Touched by the Printed Word

First published on Feb. 25th, 2009
I learned to read at my grandmother’s knee, at four years old. We used a Victorian primer, Reading without Tears: it proved itself worthy of the name and I worked through it in a few days, mostly on my own. I remember being frustrated with the word “parlour” near the book’s end: a word I’d never heard spoken, but which I could have recited anyway, if only it had been spelt “parlor” in the American fashion. I was to reading as a duck is to water.

Thereafter I read everything that came my way. I’d arrived from Australia to an England of bomb sites and frugality, the War being only just over. In my grandmother’s house toilet paper was not supplied, only sheets of appropriate size torn from old copies of the Radio Times. I would never use a sheet without first reading its contents both sides. The text was ideal for this purpose, mainly consisting of brief listings of the three wireless channels: The Home Service, The Light Programme, The Third Programme; corresponding respectively to talk; light music and entertainment; classical music, high-brow talk and literature. By today’s standards, all three were high-brow, for the BBC believed passionately in public service, support for the arts and the role of the educated classes in edifying the masses. You could say I was touched by the highest culture at a tender age, and for that matter in a tender place.

But if you were to ask me what, during my childhood, were my favourite books, I don’t know how I could respond. You might as well ask a sponge to name its favourite liquid. What is a favourite book? Perhaps it’s (a) the one I am reading now; (b) the one that I will be sorry to finish; (c) the one I would turn to in troubled times like a trusty friend; (d) the book I would like to quote from the most extensively.

Blogger, that department of Google which allows us free of charge to each have our own private/public Blogspot (invented by some genius but absorbed by Google a few years ago), has a feature allowing us to enter a profile which includes a list of favourite books or films. When you have written your list and saved it, you can click on each item to find out how many other bloggers have made the same choice, and even see them listed so you can click on each one to visit their blogs.

Till now, I have kept my profile minimal, wishing to be characterized only by the posts themselves and the comments they spawn. But lately I’ve started to put in some entries into the favourite books and films sections.

When you do this, you can discover how many other Blogger bloggers have made the same choice. I’m the only one to have nominated The Anatolian Smile, directed by Elia Kazan in 1963; but it was released in certain countries as America, America, so when I put that title in, I discover that 148 other members of Blogger (they don’t all have blogs) have chosen the same film, almost all Indian or Greek. Perhaps it was they who empathized most with the hero’s (Kazan’s uncle’s) yearning to emigrate to a land of infinite promise. Then I entered one of my current reading-books, The Mirror of the Sea, by Joseph Conrad. No one else in the Bloggersphere has selected it.

My copy was given as a prize for Geography to Dorothy Vera May in July 1930 by the Governors of Orme Girls’ School, Newcastle, Staffordshire. She’d be about 96 now, and may have treasured the book (whether or not she actually read it) till the day she died and her relatives cleared out her personal possessions to dispose of them in the charity shop where I found the book. It’s still in print though, or you can read it online via Project Gutenberg, to whom, and especially to the transcriber David Price, I am grateful for being able to copy and paste this extract:

The unholy fascination of dread dwells in the thought of the last moments of a ship reported as “missing” in the columns of the Shipping Gazette. Nothing of her ever comes to light–no grating, no lifebuoy, no piece of boat or branded oar–to give a hint of the place and date of her sudden end. The Shipping Gazette does not
even call her “lost with all hands.” She remains simply “missing”; she has disappeared enigmatically into a mystery of fate as big as the world, where your imagination of a brother-sailor, of a fellow-servant and lover of ships, may range unchecked.

And yet sometimes one gets a hint of what the last scene may be like in the life of a ship and her crew, which resembles a drama in its struggle against a great force bearing it up, formless, ungraspable, chaotic and mysterious, as fate.

It was on a gray afternoon in the lull of a three days’ gale that had left the Southern Ocean tumbling heavily upon our ship, under a sky hung with rags of clouds that seemed to have been cut and hacked by the keen edge of a sou’-west gale.

Our craft, a Clyde-built barque of 1,000 tons, rolled so heavily that something aloft had carried away. No matter what the damage was, but it was serious enough to induce me to go aloft myself with a couple of hands and the carpenter to see the temporary repairs properly done.

Sometimes we had to drop everything and cling with both hands to the swaying spars, holding our breath in fear of a terribly heavy roll. . . .

It’s a favourite by all the criteria I listed above, (a) to (d). English wasn’t Conrad’s native language but his mastery of it shows all the more strongly in this piece of non-fiction: reflections on his seafaring days, the characters, the incidents, the passionate nostalgia that makes even the bad times seem good:

One seems to have known gales as enemies, and even as enemies one embraces them in that affectionate regret which clings to the past.

Then he goes on to express the different character of each gale. Here is one:

It was off the Horn. For a true expression of dishevelled wildness there is nothing like a gale in the bright moonlight of a high latitude.
. . .
Above our heads the explosive booming gusts of wind passed continuously, justifying the sailor’s saying “It blows great guns.” And just from that need of human companionship, being very close to the man, I said, or rather shouted:

“Blows very hard, boatswain.”

His answer was:

“Ay, and if it blows only a little harder things will begin to go. I don’t mind as long as everything holds, but when things begin to go it’s bad.”

This is the kind of writing I aspire to. It’s not that he romanticizes the last days of commercial sail, or converts his nostalgia into heroics and sentimentalism. On the contrary, his every observation is sensitive to the humdrum, the inadequacies of men, the symbolism of birth, life and death implicit in every voyage, from departure to landfall.

To me, what it’s really about is the sacredness of human endeavour when etched in stark outline against the wild elements.

I know I can be just as moved by the events in my own life, today and yesterday. This reminds me of another favourite book (I’m surprised to discover it’s been put back in print last year, perhaps encouraged by a review I wrote a few years ago): John Cowper Powys’ first novel Wood and Stone. His chapter entitled “The Pariahs” starts with describing an eccentric recluse:

Mr Quincunx was digging in his garden. . . . Every now and then Mr Quincunx would leave his work: and retiring into his kitchen, proceed with elaborate nicety to stir a small pot of broth which simmered over the fire. . . . The lighting of his fire in the morning, the crackling of the burning sticks, and their fragrant smell, gave Mr Quincunx probably as much pleasure as anything else in the world.


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