His Books

The Poet, who made Chairman Mao’s red-braised pork for supper last night, so I am not entitled to complain about anything, has a dark side. Before he was an academic he was a book dealer. He gave up book dealing but not the books. We live in a terraced house which backs on to the railway line. These houses were all railway worker’s cottages. They have tiny rooms and steep staircases. They are lovely, well-built but must have been cramped even with a smallish family living in them. These days most of the houses have been bought by people working at the University in various capacties, or parents with one or two young children, and most of the houses have had their roof spaces turned into rooms and extensions built into the gardens.

What isn’t good about them is that there are only four walls per room, and the problem of housing The Poet’s 5000 books grows daily as he scours the second-hand Internet sites for volumes he’s been searching out for years or a surprise first edition of a 1930’s novelist that no one alive (apart from The Poet) has ever heard of. Every wall is covered. We built a shed in the garden for the overflow. There are still piles of books on the floor of his study. And the bottom of the staircase to my attic study is a dangerously tottering pile of books I’ve reviewed and have not got round to taking to the Amnesty Bookshop.

This is not the whole story. The whole story is in The Poet’s two rooms in college where he teaches. Both these sizable rooms are shelved from floor to ceiling and filled 2 deep with books. All over the floor, leaning book towers mean the students have to pick their way carefully to get to their chairs. Every surface, empty chair, table, side table, window sill, have books on them. ‘Waiting,’ The Poet says severely ’to be put away.’ He has about 7000 books there, which he tells me he goes to all the time when teaching. ‘All of them?’ ‘All of them.’ Five minutes walk away is the Cambridge University Library, one of the great copyright libraries of the world to which he has borrowing rights. We have to be within walking distance of the library, so there will be no moving to some idyllic countryside retreat when he retires. He needs his 12,000 volumes within reaching distance, and the University Library within a quick trot away. Or something very bad will happen.

I mentioned retirement. What hangs over us in two years time is that he is required by univeristy regulations to retire. This is wonderful. Time to write his own things, more time for poetry, less working on schedule, working at home, blissful. But day by day, as it gets nearer, the fear grows. Where are we going to put the 7000 books that he will bring home to our book-lined house? Oh, he’ll sell them. Really? Well, not all of them. How many? Some. Perhaps not many. He needs them, he always needs the books he’s got rid of. We think about building a library in the garden, but it will change the the lovely garden, and anyway, as a retired academic where’s the money to come from to build a shelved, weather and light proof space for 7000 books? He says he’ll think about it later. It is later, I say. I’m frightened.

I like books too. I’m keen on reading them. I used to be keen on hoarding reference books, but since the arrival of the Internet that’s no longer necessary. I like a room with books. I’ve never lived in one without books. I enjoy the sense of all those words being there, the muddled mix of colour and the way they absorb sound. I couldn’t live without books. I accumulate books, borrowed and bought, when I have a project. My study is only lightly shelved, but they are full of books on and around the subject of melancholy at the moment because that’s the book I’m writing. But I also get rid of them. Each time I’ve moved, I’ve weeded out the books never looked at for years, or haven’t read in the first place. When I’ve finished a project I get rid of most of the books, keeping only a few for reference and mementos. Then I buy and borrow new ones, and maintain a sort of equilibrium. I am the model of sanity in our relationship. When it comes to books.

The Poet uses books to think with. They don’t have to be open. I’ll walk into a room and see him standing in front of the shelves, looking intently at them. I’ve long since stopped asking what he looking for. He isn’t looking for, usually, he’s looking at. It helps him think about…the cultural history of bombing…the mediocrity of contemporary fiction…Wyndham Lewis…a poem he’s writing…a supervision he’s planning. ‘But you’re looking at the spines of green Penguin thrillers of the mid-twentieth century.’ ‘It doesn’t matter what books I look at, it helps me think.’ And this is just as well, because apart from the sets (Henry James, Iris Murdoch, Patrick Hamilton, Marx, Henry Green ) and the green Penguin thrillers of the 20th century, there is very little of anything you could call order in all these thousands of books. The other thing that happens is that I come in to a room and he’s standing on top of a chair, pulling out books to get to the ones behind (you didn’t think they were single depth, did you?). ‘I’ve lost…’ he’ll say. ‘I think it was here, last time I looked at it.’ ‘When was that?’ ‘I think it was August 1997.’ I point out that he wasn’t living in this house in 1997. But in some renaissance memory book-room in his head, it doesn’t matter. It’s sort of relational. Still, he doesn’t find it. It goes on for days sometimes. He wanders round the house, goes off to college. ‘Still looking.’ Eventually, he’ll find it, no where near where he was sure it was supposed to be. Or he won’t, but he knows he will one day. Why not put them in order? Subject. Alphabet. It’s a tried and true way of housing books. He shakes his head, dismissing the thought. ‘No, I’d never find anything, if they were in that sort of order.’ What sort of order? ‘Well, any sort of order.’

