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A Spot of Bother – M. Haddon

December 23, 2018

ASOBThis book is generally enjoyable but I felt it was overlong. It can, however, be read in short bursts since most chapters are only three or so pages. All in all, however, it has that feel of a soap opera wedding: something’s bound to go wrong and it does.

One of our members suggested that there were stylistic similarities with the work of David Lodge.

It has a dated feel: Brookside stopped being broadcast a long time ago. Does anyone still buy Zipper magazine?

The key character, George, is well-portrayed: becoming cynical and out of touch as is typical for his age: ‘Human beings were not meant to be sealed into tins and fired through the sky by fan-assisted rockets.’ ‘…things changed. Mobile phones. Thai restaurants’. ‘The human mind was not designed for sunbathing and light novels ‘ He can cope with the notion of sexuality if is between men who have been without the company of women for a long time but is not keen on the thought of them buying furniture: sex without relationship seems preferable to him.

His son, Jamie is grateful that his neighbours are Christians: ‘you could say what you liked about Christians, but they didn’t yodel during sex like the Germans who’d lived there before.’ He enjoys hearing how some people had their clothes stolen at a nudist beach – always carry a rucksack.

There is a sensitive portrait of a gay couple by a straight author and he writes in convincing detail about a mental breakdown and the rational (yet ultimately unsuccessful) planning undertaken to avoid hurting others. The author must have done much research.

The arguing over toothpaste is a realistic portrayal of married relationships, as is the second-best which people settle for when cruising

There is one annoyingly ‘Mills & Boon’ style sentence: ‘she was melting into that dark behind her eyelids, the way butter melted in a hot pan, the way you melted back into sleep after waking up at night, just letting it take you.’ Also, to say that the only thing wrong with celibacy is the lack of sex is somewhat stupid and unfunny.

There is one loose end that annoys me: what happened to the tramp on the railway line?


“And it occurred to him that there were two parts to being a better person. One part was thinking about other people. The other part was not giving a toss what other people thought.”

“What they failed to teach you at school was that the whole business of being human just got messier and more complicated as you got older. You could tell the truth, be polite, take everyone’s feelings into consideration and still have to deal with other people’s shit. At nine or ninety.”

“You love someone, you’ve got to let something go.”

“At twenty life was like wrestling an octopus. Every moment mattered. At thirty it was a walk in the country. Most of the time your mind was somewhere else. By the time you got to seventy, it was probably like watching snooker on the telly.”

“… He had always rather liked emergencies. Other people’s at any rate. They put your own problems into perspective. It was like being on a ferry. You didn’t have to think about what you had to do or where you had to go for the next few hours. It was all laid out for you.”

“He really did not care whether he survived or not, so long as it rendered him unconscious and absolved him of responsibility.”

“It exasperated her sometimes. The way men could be so sure of themselves. They put words together like sheds or shelves and you could stand on them they were so solid. And those feelings which overwhelmed you in the small hours turned to smoke.”

“That was what it meant, didn’t it. Being good. You didn’t have to sink wells in Burkina Faso. You didn’t have to give away your coffee table. You just had to see things from other people’s point of view. Remember they were human.”

“The secret of contentment lay in ignoring many things completely.”

“He’d tried celibacy. The only problem was the lack of sex.”

“That was the problem, wasn’t it? You left home. But you never did become an adult. Not really. You just fucked up in different and more complicated ways.”

“At teenage parties he was always wandering into the garden, sitting on a bench in the dark . . . staring up at the constellations and pondering all those big questions about the existence of God and the nature of evil and the mystery of death, questions which seemed more important than anything else in the would until a few years passed and some real questions had been dumped into your lap, like how to earn a living, and why people fell in and out of love, and how long you could carry on smoking and then give up without getting lung cancer.”

“You could say all you liked about reason and logic and common sense and imagination, but when the chips were down the one skill you needed was the ability to think about absolutely nothing whatsoever.”

“It was true. There really was no limit to the ways in which you could say the wrong thing to your children. You offered an olive branch and it was the wrong olive branch at the wrong time.”

“Everything seemed suspended, in some kind of balance. Obviously someone would come along and fuck it up, because that’s what other people did.”

“How often did he feel it now, this gorgeous, furtive seclusion? In the bath sometimes, maybe. Though Jean failed to understand his need for periodic isolation and regularly dragged him back to earth mid-soak by hammering on the locked door in search of bleach or dental floss.”

“He had always thought of solitary diners as sad. But now that he was the solitary diner, he felt rather superior. On account of the book, mostly. Learning something while everyone else was wasting time. Like working at night.”

“She idly stroked his head in the way one might stroke a dog.”

“She understood now. You got married in spite of your wedding not because of it.”

“Ray was disappointed by the (Millennium) wheel. Too well engineered, he said. He wanted the wind in his hair and a rusty handrail and the faint possibility that the whole structure might collapse.”

“The Dordogne in 1984 was the nadir. Diarrhoea, moths like flying hamsters, the blowtorch heat. Awake at three in the morning on a damp and lumpy mattress. Then the storm. Like someone hammering sheets of tin. Lightning so bright it came through the pillow. In the morning sixty, seventy dead frogs turning slowly in the pool. And at the far end something larger and furrier, a cat perhaps, or the Franzetti’s dog, which Katie was poking with a snorkel.”

“After an Indian meal they went back to Jamie’s flat and Tony did at least two things to him on the sofa that no one had ever done to him before then came back and them again the following evening, and suddenly life became very good indeed.”

“The secret of contentment, George felt, lay in ignoring many things completely. How anyone could work in the same office for ten years or bring up children without putting certain things to the back of their mind was beyond him.”

“When he finally let the car it was because e could no longer bear his own company in such a confined space.”

“School might have been shit, but at least it was simple.”

“If he wasn’t careful he’d turn into one of those men who cared more about furniture than human beings. He’d end up living with someone else who cared more about furniture than human beings and they’d lead a life which looked perfectly normal from the outside but was, in truth, a kind of living death that left your heart looking like a raisin.”

“Maybe George was fooling himself. Maybe old people always fooled themselves, pretending that the world was going to hell because it was easier than admitting they were being left behind, that the future was pulling away from the beach and they were standing on their little island bidding it good riddance, knowing in their hearts that there was nothing left for them to do but sit around on the shingle waiting for the big disease to come out of the undergrowth.”

“At home he was reading Pet Cemetery, but reading that in public was like leaving the house in your underwear.”

“He sat on the tube knowing he was going to hell. The only way to reduce the hot forks when he got there was to ring Katie and Mum as soon as he got home.”

“What he felt mostly was a relentless, grinding dread which rumbled and thundered and made the world dark, like those spaceships in science-fiction films whose battle-scorched fuselages slid onto the screen and kept on sliding onto the screen because they were, in fact, several thousand times larger than you expected when all you could see was the nose cone. The”

“He wanted to make her feel good. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had done that.”

“Strange to discover that describing his fears out loud was less frightening than trying not to think about them. Something about seeing your enemy out in the open.”

“Never trust a man who doesn’t like animals. That’s my rule.”

“Most men wanted to tell you what they knew. The route to Wisbech. How to get a log fire going. David made her feel she was the one who knew things.”

“To be honest, I’m trying to maintain a Buddhist detachment about the whole thing to stop it taking ten years off my life.”

“Perhaps the best you could hope for was not to do the same thing to your own children.”

“Lord alone knows.” George stood up and dropped his empty mug into the sink. “The mystery of one’s children is never-ending.”

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