The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1948)

Before settling down to read this white-knuckler, do the following.

Lock your doors and windows.

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (1948)

Turn on all the lights. Ready a candle in case of power cut. Remember matches.

Pour a brandy. Make it two.

Hell, three.

Oh, and have a wee.

What’s the big deal? Well, it kind of creeps up on you and lulls you into a false sense of security.

Then upsides your head, leaving you shaken and shocked.

There’s a lovely start.

The morning of the June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

Ah, sigh, can you feel that breeze on your face?

And sneaky, brilliant, Ms Jackson is casting clues from the start.

People are cheerful, smiling, jovial. Everything seems so routine. Old Man Warner even says, Seventy-seventh year I been in the lottery.

Yep indeedy, most of the towns and villages have been holding one every year for many, many years.

Ho-hum, and so this one carries on in its customary way and you don’t notice the insidious change of tone or tempo.

Until it’s too late.

The old frog in the saucepan trick.

And when you’re done and have caught your breath and apologised to the neighbours for your screams, sit back and marvel at the story-telling.

And perhaps don’t look in the glass for a while after. So you don’t see the horror lingering palely there.

Good luck.

Thanks for being here.

PS read it again and play pick up the clues. x

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The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1609)

Your favourite bit, aside from the clichéd I cried to dream again and brave new world that has such people in’t?

Mine’s got to be Caliban’s few words while basted on booze or, as he lovingly calls it, celestial liquor.

What tickles is the characteristic hallmarks of the drunk as he tries to give the also carted Stephano and Trinculo instructions on how to polish off Prospero [Caliban’s boss].

He’s truly bowsered. Or, as the irksome and obsequious Ariel puts the state, red-hot with drinking.

It’s all here. The frowning. The determined imperative. The repetition of idea. The aggression. You don’t have to see the play to see him swaying, lurching, finger-pointing.

So, having just told them both that he’ll take them to Prospero where thou mayst knock a nail in his head, he expands on the theme.

(Why is knock a nail in his head so funny here? Why. Perhaps because it’s such an absurdly violent and premeditated (given the tools needed) thing to do, uttered by an inebriate who can hardly stand up. Perhaps it’s the euphony and alliteration in those first three syllables that make it sound such a casual and easy task.)

And so he goes on,

‘I the afternoon to sleep: there thou must brain him,

Having first seized his books; or with a log

Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake…

New verb for me there: to paunch is to disembowel (an animal). I guess that figures, glancing down.

Or cut his wezand with a knife…

Now, ouch.

I don’t know either, nor does the dictionary. But I do know that I’d like my wezand intact. Whatever, wherever, it is.

Just as it is.

Must’ve been one helluver hangover.

Thanks for being here.

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Lewis Carroll An Illustrated Biography by Derek Hudson (1954)

Loosen your clothing and keep the airways free for this one.

In October 1950, Reverend G Edward Charlesworth was having his Croft Rectory in Yorkshire renovated.

When they pulled up the floor in what used to be Charles Dodgson’s [Lewis Carroll’s] nursery on the second storey, they came across a child’s secret stash of little bits and pieces.

Here are three of the treasures they pulled out. Make sure you’re sitting comfortably. Brandy balloon in reach.

One left shoe.

Holy cats.

Remember the White Knight’s song in Through the Looking-Glass?

And now if e’er by chance I put

My fingers into glue

Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot

Into a left-hand shoe…

Oh, Lordy. Fetch the smelling salts.

One white glove.

Lawks.

Remember the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, splendidly dressed, with a pair of white kid gloves in one hand and a large fan in the other?

Then he drops them. Alice picks them up and forgets about them until she finds, oddly, that she’s wearing one after she’s shrunk.

I can’t remember what happened to them after that, but do recall him looking for them, muttering, “Oh my dear paws! Oh my fur and whiskers! She’ll get me executed, as sure as ferrets are ferrets!

I think one of the meanie queenie’s favourite punishments was to cut off someone’s whiskers. (Didn’t she threaten the Dormouse with as much in court later?)

