Titles of books can at times be deceptive. Remember Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, set in a bleak dystopian future which had nothing to do with the daily weather forecast on the planet Venus but more to do with firemen starting, rather than putting out fires, as they burn all kinds of literature? So when I came across 4.26am by Ian Clark published by New Generation Publishers, and hadn’t peeped between the covers I thought, is this going to be another book of science fiction where perhaps a schoolboy sneaks into a chemistry lab in the East End at 4.26am, and after making a couple of ordinary H2S stink bombs, produces one which could evacuate a city in 10 minutes. Or is this going to be a spy thriller set in a cafe in pre-war Saigon where the air is thick with Gauloise and Gitanne and a sultry half-French half-Vietnamese singer twanks and whispers some drivel about amore at 4.26am, while men in white mackintoshes, felt hats pulled low over their eyes who speak English like Peter Lorre, lurk in the shadows and spy on one another?
Well, Clark’s personal memoir is nothing like that. It is different… refreshingly different from anything I have read before. Well-written, honest and candid, it is a sort of autobiography, a festschrift of experience, thought and emotion, where the author breaks the glass on emergency ideas in almost every chapter with a flair that is most admirable. The book, spread over 80 pages, is divided into two sections. The first describes his life from childhood to adulthood and the second his thoughts on art, literature and science. The book shows him as a person with a profound sense of isolation and alienation who was bullied at school, was shy and awkward with girls, had a brute for a father and parents who divorced. At times, he slept 90 minutes at night and had frequent nightmares. It also shows him as somebody who loves swimming and yoga, who doesn’t take things at their face value, and questions beliefs and theories that others take for granted.
Some of his teachers were good and patient, some indifferent, some just didn’t like him because he would pose too many queries. One teacher would avoid eye contact in case Clark asked an awkward question like, why do clouds have different colours? If you think it’s because of impurities in the atmosphere, you’re dead wrong. It’s because of the shadows they cast on the earth. All this, and much, much more is anchored in this interesting chronicle. There are parts which are thick with concepts and elaborately knotted twists. And parts which impart extremely useful information. While I marvelled at his immense sweep over scientific data I realised that the real value of 4.26am was that it made me think. And it is mainly for this simple reason that I would recommend this slim volume to others.
When I finished reading the volume, I couldn’t help feeling that at some point in his life, Clark must have felt, as I once did and at times still do, like Sartre’s little man gazing into the abyss and feeling terrified. Here he was, an infinite speck of protoplasm pitched against the infinite expanse of the universe and experiencing that feeling of dread which the Germans call angst. There is a passage in the book in which an exasperated teacher turns to the rest of the class and obliquely referring to Clark says, “He just doesn’t give up, does he?” Well, I for one am mighty glad that he didn’t give up. Otherwise Erum Masood of Me Media Global would never have gotten this manuscript and the reader would not have seen this fascinating narrative in print.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2016.
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