Saturday, 10 August 2013

Books old and new

A few days ago, I went to my storage unit, took out three boxes of books and brought them home to see what I could bring myself to live without. It was tough. Boy, was it tough. It was like waving goodbye to dear friends who were off to the other side of the globe forever. Yes, you could visit them (i.e. re-buy them), but it wouldn't be the same. Yet perhaps those books, like the mythical friends, belonged to another era of my life. Maybe I had outgrown them.

So out went the psychotherapy books I had studied for my foundation course in counselling. I never went on to take the diploma or the MA because at that point, in 1994, I was made redundant and couldn't afford the course fees any longer.  I kept the books for ages, thinking I might continue with the course one day, but now, out they have gone, together with the realisation that once you've reached your sixties, it's hardly worth the £10,000 investment to train for a new career when more relaxing pastimes beckon. Like writing.

When the books went into storage ten years ago, Google had hardly begun. Now, if you want to know the origin of a phrase or saying, or check a literary quotation, you just have to tickle the keyboard, so out went Brewers, a thesaurus and two books of quotations, plus some travel books, as I don't think I shall be going back to Corfu or Rhodes, or walking the Lycian Way with my flat feet and wonky ankle.

Four very dated books from the 1970s went, too, but I have hung onto the poetry books, even though some of them smell of mildew, having got damp when Mr Grumpy's workshop, where they used to be stored, leaked. Some are first editions of R.S. Thomas, and others compilations that contain some of my favourite verses and aren't available any more. But the copy of The Oxford Book of Verse, with gold-edged pages, that I'd had since my school days, was so badly mildewed and foxed that I was forced, very reluctantly, to bin it as I knew the charity shop wouldn't want it in that state.

Once a goodly heap had formed in the hallway, I crammed some of them into a doddery wheely case and trundled them off to the Salvation Army Community Store, our closest charity shop. It's over half a mile away and our road is not only very rutted but also dotted with doggy-do, so I had my work cut out, picking up the bag every time the heavy weight inside it made it tip over when the wheels hit an uneven bit of paving, and lifting it over the unpleasant deposits.

My right arm was strained in its socket by the time I got there, but I decanted everything and told them I was coming back in a bit with some more. Halfway down the road on my second trip, the bag laden with a heavy table lamp as well as books, and carrying a separate bag containing a bulky blanket and some clothes, my back and shoulders began to protest. Telling myself I would reach the main road in another five minutes, I carried on hauling. I crossed the road with the bag only tipping over twice, reached the door of the shop and was appalled to find it closed and the windows shuttered. I had only been there twenty minutes earlier. They knew I was coming right back. Why the f*** didn't they tell me?

By now the sun had come out and the temperature had soared. I looked enviously at all the people swooshing past in their cars and, for the millionth time, regretted the fact I had given up on my driving lessons. By the time I was halfway back up the road with my loads, I was sweating and my glasses were misting up. My limbs hurt and I was beginning to feel a bit woozy. By the time I got back, my head was swimming and I felt quite faint and had to lean on the wall, then stagger to the kitchen for a glass of water. My back was so sore, I couldn't bend and my arms were trembling from hauling the wheely bag. I was just exhausted.

Mr G, who was lying on the sofa as he had a bad headache, opened a bleary eye and said, "Why didn't you ask me to drive you?" "Because you weren't well," was my noble reply. It was partly true. The other reason was that until I met him, I had spent years coping alone. If something needed to be taken somewhere, I carried it. But I was 16 years younger then. On Thursday I paid £38 to the chiropractor to ease the pain in my back and neck. Now I have wrecked them again. When will it dawn on me that I'm not 30 any more?

There is still a big pile of books in the hall. I have snatched back two already. By Monday, the charity pile will have halved and my bookcase will have toppled over in an avalanche of words and paper, probably with me underneath it, muttering my own epitaph: In libris, mortis. On the other hand, I have just finished reading some books that can now be added to the Sally Army pile.

One is Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. I had to persevere through the first chapter, pushing myself on even though I was irritated by Nick Dunne, the narrator, but this book has a slow fuse and once it really gets burning, the plot roars along and it kept me up till 3 am two nights running. I'm still not sure which is the stronger, the pin-sharp characterisation, or the clever plot and the way Flynn, like skilled rug maker, weaves together strands that were always there, but you hardly noticed them forming. It fully deserves the accolades it received.

The second book I finished in the last three weeks took me on a trip back to the Sixties, being Margaret Drabble's The Waterfall, which was focused minutely inwards almost to the point of self-indulgence. Much as Nick Dunne had irritated me, Jane, the heroine of The Waterfall made me want to slap her, she was so wet and wimpish and selfish. Yet how very well drawn she was. Her emotions crawled all over the story like drowsy bookworms, with insidious, almost hypnotic slowness. I was slightly relieved to reach the end, but felt refreshed by having dipped into a slow, literary style of writing which probably would be unacceptable to publishers these days, more's the pity.

Last night, I finished Growing Old Outrageously, the true story of the trips taken by two school friends now in their late sixties, Hilary Linstead and Elisabeth Davies, who hadn't seen each other for decades and yet decided to team up and travel the globe. I thoroughly enjoyed the inside stories of ghastly Russians and gallant gauchos, but felt the authors were being a bit restrained, a tad genteel, perhaps, compared to the book I could have written about the things a friend and I got up to in Turkey in our fifties (the baguette in the carpet shop springs to mind!). However, I know my friend would NEVER allow me to write the bare truth. (A novel, then? There is a wicked glint in my eye...)

I have been dipping in and out of Kathryn Marsden's Good Gut Healing and as a result, have started taking Aloe Vera capsules before meals and praying that they help calm my IBS.

Right now, I have two books on the go, a 'real' one - Margaret Forster's Isa and May (am loving it so far) and a Kindle one - the notorious The Cuckoo's Calling by Galbraith/Rowling, which is entertaining but a little shallow and patchy, a curate's egg of a book with some bits, if not actually bad, then decidedly dull. But I like it enough to plod on, catching a chapter while travelling on the tube.

Still on the shelf and settling me salivating each time I glance at it is M C Scott's The Coming of the King, the second in her Rome series. I love the way she doesn't flinch from describing bloody battles, and the wealth of imperceptible research that has gone into recreating historical scenes that reek and shriek of authenticity. I'm keeping it for a holiday. I have one coming up on Thursday, five days of cat-sitting in Camden Town. Hmm... there's lots of interesting things to do in Camden. Maybe there won't be time for much reading at all!


Jacula said...

Hello! I know exactly what you mean about having had to cope on your own for years and then nobly trying to do so and being sharply reminded that you're not as young and nimble as you once were. It's a bugger, isn't it?

I imagine the charity shop people didn't tell you their closing time because they assumed - as people always do - that you'd arrived in 'The Car'. Funny, isn't it, how people always seems to refer to a vehicle in capitals? I gave up driving years ago, so I know what you mean.

I also know the pain of parting with books and the realisation that some of them really aren't going to be used now for any future career. I got through my last big clear-out by telling myself that I was freeing the books from my shelves to go out and be read again, as they were meant to be, and also that I'd be doing a charity some good in the process. I'd be lying if I said I didn't still miss some of the books I 'liberated'.

hydra said...

And have you ever bought any of them again? I found I had acquired a second copy of John Betjeman's collected poems without realising, till I found my original volume in one of the boxes!

Jacula said...

Yes, I often find I've got book doubles - same for films.