Sunday, 17 November 2019

100 Good Things About Growing Old, # 34 - I stop throwing out books

I've realised it doesn't matter if I don't continue to clear out my books and I don't get rid of any more of them.
 At first, I took photographs of the piles I was about to take to the charity shop, in case I missed them, or wanted to remind myself of why I was chucking them out. The pile above was one of my very early disposals, and I have never missed any of them.
 Similarly, this second pile of disposals has never been missed.
The Martin Amis dual biography, with his father Kingsley, did make me pause a little, hence it got its own picture, centre stage.  However, I have never thought of it since disposal.  I can't even remember which charity shop I took it to. There is more to say on this subject.

I had, initially, been taking them to my nearest charity shop, which I can walk to.  After a few trips, I noticed that none of my books were actually on the shelves. I enquired about this, and was told that, unless the books were in pristine condition, and particularly if paperbacks, as new. they would not be sold in this charity's network of shops.  What would happen to them, I asked, aghast.  If of vintage interest (I did not bother to find out what qualified as vintage, being so disgusted with what followed), they would go to the vintage branch shop. Everything else would be sent to poor foreign countries that need books, or be pulped.  That was my last visit to this charity, and henceforth I have favoured Oxfam, which takes anything and is grateful.  I have seen my books on their shelves, and they put their books in order properly.

This is what my downstairs bookcase looked like before operations commenced.  It's still pretty much the same.  Some books have gone upstairs  - that brown one, third from right on middle shelf, is a case in point.  It is a biography of Lord Mountbatten. I read about a third of it, lost interest, but thought I might come back to it later, so it has gone from immediately opposite my desk to upstairs in the spare bedroom.  However, others have replaced it, so the shelf is still double stacked.  I am proud to own copies of historical biographies of Edward I, Edward II, Edward III and Edward V.  These are all now in the gap shown above.  I volunteer at a historical property which was built in the reign of Edward I, and occupied by the same family through the reigns of Edward II and III.  Edward V is not part of this collection, and I intend at some point to donate this book to the Richard III visitors' centre in Leicester, but as yet I have not felt ready to let it go.

Above, this is what my upstairs bookcase in the spare bedroom looks like.  It contains four sets of shelves like these, all floor to ceiling, all double stacked.

I have given some away to charity shops. The above biography is beautifully written, and I read and enjoyed it, but knew I would never need it again because I can't be bothered to actually read any novels by Trollope.  I find them too long and boring.  I might have persevered in my youth, when how to occupy the long hours of the day seemed a problem.  Now that I am not even working, but no day seems long enough for all I want to achieve in it, life is too short for Trollope.

Here are the three novels which I gave away with the biography, all completely unread, and never regretted.

However, after several months of sorting and disposing, I realised I was becoming rather sad and unhappy.  Nothing else having changed in my life, I came to the conclusion that it was because I had chucked out enough, and should stop.  In fact, I concluded that I do not NEED to chuck out any more books.  I was scraping on a sore nerve by trying to find more books that I could do without.

I've got rid of all the ones which were completely painless, and the next tranches which I thought to get rid of were causing me pain, and making me feel regretful in anticipation.  Enough is enough.

This afternoon, I took back to the upstairs bookshelves three armfuls of books which I had brought downstairs ready to give away, but had found I couldn't get as far as doing so.  I already feel much better.  It's sort of the opposite of a purge. 

If anything, what has been purged is the guilt about owning so many books, and the accompanying thought that I should reduce my collection. I feel a calm sense of satisfaction.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

100 Good Things About Growing Old, #33

It's OK to go about the hedgerow, picking fruit for jam.

Not quite sure whether these are wild cherries or small plums, but anyway, the results are tasty!

Unfortunately, I didn't take the stones out before bottling the jam, so have had to issue warnings to recipients of the largesse, not to break their teeth on them!

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

100 Good Things About Growing Old #32

When you realise that going to see a solicitor about commencing divorce proceedings might not be such a good idea.

The likely conversation:

"So what is it that has become intolerable about your life together?"

"Well, the absolute last straw was an argument about his insistence, in following a new-fangled recipe, on mixing parmesan cheese into the spaghetti bolognese sauce."

"And this was enough to convince you that after 42 years together it's finally time to call it a day?"

"Yes.  It's about control.   He wants to mix it in so that none of the people who are going to eat it have any choice or control over the matter.  I said it is traditional to allow people to sprinkle if they wish."

Umm, maybe not worth spending £168.00 an hour discussing this.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

One Hundred Good Things About Growing Old Number 31

# 31. 

As you age, you realise that not all the authors you were taught to revere are actually worthy of reverence.
Two good examples of this now follow:

(i)  The Mitford Sisters

This is a Fun Biography which makes the Mitfords seem like a great laugh, and worth all the media attention they've enjoyed over the hundred years since the youngest one was born (Deborah, late Duchess of Devonshire, 1920 - 2014).  

