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!)