John Walsh

Cooking steak while reading the Unputdownable Novel is a doddle, but mashed potato is a nightmare
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The Independent Online
"Your driving fell far short of the standard required," Judge John Curran announced on Monday, ticking off the Welsh contract-cleaning executive Gary Roberts for reading something propped against his steering wheel as he careered down the M4 at 70mph.

The bookish Mr Roberts was fined pounds 250 and ordered to retake his driving test, provided the examiner makes sure there are no bound volumes of Dickens or Trollope close at hand; but he won't have to endure being banned from driving for a year, since the judge decided that he was probably just catching up on "paperwork" (as you do, obviously, on the way home at the outer edge of the legal speed limit). "I do not take the view that you were reading a novel," concluded m'lud.

I'm not so sure. I suspect that Mr Roberts was a man in the grip of something so overwhelming, so sinister, so inimical to modern life that the authorities can't bring themselves to talk about it. I believe that the cleansing operative had unwittingly stumbled on ... the Unputdownable Read. Yeah, I know, you've seen it on a thousand book jackets: "This evocation of love during a dysentery outbreak in 9th-century Iceland is an unputdownable read" - Observer. "Norman Biscuit's fourth novel featuring the dyslexic charlady Madge O'Hooligan is another unputdownable read" - Church Times.

You don't believe these things exist, do you? Ye of little faith. I just hope that when it happens to you, you'll have an easier time of it than I did ...

It was an ordinary morning. I took out this novel on the Tube and turned to chapter one. By the bottom of the page, a curious feeling had stolen over me, locking my will in a granite embrace. Pages 2 to 27 passed in a blur. I glanced up as we emerged from a tunnel, to discover that we were at Totteridge and Whetstone, some way beyond my stop at Leicester Square. I lowered the book to jacket-pocket region. Instantly it sprang upwards, as though glued to my hand, until p27 was at eye level once more. Only by manoeuvring crabwise could I alight on to the platform, book held against my face, to the jeers of adolescents and Tube guards.

Getting up the stairs, reaching the street and hailing a taxi were likewise a matter of caution, peripheral vision and a number of sub-plots involving family servants.

As the taxi crossed Waterloo Bridge, I was glued to Chapter 5. At home, I rang work. "Sorry," I told the boss, "I've started a novel and it's impossible to put it down." He didn't understand. Sounded quite peeved, in fact.

Glumly, I prepared some lunch, as a volley of shots rang out on page 132. Cooking steak is a doddle when you've got Unputdownable Syndrome (stretch an arm out and flip it over after three minutes), but mashed potato is, frankly, a nightmare. A scene of rather explicit soixante-neuf on pl80 coincided with the first mouthfuls, while the next few, perversely, found their way into my nostrils and ears. (You try locating your mouth with a forkful of seared Aberdeen Angus from underneath a 500-page paperback pressed against your face.) [Get on with it - Ed].

By the end of lunch, with the intrepid narrator now injured in the Spanish Civil War (pp231-256), my shirt collar was engrimed with beef gristle, my tie awash with Sainsbury's Thick 'n' Creamy yoghurt. But I read grimly on.

The next days were a nightmare. Taking the children swimming was problematic (you've only got one hand free, because the other's holding the book aloft; and the Australian Crawl is a complete non-starter). Visiting my bank manager to negotiate a small loan was, frankly, embarrassing. "I do not feel confident, Mr Walsh," he kept saying, "that I have your undivided attention," as I struggled to reassure him from behind the pages of post- colonial irony. Going to the Gents in my local pub proved to be fraught with more than usual trauma, as I stood there, book in hand, looking perhaps a little too studiedly nonchalant.

It got worse. I was offered a knighthood, but was forced to decline (some law of lese-majeste says you can't be seen reading a book while the Queen is doing the thing with the sword). I won the Booker Prize and had to turn that down (how would it have looked if I'd gone weaving between the tables up to the stage, engrossed in a work that wasn't even on the shortlist?). I was slated to be an Opposition spokesman on foreign affairs but failed the viva voce ("You simply can't sit there reading all the time," they said, "they'll never wear it on the Today programme").

Then I took the family for a drive to the seaside and was nailed by the cops, riveted to an unexpected gay seduction on page 478. They hauled me in front of the beak. What, asked the judge, have you to say for yourself? "I'm sorry, your Honour," I said, "but once I started it, I couldn't stop." "Banned for a year, fined pounds 500, take him down," snapped the judge. And do you know that, once they took me down, they could not take me up again ...

"I did not feel brilliant. I had a glass of brandy to cushion my fall into shock, and fall I did, to the centre of the earth," writes the Duchess of York with a fine poly-metaphorical flourish, in her apologia pro vita sua, published in Hello! magazine. Along with the subterranean brandy cushions, we get some spectacular image-clusters from folklore and mythology, old and new: "Even at my dizzy height of popularity, I knew that the clock would strike 12 ... In my wake I had left a trail of destruction

It would take the skill of a Marina Warner to tease out all the elements of Cinderella, Tugboat Annie, Frank Bruno, Gypsy Rose Lee, Little Women and Shakespeare's Winter's Tale in these few lines alone. Who on earth writes this stuff? If it isn't the Ferglet herself, it's either some master of magical realism (Eco? Marquez?) or else someone whose frantically metaphorical reach-me-down emotional style we already know so well. According to Hello!, Fergie's ghostwriter for this foolish piece of self-exculpation is one Jeff Coplon. I've tried rearranging the letters of Mr Coplon's name, but without success. So I'll just have to go ahead and say it: I've got 20 quid here for the first person who can identify the author of this overwrought work as Ms Anna Pasternak, the orchidaceously splashy writer of cod-royal romances. Come, come, Ms P, own up. Drop that other shoe ...

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