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January 17th

Joyce Carol Oates – Where Is Here?

… from Where Is Here (1992)

Is there a more prolific literary writer in the world than Joyce Carol Oates? Across almost sixty years of publishing, she’s produced more than forty novels, and alongside them countless short stories, plays, works of non-fiction and poetry. A compulsive writer, one must assume, and while it’s impossible to keep up with her vast output, one need only dip in and out to encounter greatness.

I’m pretty compulsive myself, having produced seventeen books in nineteen years, which suggests that I’ll have at least another thirty in me, all going well. It’s hard to imagine writing all of them. Sort of exciting. Sort of terrifying.

Where Is Here? is a terrific story that feels like something out of The Twilight Zone. A middle-aged couple are at home when a man knocks on the door, saying that he lived in their house as a child, and would they mind if he took a look around? They invite him inside and as he walks from room to room, recalling memories from decades earlier, the couple grow more and more anxious about his presence, while his politeness slowly turns towards possessiveness. There’s a suggestion of violence always lurking beneath the surface that leaves the reader feeling rather unsettled.

My parents still live in the house that I grew up in; they’ve lived there for around fifty years now. I’ve lived in my own home for almost eleven years and doubt that I will ever leave it. I can’t imagine anyone else living in my parents’ home or, indeed, in mine, although I’ve always been fascinated by the massive pile of legal papers that show the movement of the land from person to person over several hundred years. I wonder about who they were, what their stories were and, hundreds of years from now, what will be taking place on the ground where my house now sits and where I write my books every day.

January 16th

Helen Garner – All Those Bloody Young Catholics

… from Postcards from Surfers (1985)

I’m a committed Australia-phile, having travelled there ten times since my first visit in May 2007. When I’m down under, I like to read Australian writers and I have a good collection at home, although this is the first Antipodean writer that I’ve read for this project. One of the best of those writers is Helen Garner, who’s not very well known on my side of the world but is one of the most respected writers in her home country. She first came to my attention when I read her short novel The Spare Room a few years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since.

All Those Bloody Young Catholics is a very unusual story, told in one long paragraph in the dialect of an Aussie drinking man. He meets an old friend at a bar and begins a tedious, if utterly accurate, monologue on her sexual past, particularly in relation to her seduction of a young seminarian years earlier. He’s one of those bores that one occasionally has to listen to in bars, dribbling barely hidden prejudices and misogyny as he knocks back drink after drink. No one else can get a word in as he talks and talks and talks.

It’s the brutal authenticity of the man’s voice that makes the story so compulsive. He swears, uses foul language, mythologises his own sexual history, mocks those who don’t order alcohol at the bar and Garner captures him in all his hideous glory. A great example of the short story as harangue.

January 15th

James Kelman – Acid

… from Not Not While The Giro (1983)

As this series is progressing, I’m receiving suggestions from friends and readers about stories that I might look at next. This story, by Scottish Booker-prize winning author James Kelman, was recommended to me by my friend, the Irish writer Paul Howard, author of the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly novels, amongst other books, and, as Paul pointed out to me, it has the virtue that all short stories should have, in that it’s actually short.

In fact, it’s only one paragraph long so to summarise it would be to rewrite it. Suffice to say that it takes place in an acid factory where something goes wrong.

It’s important to have a real visceral reaction to a story, I think, and when I read this for the first time I literally said ‘Jesus!’ out loud at the end, before reading it again.

Some might describe this as ‘flash fiction’ but I hate that phrase. It’s still a short story, every bit as much as Hemingway’s famous ‘For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.’ is.

In other news, my first boxing class went well. I learned to jab, punch and upper cut. I’m hoping someone picks on me soon so I can put these new talents to use.

January 14th

Elizabeth Berridge – Woman About The House

… from Tell It To A Stranger (1947)

Abandonment lies at the heart of this story, but what makes it intriguing is that it’s not entirely clear who’s abandoning who. After a decade of married life, James Munday gets a job with the local council and decides, on a whim, to take a room in a pub nine miles from home leaving his wife, Lindy, alone at home. It’s a week before he even thinks of her again and, by the time he bothers to jump on his bicycle and go back to see whether she’s still alive or not, she’s already gone, ‘to look after Mother’, the house is empty and there’s not so much as a rice pudding waiting for him in the oven. Poor lamb.

