The Nearest Thing to Life.

The publisher was kind enough to send me a review copy of The Nearest Thing to Life, by James Wood; I always turn to Wood’s reviews eagerly (though I often find myself arguing with them) — he’s very well-read, acutely sensitive to the qualities of good writing, and (most important) an excellent writer himself — so I opened it with anticipation, and was not disappointed, even though I had read two of the four essays before, the first in the New Yorker and the last in the London Review of Books. I like Woods better when he’s mingling observations on literature, life, and his own memories, as he does here, rather than when he’s concentrating fiercely on a single book. I love reading the Chekhov stories he discusses and listening to the music he mentions, and he says things whose wording I admire or that plunge me into thought on nearly every page. Here are a couple of passages that will serve as a sampler; from the second essay, evoking his early life in Durham:

The school’s headmaster, the Reverend Canon John Grove, was probably only in his early fifties, but seemed to us a fantastically antique figure. He was a bachelor and a clergyman, and wore the uniform of his calling: a black suit, a black buttonless shirt, a thick white clerical collar. […] Except for the band of white starch round his neck, Canon Grove was entirely colourless—his ancient Oxford shoes were black, his thick spectacles were black, the pipe he smoked was black. He seemed to have been carbonized centuries ago, turned into ash, and when he lit his pipe, it seemed as if he was lighting himself. Like all children, we were fascinated by the match held over the pipe-bowl, by the flame steadily journeying along the flimsy match, entranced by the sucking noises of the smoker, and the way the flame halted its horizontal passage at these moments and then briefly disappeared vertically into the bowl. And always there was the question: how can he hold the match alight for so long, with such reptilian imperviousness?

And from the final essay, on his hard-to-define longing for what once was home:

In America, I crave the English reality that has disappeared; childhood seems breathingly close. But the sense of masquerade persists: I gorge on nostalgia, on fondnesses that might have embarrassed me when I lived in Britain. Geoff Dyer writes funnily, in Out of Sheer Rage, about how, when he was living in Italy, he developed an obsession with reading the TV listings in English papers, even though he had never watched telly when he lived in England, and didn’t like it. To hear a Geordie voice on an American news program leaves me flushed with longing: the dance of that dialect, with its seasick Scandinavian pitch. And all those fabulous words: segs (the metal plates you’d bang onto your shoe heels, to make sparks on the ground and act like a hard nut); kets (‘sweets’); neb (‘nose’); nowt (‘nothing’); stotty-cake (a kind of flat, doughy bread); claggy (‘sticky’). The way Northerners say eee, as an exclamation: ‘Eee, it’s red-hot today!’ (Any temperature over about seventy-two degrees.) Recently, I heard the old song ‘When the Boat Comes In’ on National Public Radio, and I almost wept​.

Now come here little Jacky
Now I’ve smoked me packy,
Let’s have some cracky
Till the boat comes in.

And you shall have a fishy
On a little dishy,
You shall have a fishy
When the boat comes in.

But I really disliked that song when I was a boy. I never had a very northern accent. My father was born in London. It was important to my Scottish petty-bourgeois mother that I didn’t sound like a Geordie. Friends used to say, with a bit of menace in their voices: ‘You don’t talk like a Durham lad. Where are you from?’ Sometimes it was necessary to mimic the accent, to fit in, to avoid getting beaten up. I could never say, as the man in the song ‘Coming Home Newcastle’ foolishly does: ‘And I’m proud to be a Geordie/And to live in Geordie-land.’

I’ll add, since as a copyeditor I notice these things, that the book is extraordinarily well proofread; the only error I noticed was a running head that had strayed from the essay “Why?” to “Using Everything” (p. 91). Well done, Brandeis University Press!


  1. Too much Wood and you realize he’s bound to miss the forest for the awkwardly wordy trees, “flushed with longing”, which may be “breathingly close” to their writer but are more maudlin smoke than pitch-perfect essaying. The evocation of his Oxfordian is well observed albeit too long by half, only to be scuttled by the maladroit and far too colourfully rendered “reptilian imperviousness”.

