My books and other animals…


Old friends should never be treated like this: interned in sunless corners,  jammed upright  until their spines crumble; bandaged,  but with half their pages  inexplicably  missing.My  books were freed recently by the arrival  of our  exuberant Westie wallpaperer and so ended up in piles all over the  house.  But in them  we  found   reunions everywhere.   Joyous  little moments  in the   disarray  of  what   were loosely  called bookshelves as  we rediscovered titles we hadn’t seen for years.

Behind  the Brysons, all six of them,   lay books in  that  earlier vein,  the Durrells, Lawrence and  Gerald, though  Gerald’s  much loved My Family And Other Animals   came without   its first 50 pages despite being   patched and sellotaped.  It was like reaching out to  greet an old friend  only to  realise that his hand had been amputated.    It  was a  shock remedied by  re-reading older brother Lawrence’s hilarious depictions of  stuffy British diplomats in Esprit de Corps,  and paging through James Thurber’s  cartoons  with  their quirky punch lines. (If I called  the wrong  number why did you answer?!)

All this shuffling of  books makes you realise  how much they reflect  not just taste, but stages of life.  In the distant past they began with  Just  William and  yes,  The Famous Five. Then childhood adventure books  followed by the post war  flood of  books  about  heroic struggles on land, sea and air.

Yet those  which remain most memorable  are  singular  –   All Quiet on the Western Front  and Martha Gellhorn’s  The Face of War. Gellhorn  takes readers to the frontline because she was so  often there.  She wrote  with  disarming and damning   simplicity.  In Finland when the Russians began  bombing  Helsinki in 1939,  she filed this:

War  started at nine o’clock promptly. The people of Helsinki  stood in the streets and  listened to the painful rising and always louder wail of the siren.  For the  first time in history they heard bombs falling on their city…

That morning Helsinki was a frozen city inhabited by sleepwalkers. The war had come too fast and all the  faces and all the eyes looked stunned  and disbelieving…

In another rite  of passage,  we travelled grimly through our Russian period,  from Crime and Punishment,  and  Anna Karenina to  A day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch and then on to  something Anglophilic and  lighter – the sunshine of cricket, averages (bowling and batting) and  the greats of the game.

The  collections from my old  trade –  journalism – grew with  books  written  long before  digital  when deadlines mattered –  but  when  the  road to the story was allowed to meander. Imagine this happening today:  In 1947  James Cameron, one of the best  of the 20th century’s British  foreign correspondents, was reporting on the imminent dissection  of India before Independence.

He and Premier Nehru had met before,  and had  found a  common  love in horse-riding.  So in Simla where the talks between  Pakistan’s founder Jinnah, Nehru and Gandhi  were  held, they both saddled up at dawn and  rode  for  five  miles  together until they reached  Gandhi’s  bungalow…

Cameron reported on what the  powerful were doing at Simla  but he could also  effortlessly evoke  everyday Bombay  of his  days:

We took a hair-raising taxi ride into the city. The rush hour traffic of Bombay is a nightmare –  not from dementia, as in Tokyo, nor from exuberance, as in Rome;  not from malice, as it is in Paris; it is a chaos  rooted in years of practised  confusion, absent-mindedness, selfishness, inertia, and  an incomplete understanding of mechanics. 

 There are no discernible rules.  The little Fiat cabs are old, but not as old as they appear; a few years of the Bombay free-for-all have aged them beyond their years.  Our taxi’s bumper was tied on with wire; the steering  wheel had a play of  about  fifty degrees. It also appeared to be firing on about one and a half cylinders, and the driver had difficulty in maintaining any  revolutions. 

In consequence when he achieved any momentum he was reluctant to lose it,  so that  we would always swerve rather than brake, with a steady obligato on the horn.  Everything went too fast for safety, too slowly for speed.

The pedestrians abounded, swarming like  white butterflies in  vague suicidal trances,  either in violent conversation, or in mindless reverie. A place of especial peril  was  the striped pedestrian  crossing. On  approaching one of these sanctuaries the drivers  crowded on  an extra spurt of speed and charged across, horns blaring…

And then in a curious homecoming,  books on  Godzone – histories   pictorial and  otherwise. This was perhaps a sentimental journey  back to the New Zealand we  once knew, and lost.  Sometimes it feels as if  baby boomers  like us have lived in two  New  Zealands –  the one before 1984 and this other,   often alien present.

But now our cheery Westie has  gone and the books have found new homes in enlarged bookcases which lend themselves to  gazing – and perhaps  turning a page or two here and there….

Memo self: Get a life. (And buy a new copy of My Family And Other Animals!)

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.