Then the White Rabbit tells her to go to his house and get him some more gloves and she does and drinks that potion and gets bigger and bigger and bigger and stuck. Or something.

One thimble.

Mercy. Back in a sec, running a cold bath.

Remember, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the prize-giving after that absurd Caucus-race and Alice gives them all a comfit and there isn’t one left for her?

“But she must have a prize herself, you know,” said the Mouse.

“Of course,” the Dodo replied very gravely. “What else have you got in your pocket?” he went on, turning to Alice.

“Only a thimble,” said Alice sadly.

“Hand it over here,” said the Dodo.

They they all crowded round her once more while the Dodo solemnly presented the thimble, saying “We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble;” and, when it had finished this short speech they all cheered.

Doorbell. That’ll be my therapist.

Thanks for being here.

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(Illustration by John Tenniel.)

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Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant (1885)

A stupendous shit and an incorrigible cad.

Not the first sign of madness, but the protagonist Georges Duroy.

His blatantly ironic nickname, Bel-Ami, typifies the duplicity coursing through this deliciously unsettling book.

His secret to success in four words? Use your wily willy. Five? Erm. Get off to get on.

Well, well, old boy, I hope you realise you really do hit it off with the ladies? You must cultivate that. It could take you far… they’re still the quickest way to succeed.

And boy, does he slather on the ‘charm’. It’s a shame to see it abused so. And the trust that goes with it. Makes you shiver.

But before we look at some gems, let’s put down a marker and reflect on author Laurie Lee’s sense of pure charm (from his excellent 1975 collection of essays, I Can’t Stay Long).

Charm in a man, I suppose, is his ability to capture the complicity of a woman by a single-minded acknowledgement of her uniqueness…

of being totally absorbed, of forgetting that anyone else exists…

it’s what a man says that counts, the bold declarations, the flights of fancy, the uncovering of secret virtues…

[it] strikes deepest when a woman’s imagination is engaged, with herself as the starting point, when she is made part of some divine extravaganza…

a woman is charmed by what she hears...

So. Here’s Bel-Ami. Being cheesy about a lady’s earring.

It’s charming,… but the ear must take some of the credit, too.

Oh, please.

When I love a woman, everything else vanishes apart from her.

Sir Percy Squirm.

And here’s His Oilyness pecking hands.

He kissed them one after the other and then, raising his eyes, he said simply: “Heavens, if only I’d met a woman like you, how happy I would’ve been to marry her!”

Le beurre ne fondrait pas dans sa bouche. (Good, eh?)

But to be honest, they’re all it. Boys and girls, some astute enough to clock it in others.

Feel the venom in this riposte to Bel-Ami from one of his long-time tootsies, Madame de Marelle. Makes your eyes sting.

You’ve behaved like an utter cad ever since we’ve known each other… you go around deceiving and exploiting everyone and everybody [ouch], you take your pleasure when and where you like and money from anyone who’ll give you it and you still want me to treat you like a gentleman.

Yee-haw. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. (Must remember to do the dishes.)

Semi-Autobiographical of Maupassant? Perhaps. The pox boxed him.

Thanks for being here.

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A Curious Career by Lynn Barber (2014)

Wish I’d been intimate with Lynn Barber. Got in the offie queue by mistake.

Perhaps some of the how-to-interview magic might’ve rubbed off.

While we’re at it, let’s get that stunning run rate out of the way. From Kirsty Young’s Desert Island Discs on Radio 4.

[Barber] “…I did sleep with an awful lot of people in about two terms…”

[Young] “… How many?”

“Oh, probably fifty.”

“Right.”

“It was quite good going.”

“And they’re quite short, those Oxford terms, aren’t they?”

“Absolutely. I was jamming them in.

Nicely done, Young, asking about the term lengths. So let’s have some tips from Barber. About interviewing.

I wish I’d read A Curious Career before the eyebrow-raising encounters in Mostly Men (1991) and Demon Barber (1998). [List of interviewees below.] I would’ve loved savouring how she does it before reading them.

