Non-Fiction Reviews

Word Monkey

(2023) Christopher Fowler, Doubleday, 18.99, hrdbk, iii + 453pp, ISBN 978-0-857-52962-6


What, you have never heard of Christopher Fowler, author of the Bryant & May fantastical mysteries?  Well if not you will have heard of his advertising for it was he who coined the Alien strap line 'In space no-one can hear you scream'. Word Monkey is his third autobiography following Paperboy (2008) about his childhood and Film Freak (2013) about his time in film promotion, career cheating producers and dreadful B-movies in the worst period of British cinema. This third biographical offering covers his final years during the CoVID-19 years (2019-2021) following his latest cancer diagnosis.

So, what is this book about? Well, in the author's words it is about 400 pages.

Now, even if you are an enthusiastic reader of biographies and autobiographies, given its grim backdrop the prospect of imminent death during a global pandemic you might be tempted to give this one a miss, but you should not! This is a sharply written, witty, warm, insightful and, strangely you might think, life-affirming. It is certainly not a dull or mournful read, it is astute and perceptive as to what life is about and what matters. It is also a testimony as to how our wonderful National Health Service copes despite political mismanagement. (Remember, Britain spends less per person on health care than most western European neighbours and less than half that of US citizen health care spend but British subjects live longer than our yank cousins: we get more health bangs for our buck.)

As Christopher notes, he was living at the centre of the CoVID pandemic in Britain, in London. And the centre of that centre was is neighbourhood of Kings Cross: the busiest crossing point in the country. In short, he was living at the centre of the centre of the centre of the British pandemic. He had a front row seat as the events of 2020 panned out and he embarked on his latest round of cancer treatment.

But Word Monkey is not all biography. The book has flashbacks though his life and notably the London of the 1960s as well as the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. And then there is advice on writing. Would-be authors and new writers will love his chapter on writing advice and how bad are books that give writing advice: it's simply brilliant.

Along the way he re-visits some of the ground covered in his previous autobiographies. He notes that his time as a film advert copywriter the world was very different. There would be 11am liveners (a quick pre-lunch drink) and lunches themselves could be largely liquid. The perpetual blokey banter in the office would have, he notes, reduced most millennials to tears. But, he says, his office represented part of the liberal creative arts. He could not imagine what things were like in the Ford Dagenham car plant. Christopher gives us a fresh perspective on where we are and how we (Brits) got there.

And did I mention that this book is fun? It is laced with wry, dry and even wet humour. This is one for fans of P. G. Wodehouse. It is peppered with anecdotes. I particularly like the one about their block of flats during CoVID lock down when each floor cooked a course of a meal and then used the lift as a dumb waiter. Never give up on the inventiveness of people. (It reminded me during CoVID lockdown of phoning up a friend who put me on speaker phone while her brother Zoom-ed another friend as well as phoning a fourth on speaker so that all five of us could do the pub quiz that had bee posted online.) Meanwhile, spaffer Johnson and his friends were just a mile or so away partying.

If you are into autobiographies, want to know what a writer's life is like especially after being given a death sentence by his doctor then do get Word Monkey. Life may make more sense.

Jonathan Cowie


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