Edinburgh International Book Festival
Garden Theatre, Charlotte Sq.
14th August 2017
“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a 12-inch LP.” Well, no, not exactly. Though I have to say that if an event is touted “High Fidelity meets Kafka” that’s what I would expect. In fact Magnus Mills’s ninth novel, The Forensic Records Society, starts with Keith Moon’s off-mic shout of “I saw yer!” from the end of The Who’s ‘Happy Jack’, or so he told us today in the Garden Theatre.
When I visit the Book Festival I like to go to events about books I haven’t read. That way I know that if I want to read the book by the end of the event it has been a success. I haven’t read The Forensic Records Society. So do I want to?
Magnus Mills was introduced to us by broadcaster Joe Haddow. In contrast to Joe’s genial scruffiness, Magnus appeared as a tall, lean, unsmiling, quiet-spoken, suit-buttoned-up wight. That was a front. There’s a dry wit lurking not far below the surface. There’s also a man who knows vinyl, who knows how long ‘Complete Control’ by The Clash lasts, who has a collection of nine hundred vinyl singles all filed alphabetically. He’s a man who knows vinyl geekdom first hand.
Although Magnus says that The Forensic Records Society comes from his imagination, not his experience, that the pub in which the eponymous Records Society meets is not actually his local – the Pineapple in Kentish Town – and that the characters who haunt the novel are not based on anyone he knows, I am certain that there must be one or two knowing winks here and there. The book’s basic premise is that a handful of enthusiasts start a record club in a private room of a pub. The club has very strict rules, its founder, according to the event blurb in the Festival brochure, is a man of uncompromising dogmatism. When a second record club – The Confessional Records Society – is set up in the same pub on a different night, and is more arcane, more impenetrable than their own, their narrow microcosm begins to experience a power-struggle. Magnus has certainly come across the kind of defensive/counter-offensive dogmatism he portrays, if we believe what he says about someone’s reaction to a casual remark:
“I just said I thought the White Stripes were just messing about most of the time […]
I felt like I was in court!”
Magnus read some extracts for us, and in between slipped a couple of 45s onto a fifty-year-old deck he had brought along. ‘Waterloo Sunset’ by The Kinks, that was fine, but Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Man Of The World’ developed ‘wow’ and had to be taken off. No matter, as the extracts from the novel were intriguing enough. He has a style of writing that, if I didn’t know better, I would say hadn’t changed since he was about sixteen and was still trying to impress us with the way he handled the English language. There were no contractions, no couldn’t, no wouldn’t. Characters didn’t ask, they “demanded.” A character “adopt[ed] a casual manner,” or “offered words of consolation.” The dialogue was full of bewilderment and awkward pauses. But that worked! It all seemed to fit the narrative voice of the novel, and to be just right to express obsessive geekery. Magnus owned up to having “a sarcastic manner,” and it showed in the extracts he read out. That also reinforced the impression that it is a very ‘male’ novel – most of the characters are men – but that seems okay, as obsessive hobbyism tends to be a very ‘male’ thing, as Joe Haddow pointed out. In any case, Magnus says, he doesn’t really understand women, so why do them the disservice of writing about them from a position of ignorance.
Magnus Mills was brought up in a family where the paterfamilias did not believe in and did not allow commercial broadcasting – there was no ITV, no Radio Luxembourg, certainly no Radio Caroline. In a way Magnus has steadfastly refused to move on, he does not own a CD player. Just those nine hundred singles and fifty-year-old deck with wow. Joe Haddow reminded him that vinyl records were making a comeback, and he said that he had bumped into a teenage girl in the street:
“I said, ‘Oh, you’ve got a record player’, and she said ‘Yes’. I didn’t know what to say next.”
So do I want to read The Forensic Records Society? Yes, I rather think I do. Further than that, notwithstanding its being full of male characters, I’m going to recommend it to my wife. Those awkward pauses in the dialogue remind me of a Discworld novel, and she likes those. Ha! Discworld! See what I did there?
Reviewed by Paul Thompson