I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal is comprised of a series of ninety-five vignettes, mostly single page length, the shortest being two lines long. An epigram by Samuel Beckett is appropriate for the content: ‘It’s all a muddle in my head, graves and nuptials and the different varieties of motion.’ The reader is treated to snapshots views of the author’s family, his schooldays, his days in the youth club or drinking in the bikers’ club. Music and records provide a backcloth to lost chances, lost loves, and there is a whole string of early jobs in a fish shop, the Co Op, a packaging firm, Samuel the jeweller and Harrison Drape, the factory for curtain accessories where he drove a forklift truck ‘because it was the best of a shit job’ but nearly lost life and limb when it toppled off a ramp as he reversed it. Most of these jobs ended with him being escorted off the premises because of too many days going awol or putting himself on flexitime. One vignette describes a romantic interlude with a first love when he phoned up pretending to be snowbound in Devon so that ‘we spent the morning warm under thin blankets, feeding each other fresh strawberries dipped in cream, mouth-to-mouth.’
Throughout, the writing is detailed but concise with pithy comments. Sunday evenings in boyhood were spent watching a BBC serial ‘with bonnets and sideburns and Mum would provide us with plates of pilchard sandwiches.’ There are layers of implication in this remark about the siblings: ‘My elder sister resented my presence, my younger brother had blue eyes and curly blond hair.’ The tone is consistently laconic such as this one: ‘One year we won a goldfish at the Mop … by the time we got it home the goldfish was dead.’ Or there is this analysis of a relationship: ‘I am with a woman. We lived together, she went away, we lived together, we can’t anymore, so how does this work now?’ A comment on another relationship, many years later with a film maker, is equally downbeat and anti-climactic when he remembers her with nostalgia and thinks how good it would be to reminisce together ‘so I look her up, send her an email and hear nothing back.’
One of the most enjoyable aspects of these vignettes is Charlie Hill’s skill is creating a sense of time and place. Scenes of life in Birmingham are evoked:
‘I live in inner-city Balsall Heath with outlaws, dole-ites and artists and get a job with a packaging firm. The packaging firm is in Tysely, a fraying patchwork of factory estates and boarded-up pubs. I smoke among the cardboard boxes in the warehouses … After managing an office consisting of me all day, I come home to a house full of New Age travellers chopping speed … and a tea of Special Brew and noodles.’
A passage I find especially evocative is set in India where the author has gone in search of his girl friend:
‘We sit on flat roofs and look at the cows and the billboards advertising toothpaste. From the Ganges we hear incantations, while in the narrow street below men play chess. There is a festival on and the sky is full of bright kites, darting like sprats, stitching the sky with messages of devotion. She says it would be a nice idea if we get married. I demur.’
Subtle humour and I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal is rich in it. But it’s humour with an undertone of the bitter-sweet, the nostalgic and poignant. This a book I loved reading. Unforgettable.
Mandy Pannett 11th August 2021