My Life in Books: Sam Beckwith
8 min read
We are delighted to welcome Sam Beckwith - a journalist and the founder of PraguePig.com - for the latest installment in our My Life in Books series.
We asked Sam to tell us about some of the non-fiction books that have significantly impacted his life. What follows is a list of books you have probably never heard of but Sam's descriptions will definitely make you laugh and may well prompt you to read them yourself.
The Book of Lists - David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace
I was obsessed with reference books as a child. My parents bought me the new edition of the Guinness Book of Records every Christmas, and I used to read Halliwell’s Film Guide and Pear’s Cyclopedia for fun. That, inevitably, led me to my dad’s copy of The Book of Lists.
Compiling a book made up purely of lists isn’t, in itself, a mind-blowing idea but it’s the eclecticism of the project that really grabbed me. And as an added bonus, some of it’s a bit mucky.
You get everything from “9 Most Unusual Monuments in the World” to “Gen. George Patton's 6 Past Lives” to “Sexual Curiosities About 9 Well-Known Women” (in which we learn that Princess Anne “was the only female competitor at the 1976 Montreal Olympics not to be given a sex test”).
It inspired a lifelong love of useless information.
An equally good sequel, The Book of Lists 2, followed, and contains a list that’s stuck with me ever since. It’s the result of a survey of American soldiers’ favourite and least favourite foods that, as a control, includes three fictional dishes: Funistrada, Buttered ermal, and Braised trake. Every now and then I like to slip “Braised trake” into an article and see if anyone notices.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities - Jane Jacobs
Another book from my dad’s bookshelf.
He’s a retired town planner, and this is a 1961 book about urban planning. It doesn’t sound like a fun read but, beyond the portentous title, The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a warm and wise book, with implications that go far beyond the main theme.
That theme is a rebuttal of the idea that cities somehow need to be tamed and organized and beautified by central planning, which was mainstream thinking at that time. Jacobs, a journalist, argues that people are a force for good -- that great cities draw strength from being crowded, diverse, complicated and a bit messy.
One of her big ideas is the value of “mixed use” -- the idea that a neighbourhood in which homes, shops and workplaces rub shoulders won’t just be more vibrant than a neighbourhood that’s purely residential, or one that’s solely dedicated to retail or business, but will also be safer. Again, it’s the idea that people solve more problems than they cause.
Jacobs wasn’t just a writer, she was also a campaigner. In the 1960s, she helped stop an expressway being built through lower Manhattan, which would have destroyed New York City’s SoHo and Little Italy neighbourhoods.
I now live in a vast Communist-era housing estate that, in some ways, is the sort of project that Jane Jacobs might have campaigned against. It’s interesting to look at my neighbourhood through her eyes and see how it does and doesn’t measure up to her ideas of a “great city”.
Alternative London - Nicholas Saunders
In my late teens and early twenties, I had a slightly unhealthy obsession with psychedelia and the counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s, so this book -- bought at a second-hand shop in Blackpool -- was a great find.
Alternative London is a handbook for people finding their way in the kind of groovy-but-grimy underground scene captured in Withnail & I.
Most of the advice, on topics like squatting, phone-phreaking and “self-development”, now seems incredibly dated, to the extent that much of Alternative London reads like a relic of a bygone era. (My copy was the fifth edition, published in 1977, by which time London’s counter-culture must have already been on the wane.)
In the late 1980s, however, the sections on psychedelic drugs were, besides a few wild claims (“the milky sap from lettuce is said to be similar to opium”), the most reliable information my friends and I could lay our hands on and probably kept us from doing more damage to ourselves than was strictly necessary.
Alternative London was the work of an interesting-sounding guy called Nicholas Saunders, who also wrote about rave culture and turned Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden, London, into a haven of alternative culture. (I used to go there a lot when I was at university, by which time it was much more respectable and dull.)
Football Against the Enemy - Simon Kuper
I moved to Prague in 1996 with dreams of becoming a football journalist. When I read Football Against the Enemy, a year or two later, it was a source of both inspiration and profound envy. In the book, Kuper -- a young journalist himself at the time -- travels to 22 countries looking at the influence of politics (particularly nationalism) on the sport.
It was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to write, especially the early chapters about post-Communist Europe.
Kuper describes Sparta Prague as the rudest club he dealt with (along with South Africa’s Orlando Pirates) and mentions a Sparta player asking him for £300 for an interview. Despite, or maybe because of this, there isn’t a chapter on Czech football but Kuper’s experiences working and travelling in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s all seemed strangely familiar.
Unusually for a football journalist, Kuper puts a bit of himself into the story too, and shares some of his own insecurities, and the indignities of the job.
His account of moving in football circles on a severely limited budget was something I could easily relate to: “Football directors, managers and players are rich, and they respect wealth in others. They were always asking me which hotel I was staying in, and wondering whether my jacket was ripped across the seam because I liked it that way.”
Black Postcards - Dean Wareham
Rock memoirs that draw back the curtain on life in one of my favourite bands generally disappoint me. The behind-the-scenes accounts of crappy tours, boring recording sessions and incessant squabbling inevitably undermine the carefully built-up mystique, and musicians are rarely as good at writing prose as they are at writing songs.
One happy exception is Dean Wareham’s Black Postcards, which is as gracefully written as it’s painfully honest, and only reinforces the author’s urbane but slightly frazzled public persona. It’s a perfect complement to the music of Galaxie 500, Luna, and Dean & Britta, Wareham’s ongoing duet with wife and former Luna bandmate Britta Phillips.
The sections detailing Wareham’s affair with Phillips, and the breakdown of his marriage to first wife Claudia Silver, are particularly powerful. I broke up with my partner of many years not long after reading Black Postcards and the book became a sort of companion during that time.
On a lighter note, there’s also an excruciatingly awful anecdote about sleeping with a Spanish air hostess, and a lot of Ecstasy-taking.
Sam is a journalist and technical writer who has written for many different publications over the years including The Prague Post, World Soccer and When Saturday Comes.
He is well known in Prague as the founder of PraguePig.com which (in Sam's own words) "gives expats in Prague the Czech news that nobody else wants to tell them — the WTF weirdness, tabloid sleaze and creepy crime stories that don’t normally get translated into English." Check it out, it's brilliant (whether you live in Prague or not).
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