What’s most engaging about this story, however, is how little either of them seems to care. James is sick of his wife, of how she nags him and finds fault with his every movement, while she’s clearly had enough of his selfishness. Rather than being upset that she’s left, James takes it entirely in his stride and, as she’s failed to contact him since his disappearance, one can only assume that she’s just as happy to be shot of him as he is to be shot of her.

Talk about getting over someone quickly! I had a break-up a couple of years ago and it’s taken me two and a half years to move past it. In the story, James thinks about getting a dog for a bit of company in his now empty house; maybe I should do the same thing.

This collection of stories is published by the excellent Persephone Books in London, a press devoted almost entirely to writing by women, republishing books that have been forgotten or left out-of-print over the years. I have a subscription with them, and a new book arrives every month – novels, story collections, works of non-fiction – and it’s always a welcome surprise to see what’s inside the envelope. Also, they look great on a shelf together in their uniform grey covers.

January 13th

Margaret St Clair – Brenda

… from Weird Tales (1954)

Another author who I’d never heard of until I came across this story in The Folio Book of Horror Stories, Margaret St Clair was best known for her science fiction stories but Brenda, originally published in the rather brilliantly titled Weird Tales, is more of a psychological horror story than anything else. It’s set on a place called Moss Island and concerns the eponymous heroine, a young girl, who is chased by a tramp-like creature who reeks of death until she manages to trick him into falling into a quarry.

When he escapes, he terrorises the six families vacationing on the island until they figure out what to do with him, which is something very disturbing indeed. Although nowhere near as disturbing as the final image of Brenda writhing atop his grave, certain that he will eventually be resurrected, when, she says, ‘you can make me a woman. I’ll be alive for the first time.’

Takes all sorts, I suppose.

I mentioned two days ago, when writing about the Algernon Blackwood story, that I’m not a big horror buff, but I did read Stephen King’s The Shining for the first time last year and enjoyed it. And I love horror movies; the scarier the better. I think it’s easier to frighten someone in images than in words. Scary stories never really have that much of an effect on me. I can’t think of a single novel that has ever managed to make me jump and when I see blurbs on books saying things like ‘don’t read this when you’re alone’, I always roll my eyes. Maybe I’m just made of strong stuff.

Speaking of which, I start boxing classes today. I’ve never done that before so it will be an interesting experience. I guess I’ll have to start looking for some short stories about boxing soon. Hemingway, maybe. Or Mailer. One of those tough guy writers.

January 12th

Kristen Roupenian – Bad Boy

… from You Know You Want This (2019)

It’s been said that Cat Person, the short story Kristen Roupenian published in The New Yorker last year, was the first story to ‘go viral’, and this may be true although there are certainly hundreds of stories that have been read widely over the years. One thinks of the crowds waiting in America for the ships to arrive with the latest issue of Master Humphrey’s Clock in 1841 to discover the fate of Little Nell in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. In a sense, that was a novel that ‘went viral’. Still, Roupenian’s story certainly captured the spirit of the times, coming as it did at the height of the #MeToo movement and describing the unpleasant and obnoxious behaviour of a man towards a girl he has dated.

Roupenian’s debut collection is due to be published next month but when an advance copy landed on my desk this morning, I knew what I would read for today’s story. I chose the first one, Bad Boy, a strange and unsettling piece about the relationship between a couple and their friend, a guy who has recently broken up with a horrible girlfriend. He comes to stay with them for a few days, but they soon become dependent on him and the relationships between the three twist and turn in the most unexpected ways, leading to a dramatic conclusion. It’s a strong start to a collection that will likely be one of the year’s most read. I’m looking forward to reading some more of these.

I watched Roma yesterday, Alfonso Cuarón’s movie that’s tipped for the Best Picture Oscar. Every shot looked like it could be taken from the screen and framed. A beautiful film. Compared to the execrable A Star is Born, this is cinema at its finest.

January 11th

Algernon Blackwood – Ancient Lights

… from The Eye Witness (1912)

I was completely unfamiliar with the work of Algernon Blackwood but found this in a collection of horror stories and, after reading it, did a little research on the author. It turns out that he was a prolific writer of ghost stories, novels and plays who published many works throughout the first half of the last century. How does a writer just disappear from the public consciousness in this way? Although, granted, others may have heard of him and I’m just ignorant.

I wonder how many well-known, big-selling authors from today will be completely forgotten a hundred years from now? Even fifty years from now? And which authors who receive no attention at all will go on to be seen as the greatest writers of their generation? Remember, Herman Melville never published a word in his lifetime. Answers on a postcard, please.