  2. Too much Wood and you realize he’s bound to miss the forest for the awkwardly wordy trees

    Alas, too often true.

  3. When the Boat Comes In was a BBC series of the late ’70s and used the song as its theme. It was shown in the US on PBS. I remember enjoying the song as much as the series. It’s available on Amazon for anyone who needs a Geordie accent fix.

  4. Bathrobe says

    As an expat, the sense of nostalgia he invoked really hit home.

  5. fisheyed says

    Let’s have some cracky…. what does cracky mean?

  6. George Grady says


    I think it means a chat.

  7. Does anybody know etymology of surname Brandeis?

    It’s clearly of German origin, but doesn’t really make sense (fire ice?)

  8. Thank you. I assumed that “let’s have some cracky” was not an invitation to smoke crack, but I didn’t know what it meant. The wiki link mentions a few crack-related puns.

  9. If one believes everything one reads, Brandeis is the Germanized version of the Czech town of Brandýs nad Labem, itself named after the Italian Brindisi, itself deriving from the Messapic brenda-s ‘deer’ and hence ‘deer horn’, after the shape of its bay.

  10. Narmitaj says

    I associate “segs” with my boarding school in York in about 1969, when the older boys (ie young men – I was 11) used to clack-clack down the stone corridors in their ankle-length zip-up boots with their RAF greatcoats, scarves, getting-longer hair and flares and looking rather like the younger copper in 60s-set Inspector George Gently, the TV series of which was set oop North. I don’t remember hearing about them down South, or later than about 1975, but you can still get them. Blakeys Segs was founded in 1902 in Leeds.

  11. You don’t need to leave the country to get that strange nostalgia for things you didn’t really like when you were young; you just need to get old. I frequently catch myself liking songs now that I thought of as unbearable Kitsch when I was in my teens and twenties.

  12. SFReader says

    After checking a few sources, came with the simplest explanation.

    Brandeis is a variant of common German surname Brandis or Brandes, which is a surname derived from German first name Brando (brand is common element in many old Germanic names and means sword)

  13. Segs: We called them cleats. Many of the guys had them on their shoes, including me. Teachers hated the things.

  14. I frequently catch myself liking songs now that I thought of as unbearable Kitsch when I was in my teens and twenties.

    Me too! Turns out The Monkees were great, and The Archies were actually not that bad

  15. Brandeis (the judge), after whom the university was named, was of Bohemian Jewish ancestry, so in his case at least the Brandýs explanation is plausible.

  16. J. W. Brewer says

    I am interested to learn that crack/craic, which I’d always thought of as primarily an Irishism, is by a Northernism/Scotticism that entered Irish English via Ulster. I first learned it from a song lyric by Van Morrison (born and raised on the Protestant side of Belfast) that said “and the crack was good” in what was clearly not a reference to the drug sense of crack, but was initially puzzling to me. In trying to google up the lyrics to double-check my memory I came across an old LL thread (back when Geoff Pullum routinely did comments) in which I myself quote them . . .

  17. Jeffry House says

    The Germanic name Brando, common in Northern Germany, and its possible variations Brandes and Brandeis, were reflected in the last name of the Danish Jewish literary critic, Georg Brandes. I know of nothing which connects him to Czechia, much less Brindisi.

  18. Wikipedia (and other sources) tell us that the Czech town of Brandýs nad Labem was known in German as Brandeis.

    There were a lot of ethnic Germans throughout Bohemia – they were a majority in the “Sudetenland” region – and many Bohemian Jews identified as culturally German and spoke German.

    Many Jews have surnames from place names.

  19. David Marjanović says

    German first name Brando

    Never heard of it. And while there are obsolete names that end in -brand, I can’t think of one that begins with it.

Speak Your Mind