Welcome to Episode 2 of Desert Island Lit.
In this series, I ask my guests to pick five – and only five – books to take with them to the Island of Absurdia. A solitary island where one whiles away their days in joyful isolation, accompanied only by their favourite literature!
You can read more about his debut novel, Step Forward Harry Salt on the publisher’s website.
Ross's Journey to The Islands of Absurdia...
Ross has been swept away on an existential tide and finds himself in solitary confinement on the Isle of Absurdia.
And because we’re on the Isle of Absurdia, our esteemed guest will receive a copy of absurdist classic The Myth of Sisyphus, and a luxury item of his choice. In this case, Ross has chosen a coffee machine.
I’m stuffed without a decent cup of coffee in the morning, plus I always enjoy reading that little more with a nice drink to hand. So. A coffee maker. I just hope this desert island has power. And milk. And a fridge. Eek.
Ross Lowe, Author of Step Forward, Harry Salt
Ross Lowe's Desert Island Lit Picks
It was 1996 and I was in my second year at university when my housemate Martin gave me his copy of this book to read.
I’d not long seen the movie Trainspotting, based on Welsh’s first novel, which had absolutely knocked me sideways. I remember thinking how incredible it was to see a British film that stood head and shoulders above everything else at the time in terms of storyline, characters, direction – even the soundtrack – and wasn’t pandering to the needs of American audiences like so many things seemed to do back then.
It was fiery, frightening and grim but a beautifully real and experimental piece of work and such a culture shift. At least, it felt like that to this excitable 19-year-old. But I can’t think of a moment in cinema that has affected me and so many others in a way like that since. Everyone had the poster of Ewan McGregor with the ‘Choose life’ mantra on their walls, or felt something whenever Born Slippy came on in a club.
ANYWAY. Off the back of all that, Martin gave me Marabou Stork Nightmares, Welsh’s second novel, to read. Again, I was excited by its grim rawness and loved getting my head into the world (or worlds, in this case) that he built. It’s a very experimental novel once again, this time from the point of view of a man in a coma, struggling to deal with the conflict caused by the real world above the surface, and the fantasy world in which he exists while unconscious down below, hunting for the elusive marabou stork.
I loved the way he played with the text in this novel, the sinking and rising of his consciousness represented visually with the words (incidentally another book that does this brilliantly is The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall which, randomly, according to the very last page, appeared to be set in Spondon, a place just up the road from where I was brought up in Derbyshire.)
To me, the in-your-face delivery and unorthodox visual style, along with the fact that I had to work at getting my tongue around the dialogue (written in Edinburgh Scots dialect) made for a reading experience unlike any other I’d had up until then.
I can recall a lot about Marabou Stork Nightmares quite vividly, including how I felt when reading it, despite the fact I haven’t picked it up again since (it wasn’t my book after all, and I think Martin might’ve been a little pissed off if I didn’t give it back).
So, this one is coming to the seaside with me so that I can experience it all over again and see if it still has that impact, while finding out if it really is as good as I seem to remember it.
This is the fourth book in the fantastic series ‘The Dark is Rising’ by Susan Cooper.
I read the series in completely the wrong order to begin with, but it didn’t matter. I started with The Dark is Rising (book 2) and then went to this one, before going back to the start and reading all five in sequence.
I bought The Grey King second-hand for the lofty sum of 20p from a small seaside café at Osmington Mills in Dorset on a family holiday when I was about 10 or 11, and devoured it in days.
There are so many things I love about this book. There’s a really dark, unsettling mood that runs through every page which I totally loved and it had me gripped from the beginning. It probably goes some way to explaining why I eventually grew up to be an ardent Radiohead fan.
Susan Cooper describes the Welsh landscape as if it’s alive, breathing and seething to a point where even the weather appears conscious. Will and his new-found friend Bran are two boys caught in the middle of something much bigger and more terrifying than they can possibly imagine, something that spans history and the universal powers of the Light and Dark.
Set in the modern day it felt so relatable to me back then; the boys were my age and having adventures that, although supernatural, felt completely real and possible thanks to Cooper’s ability to treat young readers with respect while not shying away from scaring the willies out of them.
I have read and re-read The Dark is Rising sequence so many times over the years and its power over me is undiminished. This book is by far the best of the five for my money (20 pence, for heavens sakes! Bargain!)
This book turned my world, my universe even, upside down. My Mum bought it for me to take on holiday when I was around 11 or 12 I think, and she said “I think you’ll like this.”
Mum, you nailed it. Thank you.
As a kid I was very much into surreal comedy; the weirder, dafter or more subversive the better. My parents plied me with the stuff: from Monty Python, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers through to Kenny Everett. I was also mad keen on anything to do with space, so when this book landed on my lap I gobbled it up.