Still, this is an intriguing and unsettling story about a land surveyor who enters a wood where he’s been hired to do some work and immediately finds himself lost inside it and being used as a plaything by the trees, animals and ghosts that linger inside. Perhaps he should have been put off by the sign that said ‘Trespassers Will Be Persecuted’. A good line.

It has a definite nightmarish quality to it and, while I’m not a big horror buff, the density of the prose gives the reader a strong sense of being lost in that wood too. It might be worth my while finding some more books by Algernon Blackwood.

Also, Algernon Blackwood would be a great name for a character in a novel. I see him as a studious type who gets seduced by a flighty piece.

January 10th

Benjamin Hale – Beautiful, Beautiful, Beautiful, Beautiful Boy

… from The Fat Artist (2016)

If there’s one thing, as a gay man, that I’ve never been interested in, it’s drag culture. I’m not sure why a particular theatrical experience is supposed to appeal to one sexuality over the other, but drag shows are something that a lot of gay men love but I never have. Honestly, I can’t imagine a more tedious night out. But that’s just me. Chacun à son goût, as they say.

This story is structured around the drag scene of 1980s New York. A young drag artist, Derek, is invited to have his portrait taken by a photographer who subsequently invites him to a party at her apartment where he encounters a group of men dressed as women – transvestites, I suppose, in the traditional sense – many of whom are accompanied by their wives. There’s an elegiac sense to it, however, for although it’s a third person narrative, there are references to the eventual fate of many of Derek’s friends as the AIDS epidemic begins its insidious invasion of the city.

The title, of course, comes from the chorus of Beautiful Boy, a song on John Lennon’s last album, Double Fantasy, before his murder in December 1980, and in fact the story opens on that night, outside the Dakota building, where we see Mark Chapman, album in hand, gun in pocket, preparing to kill the musician. I’m not quite sure what connection the author is trying to draw between this event and the rest of the story, other than the title being appropriate for the young men at its heart. There’s a movie called Beautiful Boy on release at the moment too, although I’m pretty sure that’s about drug culture rather than drag culture.

Having read it, however, I was moved to download the entire Double Fantasy album and am listening to it now. It contains my all-time favourite John Lennon song, Woman. I’ve always loved the bit where he goes up a note at the start of the final verse.

There’s a great closing line to Hale’s story, however. Forgive the spoiler, but Derek avails of a lift back to his apartment by one of the transvestites who, before leaving the party, has changed back into his civvies. The persona of ‘Cathy’ has been despatched before the man returns to his oblivious wife.

‘Cathy stays in the trunk,’ he says, gesturing towards the back of the car. ‘I think it’s best that way.’

January 9th

Primo Levi – Lilith

… from Moments of Reprieve (1981)

Strictly speaking, Primo Levi’s Lilith is not a short story although in the magisterial Complete Works (Penguin, 2015), edited by Ann Goldstein, it’s included as part of Lilith and Other Stories. However, it’s more usually found in Moments of Reprieve, a series of sketches of people who Levi met while an inmate at Auschwitz.

This piece concerns a discussion between the author and Tischler, a carpenter, as they take shelter from a rain storm in the camp and notice a woman, something they rarely see anymore, sheltering opposite them. Tischler introduces the subject of the Biblical character Lilith and an intellectual debate ensues.

I’ve told the story many times of reading Primo Levi at the age of fifteen and how his work ignited a fascination in my mind with the Holocaust. For many years afterwards I read widely on the subject, trying to understand it, trying to educate myself, and then, one evening in April 2004, an image came into my head of two boys sitting on either side of a fence talking to each other. I knew immediately where they were, I knew it was a place that no one should be, let alone two little boys, but I was interested in the journey that would bring them there, the conversations they would have, and the necessary end that I felt their story would reach. That idea, of course, became The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a book that completely changed my life.

There’s a moment in that novel where Bruno and Shmuel, the two central characters, realise that they were born on the same day, April 15th1934, which readers may be interested to know is also the day on which my own father was born. ‘We’re like twins,’ says Bruno. ‘A little bit,’ agrees Shmuel.

To my surprise, as I read Lilith, I discovered a strange coincidence for it takes place on Primo Levi’s twenty-fifth birthday and, to his surprise, Tischler is also turning twenty-five that day. ‘We were twins,’ says Levi.

Did I read this story many, many years ago and remember this? I have no idea. It’s certainly possible.

