Something a little different here on the Ramblings today for #ReadIndies month; a book by an author I haven’t read before and which I might not have picked up on had he not kindly offered me a copy. It’s published by Repeater Books, and there was debate over whether they were an indie publisher; however, they’re included on the list Lizzy sent me, so I feel justified in reviewing this one for our monthly event! The book in question is “I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal” by Charlie Hill; and its subtitle is “Stories of a Birmingham Boy“.

Hill is the author of a number of works, ranging from novels to short stories, poetry and essays. “Taj Mahal…”, as you might guess, is his foray into memoir and it’s a wonderfully engaging piece of work! Charlie grew up in Birmingham during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and the book tells of his life in a series of short pieces ranging from a paragraph to a couple of pages. It’s a format which is unexpectedly compelling, capturing a life in vignette form and telling the story as much as by what’s not there as what is.

I was a patsy, a sap, a pawn, a heel.

So we encounter Hill as someone born in the Black Country from a family living in Birmingham, and feeling himself to be neither one thing or another. School was a torment and Hill spent more time focused on his left-wing activities than traditional learning, eventually falling into a succession of short-term jobs and equally short-lived relationships. He travels, he contemplates his identity, tries to work out what he wants to do with his life and finally comes to writing and a more settled family life. His journey to that point has taken in so much of what took place in England of those decades, including poverty, social change and the toughness of life in working class Birmingham, and this is all conveyed economically yet poetically and often very wittily.

In the autumn my fellow festival-goers and I set up a vegetarian restaurant in an art gallery in Hockley… which was run sneeringly by the Revolutionary Communist Party. The enterprise was a smoosh of fine dining and anarcho-libertarian politics: during the week we cooked high-end dal and chilli beans with coffee and cocoa to an accompaniment of Vaughan Williams, while every other weekend we had a side room at the Que Club all-nighters, distributing anti-Criminal Justice Bill flyers, and serving bowls of Coco Pops to people off their cake.

When Charlie approached me about reading “Taj Mahal…” he mentioned that comparisons had been made with Perec’s “I Remember” and I did feel that was valid as I read the book. The brevity of it makes for a really effective read because it focuses you on the events of the life, cutting away the chaff and padding which can so often fill out a chunky biography. Hill does not shy away from confronting the grittier and messier parts of his life – the sex, the substance abuse, the relationships that go wrong, the various high and low points – and reveals all, though with discretion and from his point of view. It’s a testament to the quality of his writing that he can convey so much in so few (but cleverly chosen) words and such a slim book. And it’s a work full of humour, as well as a genuine love for his family which shines through towards the end, as his life becomes more stable.

You may have guessed that I really loved reading “Taj Mahal…”! I know Birmingham a little from past regular visits to the city (and still have bookish pals there); and the sense I got of the place and the changes it’s gone through was very strong. There were obviously times when it could have been touch and go if Hill was going to survive the drinking and drugging kind of lifestyle he was leading; but I’m glad he did, and went on to tell the tale in this book. “I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal” is a funny, sad, entertaining, moving and very human read, and I highly recommend it!