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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

My favourite reads: Declan McVeigh

What do a tramp, a war correspondent, a feminist campaigner, a tennis jock and a rock musician have in common? On the face of it, not much. But at the core of these five autobiographies and novels are the writers’ experiences, acting as the grit around which a pearl grows.

The Grass Arena, An Autobiography by John Healy published by Penguin Classics Courtesy Penguin UK
The Grass Arena, An Autobiography by John Healy published by Penguin Classics Courtesy Penguin UK

Declan McVeigh is a sub-editor for The National

The Grass Arena by John Healy (1988)

Alcoholic. Street drinker. Prisoner. Chess master. Acclaimed writer… John Healy’s thumb-in-your-eye autobiography was pulped after he threatened to kill his London publishers with an axe following one slight too many. Healy later claimed the middle-class were the most dangerous enemy anyone could face because an outsider’s talent or hard work counted for nothing if they were not embraced by the gatekeepers. It’s hard not to admire autodidacts such as Healy, a difficult and damaged man who refused to lie down and die.

Nell by Nell McCafferty (2004)

This memoir by the Derry-born reporter, feminist, playwright and activist is both personal and political. As Northern Ireland’s Troubles erupted in the late 1960s, a parallel fight was raging across Ireland for women’s rights – and McCafferty was in the thick of both. Blunt, honest and instructive, her writing revealed how hard life could be for many women of my mother’s generation, making me appreciate what they had to go through.

Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall by Luke Haines (2009)

I’m fascinated by the doomed romance of bands that, despite no fault of their own, just didn’t make it. Haines’ group, The Auteurs, saw success in the early 1990s before the twin tsunamis of Britpop and Cool Britannia swept the UK. Cursing the scene into which his avant-garde rock was lumped, Bad Vibes is caustic, funny and sour, demonstrating how pop culture simultaneously matters and is completely trivial.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)

When we finish a book, we take a breath and move on to the next thing, “which is life, always life”, as Raymond Carver wrote. But on reaching the end of Infinite Jest’s 1,079 pages (including its 388 footnotes), I felt like I had achieved something. It’s like joining a club. Wallace’s sprawling, tennis-themed epic required a special talent to bring it to life. That his 2008 suicide robbed the world of that talent makes his contribution no less special.

My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd (1999)

Loyd, a former British solider from a military family, takes a Sarajevo-bound flight as Bosnia’s people are engulfed by Europe’s worst post-war conflict. With a drug problem and no press credentials, he seems unable to resist the war’s dark magnetism and eventually becomes a front-line correspondent. For me, it pours cold water on the notion that war reporting is glamorous, displacing its supposed excitement with grim obsession.

Declan McVeigh is a sub-editor for The National

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