January 8th

Edna O’Brien – Number Ten

… from Mrs Reinhardt & Other Stories (1978)

I realised today that I hadn’t read an Irish writer yet for this project and who better to start with than Edna O’Brien? I referenced her in my 2017 novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, when one character, an ageing homosexual named Mr Denby-Denby, remarks that whenever he looks at her, he gets the impression ‘that she wants to put every man she meets across her knee and give them a good spanking until they show her the proper respect. Oh, to be the bare bottom beneath that alabaster palm!’

I’ve never spoken to Edna O’Brien, although I’m good friends with her son, the writer Carlo Gébler, but I’ve been in her presence occasionally and she scares the bejayzuz out of me. Still, I could listen to her talk on a stage for as many hours as she would be willing to sit there for I’ve rarely heard any writer speak with such precision, intelligence and wit. She wastes not a single word.

She wastes nothing in her writing either and Number Ten is a delight. It has nothing to do with Downing Street. A woman, Mrs Reinhardt, sleepwalks every night and has a number of fantasies, many of which bring her to an unfamiliar mews house within whose walls she derives great pleasure. The line between the fantastic and the realist is blurred throughout the piece although there’s a moment of extraordinary drama, and indeed compassion, related to the freeing of a cow who’s got herself stuck on some barbed wire. A small moment, a moment that seems effortless in the writing but, of course, is undoubtedly composed of many hours of hard work. The scene filled me with admiration.

I was supposed to play squash this morning but my Vespa won’t start because I haven’t used it since November. Which is annoying. I had great plans for my day and now that’s going to take up hours.

January 7th

Akhil Sharma – We Didn’t Like Him

… from A Life of Adventure and Delight (2017)

As I sat down to write today’s piece, I noticed that the front cover of the British edition of Akhil Sharma’s story collection includes a quote by the writer of yesterday’s story, Yiyun Li, describing him as the ‘Chekhov of our time’ and I couldn’t help but wonder – as SJP would say – how useful these endorsements are and whether they sometimes do more damage than good. Within the publishing industry, there are those writers who blurb promiscuously, as if they’ve never read a book they didn’t like, and then there are those who rarely blurb at all. An endorsement from the latter, of course, holds much more value.

I used to give quotes myself but I don’t do it very much anymore. Now, if I read something I like, I prefer to write a positive review or put a tweet out saying how much I enjoyed it. I think that can ultimately prove more useful for the book and, of course, the publisher can always pull a line from a newspaper review to use on the jacket of the paperback edition.

Anyway, I read and admired Akhil Sharma’s novel Family Life a couple of years ago and the stories in this collection have also been widely praised. In this one, a man recalls his relationship from childhood with a distant cousin who he doesn’t like and, as the pair grow older, his aversion only increases. When the cousin, Manshu, becomes the pandit – or Brahmin scholar – at the local temple, he turns the position to his financial advantage, which disgusts the narrator and his family. It made me think of those Catholic cathedrals throughout Europe with stalls inside selling useless bits of religious paraphernalia. Whenever I see one, I always think of that moment in the Bible when Jesus enters the temple, overturning the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves.

January 6th

Yiyun Li – House Fire

… from Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2010)

I realised today that all the short stories I’d read so far were by British writers, so it’s time to break that cycle. Yiyun Li is a Chinese-American writer whose novels I’ve enjoyed very much – The Vagrants is exceptional and a few years ago I was part of the jury that shortlisted it for the IMPAC Literary Award – but I hadn’t read any of her short stories yet. House Fire is a witty piece about six elderly women who start a detective agency aimed at catching errant husbands who are cheating on their wives. The women achieve a degree of celebrity after a television documentary is made on them and the story takes a twist when they receive a visit from a young man who wants to know whether his wife is sleeping with his father and whether his son might, in fact, be his half-brother.

Actually, it would make a very amusing television series.

As it turned out, I’m glad I read a story by a female writer today; six days in and I’m three-all on the gender front. I’m trying to keep this project gender-equal but I need to work a bit harder now on getting more nationalities into it.

If you’re wondering how I choose what to read, I have 2,367 books in my house – yes, I’m that crazy that I know exactly how many I have; I keep a catalogue – and I wander around looking for short story collections and pick whatever takes my eye. A few days ago, my home featured on RTE’s Celebrity Home of the Year show in Ireland and I won, mostly because of what I think is an innovative use of space to shelve my books around the house.