I love the fact that, as I’ve grown older, the book has grown with me, so that I’ve uncovered and appreciated more and more every time I’ve read it. All the facets of the human condition (particularly the more dreadful or interminable ones) are here, each disguised as a planet or race of beings: the Vogons are defined by bureaucracy and terrible poetry, while another race subscribes to a religion that says the universe was sneezed out of the nose of a creature called The Great Green Arkleseizure, while they subsequently live in perpetual fear of a time called The Coming of The Great White Handkerchief.
There are characters with names like Magikthise and Vroomfondel. A quest to understand the ultimate question of Life, The Universe and Everything. And at the middle of it all, a completely normal bloke from Somerset called Arthur Dent who just wanted his house to not be demolished, and thought his friend Ford Prefect was from Guildford (and not, as it turns out, from a planet in the vicinity of the star Betelgeuse).
Just wonderful and again, a book I can read over and over and totally lose myself in every time.
This little gem is much more recent, and something I enjoyed for the first time earlier this year. I’d heard plenty of chatter about it in the more bookish quarters of social media, and after reading the blurb I thought I’d give it a spin.
I’m really glad that I did.
On the surface, it doesn’t sound particularly remarkable – a story about gentle folk, in particular two thirty-something men who are each still living with their parents (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, alright?) while trying to navigate 21st century life.
But, right from the amazing first line (which has to rank as one the best openings to a book ever EVER), this amiable little novel both soothes and amuses while still managing to ensure you care deeply about the two misfit protagonists. Rónán Hession clearly cares about them, and never patronises either of them when it would be all too easy to go down that road. As such, we care too: we really want them to be okay.
I was chatting recently to Paul Handley, the hairy genius at Bearded Badger Publishing, when he told me that he felt this book should be available as an NHS prescription. I’d say that’s a fair wish. It is medicinal, and for that reason I’d want a copy of Leonard & Hungry Paul with me on a desert island. For even if I was miles away from anyone and everyone, the knowledge that they, and people like them, are out there quietly doing their thing, would be enough to make me feel better about the world.
I have Hession’s latest book Panenka in my pile of books to be read, and I’m looking forward to seeing how much time he spends discussing Wayne Rooney’s cheeky chipped penalty for Derby County against Fulham at Pride Park in 2020.
My suspicion is that it won’t be a lot, as he’s a Watford fan anyway.
Right, here’s a really personal one for you. My Shoulder to the Wheel is the autobiography of Welsh author, poet, journalist and editor Meic Stephens who was, among a great many other great things, my journalism lecturer during my three years at the University of Glamorgan back in the mid-to-late 90s.
Out of all the teachers I was ever lucky enough to learn from (and I owe a lot to so many), Meic is the one that always pops up in my consciousness for all kinds of reason and at all kinds of moments. He truly inspired me, and a couple of years ago I felt compelled to google him and see how he was, and was sad to learn he’d passed away in 2018. However, I was glad to see that he’d written his autobiography.
He instilled in me and the rest of his students the need for seeking truth; not just in news reporting but in being true to one’s self, and following your heart. He was quietly spoken but a very passionate man, proud not only of his Welsh heritage and the language of his country but also of his more immediate locality (the university campus in which he taught me in Treforest, Pontypridd, was only a couple of streets away from the very house in which he was born). He was worldly-wise too, living for periods in the French town of Brittany and also Utah, USA.
There’s a famous piece of graffiti that appeared in the 1960s on the wall of a ruined cottage in Ceredigion that reads Cofiwch Dryweryn (“Remember Tryweryn”), in response to the decision to flood the Tryweryn Valley to create a reservoir to supply the city of Liverpool, over the border in England.
It was sanctioned for Liverpool City Council by Westminster despite numerous protests and without the consent of Welsh authorities. As such, many centuries-old communities including Capel Celyn were lost forever under water. It turns out it was young Meic himself that scrawled the graffiti, which has since gone on to become a prominent slogan in Welsh politics and a bit of a mid-Wales landmark. Thanks to Meic, Tryweryn has never been forgotten, which is pretty cool.
And for extra coolness points, he’s also the father of the brilliant radio DJ Huw Stephens, and uncle of Super Furry Animals leader and utterly unpredictable musician Gruff Rhys. When he revealed his family link to Gruff in one lecture, he sang the opening to “If You Don’t Want Me To Destroy You”, which caused me and my dear friend Claire Heat to slide off of our chairs in paroxysms of joy. He gave us a very cheeky smile and seemed very pleased with our response and we still talk about that, and him, to this day. I have very fond memories of my time in Wales, and a lot of love for the Valleys and the people there. It’s a magical place, with real soul.
So for me, I’d take this book with me to remember someone I was lucky enough to be directly inspired by, and to remind myself to stay true, never give up, never let the bastards win and always try to give of my best. Cheers, Meic.
A massive thank you to Ross for getting involved with Desert Island Lit. Do considering checking out his debut novel, Step Forward, Harry Salt.
And if you’d like to know more about this episode’s guest, do check out his website and Twitter below.