A review – well, sort of – of Chris Fowler’s WORD MONKEY.
There are books that you never want to end. Sometimes it’s because of the thrilling plot; or the fantastic world of the story; or that the central characters are so engaging that it’s hard to say goodbye. Whatever the reason, it has taken me a very long time to reach the end of my old friend’s final book. Not because it was dull – quite the reverse; it may be the finest, funniest, most sincere, the wisest thing he has ever written – but because I didn’t want to reach the final chapter.
This is the memoir Chris Fowler always spoke of writing. The first instalment, PAPERBOY, was the story of his childhood; a life dominated by books, films and comics in a working-class household where no-one understood his passion. The second, FILM FREAK, was the account of a young, ambitious gay man at the start of his career, obsessed with the movies, desperately seeking work in a collapsing industry. The third, WORD MONKEY, was to be the story of a successful career in books, his advice to budding writers, his thoughts on the industry, all presented with the same joie-de-vivre, keen observation, hilarious wisdom and lightness of touch that characterized the previous two. And it is – it’s all those things, and more. More, because it’s also the tale of the final chapter in a life, the last pages of which I read in real time against the backdrop of the pandemic and everything that came with it, including Chris’ diagnosis with terminal cancer and his final, dazzling flare of creativity before the end.
Before I go on, some context. Chris and I were friends a long time – over 30 years, in fact. It began with a letter I wrote as a very new author, thanking him for my only review. From there it developed into a regular correspondence (I still have a stack of those letters, many of them detailing things that later appeared in the books, always funny and generous, and illustrated with little cartoons); and then a growing friendship. We were different in many ways, but we shared a love of books and films, and it was in Chris’ nature to help other writers whenever he could. He saw the rise of my career from teacher to bestselling novelist. He was there at my highest and lowest points. He found me my first proper agent. His company did the advertising campaign for the movie of CHOCOLAT. When he moved from Kentish Town to King’s Cross, I bought a pied-à-terre down the road, and we met up whenever I was in town, usually for a breakfast that would go on till lunchtime.
At the beginning of lockdown, both of us were diagnosed with cancer. They found mine early. His, too late. Over the next three years I tried to come to terms with his terminal diagnosis. I didn’t really believe in it; he was still so full of life, so upbeat, so creative. We corresponded by e-mail and text from our respective chemo chairs; he told me funny stories about his life and his doctors. When lockdown ended, we met up again for our usual breakfasts in King’s Cross. I think I expected to see a change; but he looked and sounded just the same; and he was still writing furiously. In December 2022 he finished editing his memoir; by then he was unable to leave the flat, and I went to see him at home for the last time. I didn’t know it would be the last time, of course, but it’s rare to know these things as they happen. He was getting frail by then, but mostly he was just the same; clever and funny and cheery and filled with stories and book recommendations and accounts of obscure European films that I absolutely had to watch. And he was still writing furiously; short stories, blog posts, tweets, even a new Bryant and May book (he joked that it would have to be a short one). I told him I loved him. He said it back. That was the last time I saw him, although our correspondence went on right up till the end, in March, just weeks from his 70th birthday.
I still find it hard to believe he’s gone. His voice is still so clear in my mind. And I still see him all over King’s Cross; in bookshops and theatres and cinemas. In the comics and record shops we visited together; in countless breakfast places. And it’s here, in this book, the final chapter of a life well lived, a quite extraordinary life, crowned with achievements (which he typically downplays) and filled with humour and stories. It’s all here, and it’s wonderful, and it fills me with admiration at the talent of the writer, as well as the courage of a man who can take something as bleak as a terminal cancer diagnosis, and work it into something like this; a celebration; joyous, true and filled with unflinching insight.
I don’t know why I feel surprised. I always knew how good he was. But this is more than just a dazzling piece of writing. It’s a testament to the power of words; a reminder that through them, you can shine even beyond that darkness; that life is short, and love is long; and stories can live forever. This is why we write, after all; to push away the shadows. To connect with each other across the years. To celebrate what brings us joy; to prove that we are not alone. So read this book, and read the rest of this astonishing trilogy. And be inspired – as writers, as readers – by the boy who dreamed of the stars, and learned to live forever.