If you are anything like me (and the remote chances of your reading a blog called Unpopular, or indeed any blog at all in 2019 mean that you probably are, at least in part, and for which I feel enormous sympathy) you no longer buy much or indeed anything from The Amazon (either rain forest nor online global consumer behemoth). I humbly admit that I do still occasionally use it (the online global consumer behemoth, not the rain forest) for board pens and merino wool wash liquid, but for music and books I almost entirely rely on The Bandcamp, label or artist websites and The Hive (buying through which I can benefit both from cheaper prices and the insufferably smug feeling of supporting local book shops without having to leave the comforting seclusion of my own home). One thing I do use The Amazon (the online global…. blah blah blah) for though is keeping track of things that one day I should like to buy/read (and it is almost exclusively read). Well, what other purpose is that ‘Wishlist’ function for, after all?
If you are anything like me (and the remote chances of… oh, deja vu just kicked us up the arse, didn’t it?) then the very act of putting something in a ‘Wishlist’ means that it becomes increasingly unlikely you will ever actually get around to buying/reading said something. It’s just the way of it. If it is something suitably exciting you will just buy it anyway before placing it on the ‘to be read’ pile/shelves/under-the-stairs-book-store where it will also perhaps languish for some time. But at least it is there within relatively easy reach and will occasionally send out a bashful smile and a fluttering of eyelashes to tempt you. Or perhaps that’s just me.
All of which is by way of telling you that on recent perusal of The Amazon Wishlist I discovered that five years ago I had added to it Robert Irwin’s ‘Satan Wants Me’ novel. I have no idea why I would have added it at that point in time, although it is possible that it would have been thanks to a recommendation from my old Tangents writer friend William Crain. Indeed it was William who certainly recommended it (perhaps again) earlier this year after an exchange of emails and thoughts on Merrily Watkins novels, and it was certainly this double-nod of approval that led me to moving the book from the Wishlist to the Hive shopping basket as opposed to idly thinking ‘why on earth?’ and clicking the ‘remove from list’ button.
Published in 1999, ‘Satan Wants Me’ is an exploration of Satanism and the Occult in ‘Swinging London’ (or perhaps, more accurately, ‘Swingeing London’) written in the form of a diary. As a novel it is by turns threatening, illusory, educational and marvellously, darkly funny (on occasion even Laugh Out Loud so). Irwin weaves these threads with aplomb, never letting either one get in the way of the pacey narrative that drives the whole thing along. The diaristic technique is one guaranteed to appeal (from E.M. Delafield’s ‘Provincial Lady’ through Sue Townsend’s peerless Adrian Mole series to C.D. Payne’s outrageous ‘Youth In Revolt’, many of my favourite books have been penned in diary form) and if there is something of a lurch towards the last quarter of the book when the focus shifts somewhat (no spoilers!) then the diary format is hugely valuable in making it a success for it gives space for the brain to fill in the gaps. In this it is essentially like a comic-strip, where what is unseen and unspoken between the frames is as important as what is drawn and written. As an interesting aside, one of the characters in ‘Satan Wants Me’ crops up in a cameo role in Alan Moore’s ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ and Moore has called Irwin a “fantastic writer” so, as we are want to say, it all fits.
Hugely evocative of place and time, one is almost convinced (no, one IS convinced) that these are genuine 1967 diary entries, such is the deftly applied colour of period detail and cultural (particularly musical) reference. I say this of course as someone who would have been one year old in 1967 and therefore as someone with nothing more than mediated ‘memories’ of the time. Yet it is that very mediation of cultural reference that lends ‘Satan Wants Me’ its convincing patina of ‘authenticity’. One rather suspects that a lesser writer may have been tempted to pepper the book with more artfully crafted, dare I say it ‘curated’ references to lesser-known ‘underground’ music, films, books, whatever. And whilst Irwin does indeed make numerous references to records, they are convincing in so far as, to anyone from the twenty first century even remotely interested in music, they are easily identifiable and, more importantly, cross the gamut from what would have been vaguely ’underground’ at the time (The Pink Floyd, Hapshash and The Coloured Coat, The Incredible String Band) to mainstream Pop (Adrienne Posta’s terrific ‘Shang A Doo Lang’, Lulu, not to mention The Beatles and The Stones who would have a foot in both camps). What’s fascinating though is that in the context of these fictional diaries set in 1967, written in 1997 and read in 2019, all of these cultural references become (more or less) equal because they are equally distant and equally ‘important’. For pre-Internet, this is how music crept into our lives. A delicious blend of what we chose to put on the record player (if you are anything like me, perhaps more obscure and certainly more difficult to find) and what we heard from radio and television playing in the background (chart hits, both contemporary and from the past). No-one walked about wearing headphones in their own curated musical bubble (well, not until the Walkman plagued our lives). Open to everything.
Not that I am criticising The Interwebs, for without it I would hardly have been able to so easily investigate something of Robert Irwin’s life and track down more of his books, many of which appear to be non-fiction tomes about Arabic/Middle Eastern history and literature. Not something that I would normally rank highly in my personal areas of interest or taste, yet such is the accomplished appeal of ‘Satan Wants Me’ that I admit to finding myself tempted to add, at the very least, his ‘Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics and the Sixties’ to my reading shelves. As for his other novels, I will certainly take the time to seek out ‘Exquisite Corpse’, not least because I am intrigued to see what he makes of a fictionalised British Surrealist art scene and ‘The Mysteries of Algiers’ because it promises to be a thriller and you know I am a bit of a sucker for That Kind Of Thing and am intrigued to see how he measures up to Ambler and le Carré. I suspect too that the appeal of ‘The Mysteries of Algiers’ is largely fuelled by the immense pleasure of watching the wonderfully amusing ‘A Very Secret Service’ on The Netflix, a show dealing with the same issues of the Algerian struggle for liberation from France though, one suspects, from a somewhat different perspective. The only issue will be whether there will be enough space on the shelves/piles/under-the-stairs-book-store to accommodate all these, not to mention the metaphorical harrumphs and disappointed glares sent out by all the books already there, patiently awaiting their turn.
And anyway, with a new academic term looming and the hideous chants of Back To Work reverberating ever more loudly in the background, one needs something to look forward to, right?
If Satan Wants Me had indeed been recommended to me by my old Tangents writer friend William Crain I felt certain that it would most likely have been through his excellent (and idiosyncratic – which is why it is excellent) The Sound The Past Makes blog, perhaps complete with a marvellous mix of music. On delving back into the archives however (itself a terrific experience) I could find no such mix or reference to the book and so have taken it on myself to put together a ‘Satan Wants Me’ mix on The Spotify. It’s almost like being back in 1967.
NB: Yes, yes, I know the opening cut on the mix wasn’t released until 1969, but the Alan Price version of ‘Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear’ isn’t on the Spotify and anyway: HARRY NILSSON.