Actually, Yiyun Li has a new novel being published next month,Where Reasons End, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

January 5th

Mollie Panter-Downes – Literary Scandal at the Sewing Party

… from Good Evening, Mrs Craven (1941)

Originally published in The New Yorker, Good Evening, Mrs Craven is one of those books that has been sitting on my shelves for a long time, shamefully unread, before I reached for it today. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good literary scandal – I get in the occasional literary feud and they’re always a delight – so I guessed that I’d enjoy this.

A group of women are sewing pyjamas and bandages for soldiers on the Front Line when one, Mrs Twistle, remarks that she used to be in service at a house where the writer Jonathan Swift murdered a girl named Stella and the street was subsequently named Stella Place in honour of the unfortunate creature. There are varied responses to this piece of intelligence, some of the women are shocked, some disbelieving and one, Mrs Peters, is driven to a defence of her own husband – ‘Daddy’ – who has somehow been dragged into the conversation as a potential murderer himself. ‘Mr Peters is, after all, only flesh and blood, capable of human passions like the rest,’ remarks Mrs Twistle. The hostess, Mrs Ramsey, offers the opinion that she is mixing up the writer with someone else entirely and a debate ensues.

Was there some speculation that Swift was a murderer? This was new to me so I did a little investigation and discovered that, when he was in his early twenties, Swift was tutor to an eight-year-old girl, Esther Johnson, who he nicknamed Stella, and their relationship throughout his life was an ambiguous one. Some believe they eventually married although there’s no proof of this. He certainly didn’t kill her, she died of natural causes, but it does seem there was something suspicious going on and, after his death, his letters to the girl were published as A Journal to Stella. There’s a plaque to her memory, in fact, erected by Swift himself, in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, where he was Dean and where they are buried side by side.

January 4th

EM Forster – Mr Andrews

… from Selected Stories (1911)

Four days into this project and I’m finding that each story leads me directly to another. I wrote of Leonard Bast yesterday so, this morning, I reached for Forster.

This is the first story I’ve read with a religious bent. A Christian, Mr Andrews, has died and is floating up to heaven, certain in the knowledge that, as he has lived a righteous life, eternal glory will be his. As his rises in the firmament he makes the acquaintance of a Turkish Muslim, who has died fighting the Infidel and, therefore, also anticipates his promised reward. Both fear that the other will be disappointed and so, at the gates of heaven, each makes a plea that their companion be permitted entry. Their wishes are granted but what they discover on the other side of the pearly gates is something quite contrary to their expectations.

I’ve always loved Forster. My first introduction to him, as a teenager, was through the Merchant Ivory film adaptations and what an excellent choice those filmmakers, along with their collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, were to bring the work of this quiet but deeply passionate novelist to the screen. He’s certainly my favourite writer of the early part of the twentieth century and, as a gay man, one can’t help but be fascinated by his closeted existence in King’s College, Cambridge, the manuscript of Maurice burning a hole under his mattress. A writer I admire very much – Damon Galgut – wrote a wonderful novel that featured Forster, Arctic Summer. A couple of years ago, I shared a stage in South Africa with Damon and Sarah Waters and we spoke of gay and lesbian fiction to a packed house, who were thoroughly engaged with our theme. I wonder how possible that would have been there twenty years ago.

January 3rd

Arthur Conan Doyle – The Stockbroker’s Clerk

… from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893)

Having compared the opening of The Kidnapped Prime Ministeryesterday to the Sherlock Holmes stories, it was obvious what to read today and, as it turned out, the beginning of The Stockbroker’s Clerk is a reversal of sorts for it’s Dr Watson who’s working in his new surgery when Holmes arrives to see him, inquiring whether he can take a day off to help with his latest case. He does, of course; the good people of London can wait twenty-four hours for their treatments.

The basis of the story is that a young clerk, Hall Pycroft, has been on his uppers for some time but finally landed a position at Mawson’s, one that he’s walked away from, somewhat impetuously, after being approached by the owner of the Franco-Midland Hardware Company with an offer that seems too good to be true. It is too good to be true, of course, because all sorts of unusual things take place thereafter, leading Pycroft to seek Holmes’ help.

While the story rattles along in sharpish fashion, it’s the detective’s deductions in the opening pages that are the most fun. He quickly recognises, from a pair of slippers, that his old friend has recently suffered a cold and that his surgery is a more successful one than his neighbour’s by the steps, ‘which are worn three inches deeper than his’. These are always the best parts of the Holmes stories; the little things he observes that others miss. Writers work in similar ways, or we try to anyway.

