Monday, 22 June 2020
Review by Alan McCormick of "I Don't Want to Go to the Taj Mahal" by Charlie Hill
Charlie Hill’s I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal tells his story of growing up and living in Birmingham through a series of witty and engaging vignettes, skilfully told anecdotes, as if a much-loved, mischievous friend is regaling you in a pub and you don’t want him to stop because the stories are so good.
It’s a busy, disorientating life lived on the edge, often recklessly, sidestepping convention or being part of any defined group, or as Hill puts it, ‘not quite one thing nor another’: a life of cricket (playing for the local Tandoori restaurant team), curry (inevitably), old-school drugs and alcohol, pool hustling, dodgy bets (and even more dodgy pubs), missed sexual encounters, fleeting sexual encounters, a huge cast of entertaining characters and friendships, left-wing politics, decades of being broke, rare windfalls and cadging, cold bedrooms, sofa surfing and collapsing tents, casual approaches to casual jobs, and comically disastrous foreign travel.
The book is honest, non-judgmental and unsentimental but has great warmth and charm, and carries a survivor’s stubborn will to live as full and interesting a life as possible through difficult times and periods of self-sabotage. It wears its great writing skill lightly, unpretentiously, so that stories of seeming little consequence build as if by magic to form a multi-dimensional portrayal of Hill’s character and life. If some of the sections, particularly at the beginning, are a little flip (though in keeping with the younger Hill’s outlook), and occasionally overly brief or relying on a killer last line of comic understatement or pathos to affect a feeling or change of tone, there are many more sections that are extraordinary, full-blooded, surprisingly touching and insightful, a delight to read.
Many scenes made me smile with fond recognition and others are just laugh-out-loud funny. Attempting to wise up (it’d be too early for that) a young Hill attends an interview to train as a nurse. To show his pragmatism and willingness to work he can’t stop mentioning that he’d ‘be happy to clean up shit,’ reflecting that he didn’t get an offer because they might have felt he had some kind of ‘shit fetish.’ In a later tone-perfect section, Hill ill advisedly follows his girlfriend, a more experienced traveller, to India. Valuing his libertarian spirit, and stubbornly eschewing any guidebook advice, Hill soon loses all his money, has to be fed by impoverished Indian fellow-travellers in a Third Class carriage (which he’s paid hundreds of times too much for) and comes down with amoebic dysentery. When his girlfriend wants to visit the Taj Mahal, of course he replies: ‘Everyone goes to the Taj Mahal — why would I want to go to the Taj Mahal?’
Living on the edge brings some surprises and excitement, but having no money or a secure home, regularly getting trashed, searching and constantly questioning everything also seems to be exhausting and to take its toll.
As Hill’s life unexpectedly and gratifyingly calms through his forties with a partner and children, it’s allowed him to reflect on things and to write a wonderfully eccentric and entertaining memoir – I can’t think of another one quite like it!
About the reviewer
Alan McCormick lives with his family on the Wicklow coast. He’s been writer in residence at Kingston University’s Writing School and for the charity, InterAct Stroke Support. His fiction has won prizes and been widely published, including Salt’s Best British Short Stories, Confingo, and online at Words for the Wild, Dead Drunk Dublin, 3:AM and Époque Press. His collection, Dogsbodies and Scumsters, was long-listed for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize. See more at www.alanmccormickwriting.wordpress.com.