This is a very different work, edited by the daughter-in-law of Diana Mosley (née Mitford).

It's hard to get past the copious and serious notes explaining who all the characters are. Many, if not most of them are labelled with ridiculous nicknames, like Bobo, Boud, (Unity, daughter #4), Nardy, Honks,  (Diana, daughter#3), and Dawly (Deborah, #6, known even to the public as Debo).

The sisters, beside their silly nicknames and childish secret languages, communicated in wildly over-elite phraseology, calling each other "darling" at all times, and sprinkling superlatives, italics and capitals liberally.

What's more disturbing is the political allegiances of the two fascist daughters, Unity and Diana.  Now that we are seeing the resurgance of political movements we had considered consigned to the dustbin of history after the defeat of Germany in 1945, it is particularly distasteful to read of these privileged girls using their positions and connections to influence public opinion in favour of Hitler.

It ended badly for poor, impressionable, silly Unity, who shot herself in Munich on 3rd September 1939, the day that Britain and France declared war on Germany.  She was brought home by her mother and Deborah. With the mental age of a 12-year-old, brain-damaged and unpredictable, she became a severe burden on her mother who cared for her for the rest of her life.

Diana, who left her first husband to live with the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley, was imprisoned for 3 years as an "exremely dangerous and sinister young woman", (in the words of the Home Office official who signed her detention order).  Mosley had already been imprisoned as a threat to the country.  Both were released in November 1943, and kept under house arrest for the rest of the war.

The biography somehow manages to make it all seem rather a jolly jape, the letters give a true indication of the nature of the personalities.

Simone de Beauvoir

I never particularly liked this woman, but felt that, as she was a famous feminist and the author of the renowned "The Second Sex", I should read her.  I never got far with "The Second Sex", finding it, exactly as with Germaine Greer's "The Female Eunuch" terminally depressing, to the point where, I felt, anyone who truly believed these things would probably commit suicide.

So no copy of it exists on my bookshelf.  However, I have a comprehensive biography.
Biography of Simone de Beauvoir, published 1990

I also have a book about Simone and her sister, and ten assorted works including stories, memoirs, and novels.  I've read all the fiction works and memoirs, but can't say they added to the sum of my happiness in life.

All display in varying degrees the self-obsession, stridency, selfishness, and manipulative characteristics of this famous feminist.

Volume 1 of Simone de Beauvoir's autobiography

This first volume is followed by two more tomes all about herself and her feelings about everything and her thoughts.  Unfortunately, the "novels" are all cast in much the same mould, intensely self-absorbed, and almost devoid of interest in anyone outside the narrator/heroine and her immediate circle.

This is a sinister-looking woman.  The picture credit states that it is "Yvonne in Green Dress", by Guy Pene Dubois, held in The New Britain Museum, Connecticut.  The high cheekbones and cropped dark hair give the depiction a striking similarity to  young woman called Olga Kosakievicz.  She was a White Russian emigré, nine years younger than de Beauvoir, and, as an emigré, was lacking in confidence and vulnerable.  She was de Beauvoir's student at the lycée in Rouen.  The simplicity with which the biography (published 1990) tells the story is hardly credible today. In our era, seduction of, and sexual relationships with, any student by a teacher, confer prison sentences.    De Beauvoir groomed the girl and introduced her to Sartre, her own lover, who began a sexual relationship with her.  The "novel" is a thinly disguised account of this three-way relationship.

It was not just Olga.  The biography states that "this was the first of a succession of intense friendships Simone de Beauvoir formed with her students, all of whom subsequently acquiesced to sexual liaisons with Sartre".  'Acquiesced!'  A subtle, nuanced word, indicating that the author, Deirdre Barr, was well aware that the relationships had a coercive element.  The force of Sartre's personality, and that of his mistress, would have provided an irresistible current of force.

Another student, Bianca Bienenfeld, also vulnerable because she was Jewish, wrote a memoir years later in which she fully acknowledged modern sensibilities of the criminal dimension of these teachers and their relationships with students.  It all looks very different when you strip away the hero-worship of the feminist icon.

Now that I am older, I realise that my initial distaste, which I could not fully analyse, was well-justified.  My existentialist collection, consisting of ten fiction works, two biographical, and three works by or about Sartre, is no longer of interest to me.  I have earmarked it for a clear-out.  The Mitford books will also be part of a clear-out.  No more time for these flawed heroines!

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Little Gidding

A tiny chapel, hidden deep in the Northamptonshire countryside, famous for its piety, for being a religious retreat for nearly 400 years, and as the subject of a twentieth century poem written by T.S.Eliot.

By some strange co-incidence, 45 years after I first came upon this poem, I visited yesterday, in a strangely apt "midwinter spring" - a brilliant, blinding sunny afternoon in February.

Here is a picture of

"the hedgerow ... blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden than that of summer, neither budding nor fading...."

