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Burning Books…on Paper—Neil Alexander

Neil Alexander, author of The Vanishing of Margaret Small, on Thomas Hardy, Jeanette Winterson—and how 200 pages on whales was quite enough...

A book from your early days

The Winter Diary of a Country Rat by Peter Firmin, who created The Clangers, Ivor the Engine and Bagpuss. It’s about a young rat called Branwell who travels through the countryside to Canterbury. The book is full of gorgeous illustrations of Kent, where I now live. I moved here as a student in 1992 and part of me can’t help thinking this book was what planted that particular seed in my mind. 

Dog ears or book marks?

I’m not precious. When it comes to paperbacks, I’ll happily turn down the corners. I can’t bear a creased cover though.

A quote you can say by heart?

Revising for A-Level English Literature in the nineties involved rote-learning quotations, so I can still reel off large chunks of Wuthering Heights and Hamlet, but the one quotation that has always stuck with me is, ‘Done because we are too many,’ which is the note that Little Father Time leaves for his parents, Sue and Jude, in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, after he hangs himself and his siblings.  

I find it unbelievable now that a novel, which explored, amongst other things, Victorian child suicide, was on the A-Level syllabus, but what a book! I was obsessed with it. As a working class kid, I very much identified with Jude and the challenges he faces in his aspirations to go to university. I remember my English teacher hating Sue Bridehead. She thought she was nothing but a flirt. We had many heated classroom discussions about her. 

Do you lend without expecting a book returned?

I’d love to say that I’m a lender, but the ugly truth is I covet and hoard books. I keep track of my loans like a begrudging librarian.  

Best book someone gave you?

I’m going to say Mabel Cooper’s life story, which is part of a larger non-fiction work called Forgotten Lives: Exploring the History of Learning Disability, edited by Dorothy Atkinson, Mark Jackson and Jan Walmsley.

Mabel was locked away in an institution for over 30 years because of her learning disability and the 7-page account of her ‘vanishing’ to St Lawrences Hospital in Croydon was the inspiration for my debut novel The Vanishing of Margaret Small.

I worked for Mencap, the learning disability charity for 12 years and was privileged to work with Mabel on many occasions. I’d often listen her telling her story at events. Sadly, she passed away in 2013. She was a real character: a brilliant speaker, a fierce campaigner, and an inspiration to everyone who knew her.  

A book you return to over the years? 

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, because of that twist. It’s a masterpiece of illusion and one that I often revisit as a kind of instruction manual on how to pull one over on the reader.

A book that comforts you? 

Wintering by Katherine May is the perfect book for easing yourself into the darker Winter months. 

A book that taught you something important?

During lockdown, I wrote the first draft of my second novel, The Troubles of Queen Billy, set in Belfast in 1989. As part of my research, I read Irish civil rights leader, Bernadette Devlin’s autobiography, The Price of my Soul. It has been out of print for years, so I had to read a PDF photocopy on screen, but it taught me so much about the history of ‘the troubles’, particularly from the catholic side.

I ended up going down a bit of a Bernadette Devlin rabbit hole on the internet, watching loads of old black and white interviews on YouTube. She’s a fascinating character, way ahead of her time. 

A book that saved you? 

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. I read it as a teenager, during a time when I was a wee bit confused over my sexuality and very much ‘in the closet’.  I remember secretly watching the BBC adaptation upstairs on the portable TV in my bedroom, the volume down as low as it would go.  

A book that makes you laugh? 

The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris. One of the very few writers who can make me laugh out loud. His short stories are full of self-deprecating, self-loathing and frequently hilarious dark humour. 

A book you associate with a particular life event? 

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell by Susanna Clarke reminds me of island hopping around Greece in 2006. These were the days before Kindle. Carrying such a weighty book in my bag (1024 pages!), along with my Lonely Planet guide, meant there wasn’t room for much else in my rucksack.

A book you are reading now? 

Sincerely, Me by Julietta Henderson which is wonderful.

A book you’d leave in there to burn? 

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I studied it at university, as part of a ‘Literature and Science’ module, but I just couldn’t get past the 200 or so pages on whales.

You can save one non-book item: what is it?

My rescue cat, Prudence.