apparent. He then argues (more seriously) how Britain never fully adopted the notion nationhood in the way that France did, and missed its last opportunity when the British Empire was downsized. It tells us the Roman roots of the 1054 schism in Christianity which still lasts to this day. It also tells us how George Ludwig made a perfect king because couldn’t speak any English, which allowed for the emergence of a ruling cabinet under a figurehead monarch (which we also still have today). He also argues that the Muslims have long been more accommodating of the Jewish people than the Europeans ever have, and gives plenty of comparisons and examples to prove his point.

I have deep admiration for the author’s understanding of history. His 12-year-old son can name six of the seven European empires which ruled over Muslim subjects:

“I remember asking my twelve-year-old son how many European empires had Muslim subjects. I started off with the British empire, which ruled over Muslims from northern Nigeria to Brunei, and the French empire. Then we thought of the Russian empire. Then he came up with the Dutch empire, which I’d forgotten, in the East Indies. And we ended with the Spanish empire in North Africa and the Italians in Libya. We forgot the Portuguese in Timor, but six out of seven is not bad.” — pages 203-204

I also admire the author’s impartiality. He doesn’t give in to recent cultural and political biases—in fact, he ignores them completely. (I thin much of this comes from his love of both Poland and Wales, both of which are under-represented in most of Europe’s historical narratives.)

If you want to learn about European history, but are basically starting from scratch, then read this Europe East & West as an ice-breaker before cracking the epic tome (Europe: A History) itself. ★★