We only get the merest glimpses into the minds of others. Mostly we can only imagine, and we suppose the inside of their heads must be much like the inside our own heads. My daily insight into the mind of The Poet comes through his lively, brooding, searching relationship with his books, and suggests a mind so different from mine that I dare not quite allow myself to imagine it. I fear a sort of Edgar Allan Poe’ish descent into madness would result. Nevertheless, set against that terror, there is the fact that he makes the very best Chairman Mao’s red-braised pork.

A Rant About Tourism

Here’s another post from my Swedish column (translated from this original) in the Goteborgs-Posten.


August is the worst month to be living in Cambridge. It’s quite a small town, with a population of about 120,000, very small compared to Gothenburg with 510,000 inhabitants. It has local areas, but the centre is a functioning part of everyone’s life. The market square has had stalls selling its wares since the middle ages, and it still sells everyday necessities like bread, cheese and local vergetables. There’s a farmers’ market every Sunday morning. Nearby is the largest John Lewis department store in the country. If you live in Cambridge you need to go to the central area pretty regularly. If you also work in one of the colleges as a don, a cleaner, gardener, electrician, or a porter, you usually can’t avoid the centre. Most of the colleges are clustered around the ancient centre. Students on cycles ride in packs throughout the day from college to college for supervisions from different dons. It’s a busy, working place. And in August a nightmare. Although to be honest, it’s only really all right in the deepest of the winter months. The local council needs money and there is no easier source of income if you’re a city with a heritage than from tourists. They arrive in coach-loads, which ring the centre, parked up in the narrow medieval roads, waiting for their passengers to return.

The Poet, who works at Queens’ College, just off King’s Parade, a street which is flanked by the low wall of King’s College on one side and a row of tourist shops on the other, but is the main way for anyone to get to the market either to shop or soak in its history. He says it’s like a Tudor battlefield at this time of year. Troops of tourists in crocodile formation march around in every direction, crossing each other like the individual armies of Dukes and Princes, their guides in front holding up a sign so as not to get scattered in the melee. Cardboard notices, umbrellas, flags are all hoist, and the tourist masses follow making a kind of interweaving dance. Except when they stop in the middle of King’s Parade (which is not a pedestrian precinct) to take a photo, usually these days with their iPads, of the gothic frontage of King’s college, or sit in an unbroken line on the low wall eating their packed lunches. One of these days The Poet’s going to be arrested as he gets more and more furious with people stopping dead to enjoy the view and causing him to bump into them. They look offended. They’ve paid to be there, he only lives and works there. Cyclists duck and swerve around the tourists as best they can, trying to get on with their lives, but eventually get off their bikes and try to walk on the completely congested narrow pavements. The market square is unbearable if you want to pop over to it to get supper from the vegetable stalls. The nice lady who sells amazing T-bone steaks from the local Red Poll cattle that graze by right on some of the commons, says you have to be there before 8.30 in the morning because all the American tourists get there and buy her out. Restaurants you might go to for lunch, cafes you would stop at for a quick coffee are full to bursting. John Lewis is heaving with people from overseas buying things they could presumably buy just as well at home. International relations are strained to say the least. The highly multicultural residents of Cambridge fume, often about their own nationals, for making life hell.