And here is the picture of what the poet says you will find later in the year:

"If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness..."

I knew nothing about the place when the "Collected Poems of T.S.Eliot" appeared on a college reading list when I was 20.  As far as I was aware, the title of the poem meant nothing, the whole thing was an arid intellectual exercise by a brainbox who bemused everyone, even the academics.

Now it makes sense.

The "broken king" is Charles I, who, escaping after defeat at the Battle of Naseby, took refuge with his friends, the Farrar family who owned the chapel and manor house.

The "rough road" is still very rough, a country track, literally at the end of the road - there's nothing else there except the farm-house, (now a religious retreat). The pig-sty is gone, but the tombstone is still in place, right in front of what Eliot calls the "dull facade".

My picture shows the facade, rather dignified, in my view.  The tombstone is in the bottom right of the picture, it is the tomb of Nicholas Farrar, died 1637.

Inside, there is an atmosphere of calm, serenity, and deep reverence. 

We are told very clearly that we should not come to gawp as tourists - this is a place of prayer:

The above is piece of embroidery, in which has been laid out some lines from Eliot's poem:

The poet has laid down his strictures.

But as a visitor I do want to "inform curiosity" and "carry report".

I do want to verify, and instruct myself, and the information leaflets in the chapel give assistance, explaining the stained glass, for example:

"Dieu et mon droit" - a nineteenth century rendition of the Royal Coat of Arms in memory of the visit of Charles I.

England, at its richest and most inspiring.  

Friday, 22 February 2019

Book Repositories, Old and New

A new book store for the University of Cambridge copyright library has been built at Ely.  This has 65 miles of shelving, each "the height of two giraffes" (what an unusual measuring device!).  Books here are given their due respect and saved for posterity.

The site also gives a virtual tour of the Library Tower. 

The tower, a hideous but iconic building, was, until it became totally full,  a previous repository of books not in huge demand day-to-day by readers.  The tour gives many beautiful images which satisfy and soothe my need to see books, unusual books, and books being cared for properly.

Who would have thought of retaining this pamphlet, of the sort one's great-granny had lying around in her dusty cupboards!

This little book from 1840, "Grammar Made Easy and Amusing", holds a secret compartment at the back, in which are found what we would now call "Visual Aids" to learning.
I remember fabric books like these.  I am sure we had one exactly like "dog".  We called them rag books.

This is a trick pamphlet, which opens to a skein of wool.  The website author notes the following below this image:

"Ephemeral literature of this kind is highly valued by researchers, and today the Library actively seeks such publications, particularly those with local connections, as well as illustrated children’s books."

That sentence is absolutely music to my ears.  It calms my urgent need to feel that there is order amongst chaos.  That there is rational behaviour, and planning for the future, and that public servants are still carrying out tasks that may not seem vital, but have a function for the maintenance of civilisation.

All pictures from University of Cambridge, digital resources free to public access

Monday, 11 February 2019

Book Piles

Last year nearly rocked me off my axis, for a time.  First, a health scare was successfully dealt with by wonderful medics. Two joyful weddings followed, and for a time, even books could not compete for my attention. Gradually former interests reasserted themselves.

A particularly shocking experience occurred when I visited Blickling National Trust, in Norfolk.

The exhibition was intended to focus on differing attitudes to books, and boy, did it jolt my perspective.
Inside Blickling Library (original volumes safely behind cases)

The curators had collected from pulping depots thousands of unwanted books.  People like me were visibly upset, bending down to examine individual items more closely, to give them the attention we thought was due.  Some visitors tried to rescue one or two, offering to take them home, disorientated and disgusted by the symbolism,  of books that were not valued.  Most of the books were glued or fixed in the display, which meant that rescue was impossible.

My attitude hitherto has always been that if a book exists, it should be given respect.  Copyright libraries, like the British Library and the great university libraries of Oxford and Cambridge, perpetuate and reinforce this view, since they demand of all publishers a copy of each new book to store for posterity.  In some cases this means building miles of underground tunnels, such is the pace of new book production.

The idea that not all of these books are of equal value is self-evident, but to just toss them to a pulping plant was visceral.

One book I managed to pick up had been someone's Sunday School prize for attendance and good behaviour, inscribed as such.  It contained wholesome and instructive nature watercolours. I recognized the genre from my 50's childhood.

For a time, I reviewed the contents of my bookshelves with different eyes.  I have piles and piles of unread items, acquired from book sales and charity shops because they chime with interests old and new, or complete a collection on a particular theme or by a particular author.

Suddenly I thought -"Why am I hoarding these books that I may never read, that no-one else wanted?  Will I ever get around to reading them, and what is the purpose of all this time spent ticking items off my to-read list?"

For a time, my existence seemed purposeless.

Then, a new year began, a new cycle of aims and lists.  With two daughters married, and waiting for the longed for next step, I mark time by going back to my old habits.