The unfortunate Mr Pycroft has a touch of the Leonard Bast’s about him – or, perhaps I should say that Leonard Bast has a touch of the Pycrofts as Forster’s Howards End clerk appeared almost twenty years later. Both are young men aiming for respectability, both lose their position and both become unfortunate victims. Bast, of course, is killed by a falling bookcase while Pycroft ends the story as unemployed as he started it, poor fellow. Being crushed under a pile of books doesn’t seem the worst way to go, all things considered.

Just got home after 6 weeks in Australia and my home was featured on RTE’s Celebrity Home of the Year last night and, somehow, I won! It’s good to be back.

January 2nd

Agatha Christie – The Kidnapped Prime Minister

… from Poirot Investigates (1924)

It seemed a little unfair to allow a bad movie to poison Agatha Christie for me, so I picked up Poirot Investigates this morning. I’ve been a fan of Christie’s since I was as a teenager and I return to them time and again as comfort reads. (Only last month I re-read A Murder is Announced.) I appreciate the twists and turns, of course, and the Whodunnit element, but more than that I enjoy the language and mores of the time. She was quite an elegant writer focussed mostly on the upper classes, most of whom, it seemed, were intent on poisoning, strangling or shooting each other.

The Kidnapped Prime Minister isn’t a great story but it’s diverting enough. The initial set-up recalls Sherlock Holmes almost entirely: Poirot, instead of Holmes, is in his flat when Colonel Hastings, instead of Doctor Watson, drops in to see him. An unnamed landlady, instead of Mrs Hudson, announces that some anxious visitors have arrived. Enter the Leader of the House of Commons and a Government Minister to inform Poirot that the Prime Minister, who has escaped an assassination attempt only that morning, has gone missing.

One thing that stands out in the story is a peculiar anti-Irish strand. A suspect in the kidnapping is the PM’s Irish chauffeur, O’Murphy, a name that no Irishman has ever had; you’re either an O’Something or a Murphy, but never both. In considering whether he has some complicity in the crime, one thing that Poirot finds against him is that “he is an Irishman from County Clare”. Which, considering Poirot’s own pride at his Belgian heritage, seems a little hypocritical. (In A Murder is Announced, much was made of the fact that a cook, Mitzi, was a Polish refugee so no matter what she said, everyone assumed she was lying.)

I suspect Theresa May would have no objections at all to being kidnapped. At least she’d get a bit of peace for a change.

January 1st

Rudyard Kipling How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin

… from Just So Stories (1902)

New year, new project. So, let’s start with something fun.

I’m sure I read the Just So Stories when I was a kid but when I think of Kipling, the first thing that comes to mind is Christopher Plummer playing him in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King.

I picked How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin because I’ve always struggled to spell the word rhinoceros.

This is the third story in the collection, featuring a Parsee named Pestonjee Bomonjee who engages in a war of wits with a rhino named Strorks. I had to look up what a Parsee is in a dictionary. Turns out it’s an adherent of Zoroastrianism. Then I had to look up Zoroastrianism. Turns out it’s an ancient pre-Islamic religion of Iran. It’s a little disconcerting as a writer to be faced with so many words you can’t spell or don’t understand.

One of Kipling’s repetitive descriptions – ‘he had no manners then, and he has no manners now, and he never will have any manners’ – made me think of Donald Trump, but the surrealism of a rhino’s skin being held together underneath by three buttons that allow him to slip it on and off at will is entertaining. When Strorks eats Pestonjee’s cake, an act of revenge is set in place that explains why the contemporary rhino is a much more wrinkled creature than the historic one. So now we know. I wonder what David Attenborough would say about it.

Last year, I published a novel, A Ladder to the Sky, in which a character wrote a collection of short stories featuring animals and was mocked mercilessly for it by the protagonist, who kept insisting that such a book must be intended for children. I’m not sure why we connect children and wild animals particularly but then again, I’m not a father, so what do I know? Still, as I look at the front cover of my edition of Just So Stories, I see that it was originally published under the title Just So Stories for Little Children – is there another sort? – and all but three feature an animal in their title. So there.

I’m in Sydney on holiday and this morning, working off my New Year’s Eve hangover, I watched a film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Crooked House, which was appallingly bad. Which is a shame, because I love Agatha Christie. I’ve recorded the BBC adaptation of The ABC Murders for when I get home to Dublin. At least I think I have. I did it online so it might not have worked. If that’s the case, there’ll be tears and a tantrum.