Cambridge really needs the tourist yen and dollars, as do most small towns in the United Kingdom, and so do all other much more impoverished parts of the world. Worldwide tourism as it has developed over the 20th and 21st century is a plague of far worse proportions than the  Black Death that swept through 14th century Europe. It can be hard to talk about it because it sounds so close on the one hand to xenophobia and on the other to wealthy elitism. People have a ‘right’ to travel and see the world. If mass transport and better finances mean that millions of people can see Cambridge or Gothenburg or the pyramids, so much the better for equality of opportunity. But so much the worse for local communities which cannot refuse the income but whose way of life is completely devastated.

In the 1960s and 70s I used to travel to the Greek Islands, amazing, empty places most of them, where if you walked inland from the seaside town, you would meet people working the land, husband and wife and a donkey, who had never met anyone beyond their shores and invited you to share their lunch. We would sit and talk as best we could neither party having the other’s language, but it was amiable. We left offering money for our lunch which was or wasn’t accepted. It seemed harmless and as if we were making important connections. It was however the beginning of the destruction of the Greek Islands. Many islanders now live double lives. They have a summer life in the coastal towns as waiters, maids, landlords, cooks, entirely devoted to servicing the tourists, and then in the winter they return to their real villages up in the hills to regain the remnants of a normal life. Lots of people have got rich or have made a decent living from the tourists. But tourists are no longer shy and grateful to share a meal with a local farmer. They want old ways made new and with the comfort that they have paid for. They have expectations.

In the north of Sweden, I spent a week with the Sami people who were trying to publicise the tourist industry that they have decided is the only way they can survive in a money economy which no longer recognises reindeer as a reckoning of wealth and social pride. They need to offer tourist rides in reindeer sleighs and reindeer lunches around the fire in lavuus while someone yoiks, in order to keep their young people within their lands, working in the old ways, but with money in their pockets to buy the things that young people everywhere want.

It’s inevitable, but tragic, I think. I don’t believe that people’s lives would be much the worse if they didn’t spend time with the Sami or queue up in ships to walk over the Antarctic mainland. But I’ve done both. I’ve been very fortunate. Only the very rich or an ‘elite’ of writers and photographers and so on, can get to these places in the early stages, but gradually they become more and more accessible, until people are no longer living their lives, but are performing them, serving the tourists. There is no solution. People need money. Tourism is the way to get it if your unique selling point is a way of life, although your way of life is as good as lost as the tourists increase. And of course people have they right to spend their money as they want and go where they want, don’t they? Don’t they?

‘Hacked off with feminism.’


I received an email from one of the two women journalists who are running a pop-up women’s club in Carnaby Street this month. It asked me to do an interview with Liz Jones, on the back of a piece I wrote recently for the London Review of Books about her. I declined for a couple of reason, one being that I don’t find the interview format, as opposed to open discussion, all that fruitful. But before I replied I clicked on the link they sent me about the club. I liked the idea of a women’s club (though actually they do exist). In the About Us section I noted the use of the phrases ‘promoting the best women in London’ and ‘networking events’, and then I read this: 

“We’ve been getting  hacked off with feminism telling us what we can’t do, and we wanted to celebrate all the exciting, brilliant things modern women are doing. All ‘women who do’ are welcome at The Other Club, Bunnies to Barristers.

After my practical reasons for declining I wrote this in my reply: 

One other thing, having read the links you sent me. “We’ve been getting  hacked off with feminism telling us what we can’t do…” This strikes me as divisive and intellectually lazy (at best). Feminism has never told women what they can’t do. Some individuals have. To make feminisim the enemy is to denigrate the movement that has for a very long time done battle against real forces that have always sought to tell women what they can’t do.

The lack of historical, social and political perspective on the feminist movement is not just thoughtless and a calumny. It uses the movement which has achieved so much for women, and recognizes how much is still left to do, as a cartoon prop for preening and self-promotion. Some of the events they are putting on are interesting, and a club for women to eat, drink, talk and enjoy themselves is an excellent idea. But if they really believe that they are producing a feminism-free venue for women, they need to think harder and better. Why, if feminism is irrelevent, should there be a need for a women’s club at all? I am really tired of those younger women who  think they are beyond feminism. In truth, they haven’t even begun to approach it.