If you don’t get to read A Curious Career first either – do read a copy when you can, it’s good fun – here’s why her interviews are so yummy.

Funnily enough, they’re mostly don’ts. So, six top tips to interviewing…

Don’t write in anything but the first person.

Don’t wing your prep (I used to do that all the time at school). Research to know what hasn’t yet been talked about before.

Don’t interview boring people, wives, husbands, lovers or victims. (Might be some tautology in there, somewhere.)

Don’t express your own opinion – in fact, try not to talk much.

Don’t always believe everything people say. If they say they’re not snobbish, not racist, not sexist, and that they love their children they’re probably fibbing.

Don’t forget that best interview question is always, ‘Why?’.

Don’t look at me, guv’nor.

Thanks for being here.

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Mostly Men: Barber grills Richard Adams, Margaret (Duchess of Argyll), Jeffrey Archer, John Aspinall, Tony Benn, The Beverly Sisters, Ronald Biggs, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Bolt, Melvyn Bragg, Roald Dahl, Kirk Douglas, Ben Elton, Stephen Fry, Zsa Zsa Gabour, J Paul Getty II. Bob Guccione, Richard Harris, David Hart, Barry Humphries, William Hurt, Jeremy Irons, Sir John Junor, Barry Manilow, Howard Marks, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Rudolph Nureyev, Ken Russell, Sir James Savile, Muriel Spark, Lord and Lady Spencer, Freddie Starr, Jackie Stewart, and Auberon Waugh.

Demon Barber : Barber barbecues Eddie Izzard, Alan Clark, Damien Hirst, Julie Burchill, Jarvis Cocker, Lord Rees-Mogg, David Hockney, Julian Clary, Kelvin MacKenzie, Neil Tennant, Major Ronald Ferguson, Gilbert and George, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Calvin Klein, Rachel Whiteread, Joseph Heller, Rupert Everett, Gerry Adams, Lord Rothermere, Alexander McQueen, Boy George, Micheal Winner, Jonathan Ross, Felicity Kendal, Redmond O’Hanlon, Stephen Fry, Lord Deedes, Dale Winton, Harriet Harman, and Richard E Grant. [This is the order of the book’s Contents.]

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I, Claudius; Claudius the God and his wife Messalina by Robert Graves (both 1934)

There’s a lovely connect between these and the TV series Fawlty Towers (also known as Farty Towels).

Any idea? Go on, have a go.

A clue? Okay.

Hag.

Do you remember that wonderful, wonderful moment in Fawlty Towers where actor John Cleese’s Basil, battered, bruised and put-upon by his nagging wife Sybil [played by Prunella Scales], foresees the end of his short, miserable life?

Zoom! What was that? That was your life, mate. Oh. That was quick. Do I get another? Sorry, mate, that’s your lot.

And while we’re about it, let’s savour some of his epithets for her. Golfing puff-adder. The dragon. Toxic midget. Sabre-toothed tart. My little piranha fish. My little nest of vipers.

Rancorous, coiffured old sow.

Now let us accompany Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus to Cumae, in Campania, about, erm, one thousand nine hundred and fifty years ago.

We’re off to see the oracle, for Claudius to question Rome’s fate and his.

Before being permitted to visit… I had to sacrifice a bullock and ewe there, to Apollo and Artemis respectively.

The cavern was a terrifying place, hollowed out from solid rock: the approach steep, tortuous, pitch-black and full of bats.

Sounds like my bedroom.

I came into the inner cavern, after groping painfully on all-fours up the stairs and saw… more like an ape than a woman, sitting on a chair in a cage that hung from the ceiling, her robes red and her unblinking eyes shining red in the single red shaft of light that struck down from somewhere above. Her toothless mouth was grinning. There was a smell of death about me.

Got it yet? No?

Okay, guess this seer’s name.

Sibyl.

Well, I thought it was funny anyway.

Thanks for being here.

(Well-spotted: yes, Sybil and Sibyl – different spelling.)

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