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‘Ils ont oui les clliochs des egllises de paraisse.’
(They have heard the bells of the parish churches.)
Almost as if a great god somewhere has sighed, and in that celestial outpouring a reluctant nip tide rolls slowly into the waiting bay, the turpentine water oily in its steady flow to the still silent shore, the stars above suddenly revealed in ordered reflection one by one, as if some determined and crazed child is dragging them down from heaven, one by one, and stamping them in a fit of awesome childish rage into the water, one by one, until the new ocean upon the shore is awash with the sparkling stuff of heaven.
And then that child, and that great god appear satisfied with their insane but steady work.
But the day has yet begun over the Bay of Bouley.
Somewhere in that bleak break of reluctant dawn a black crow of no particular distinction reluctantly coughs, it is but the phlegm of the dark night before, a mere and momentary irritant, but in that same moment it is the sweet moment of a prehistoric dawn; for that small, insignificant but almighty irritant cough of black bird becomes the cataclysmic catalyst for the greatest universal linkage of blood, sweat and tears known to the known universe, for that solitary black bird of ill-repute is coughing up its direct connectivity to the Nordic and Norman pirates that once strode mighty foot in this mighty bay. Nay, more than that, much more than that. Older still, in the plagues and pains of time itself, cunningly captured by the giant silent stones that sentinel stand, put there by some whim or fancy that once plagued the very souls of those who gazed upon them in a time when the very stars above them occupied totally different slices of the night sky that we mere mortals know now.
That black bird knows them too. Knows them well. Old and firm friends. A goodly perch doth a standing stone make for a black bird of little but rare distinction.
He knows the dreamtime; when ice covered the bay; when fire rained down from the sky; he knew, and knows them all, even when the hills melted red and flowed into the bay, he was there, and he counted them all one by one.
He was, and still is, the cold black eye of evolution. A black lurker in the black shadows of time itself.
And his cough is the cosmic starting pistol that breaks the dawn of everyday. One by one.
Then like a rolling electric storm comes the rest, a thousand motley crows coughing and barking at the rising sun as it tips the crest of the once melted, molten hills of the bay; and where there was dark there is suddenly light, and then as if that same great god had flicked some hidden switch the countless crows flap as one sweet unit – with lazy oaths – into the solar flares of a warming sun like a careless pack of cards thrown into the sky… and head east.
Not one by one, but as a distressed but still dynamic pack of black varmints with their blunt and crude airframes gaily carving up an almost blue sky like wild black print fonts let loose on an escape artist’s canvas ambitions.
As the crow flies. Due east.
And why east? Why you may ask, for master mariners as great as the great Vasco have pondered that same riddle for long centuries with no resolve. It is but a crow’s nest. So called because the navigators of old released crows to find land, fine if you want to travel east. If you want to, and many didn’t, and still don’t.
Some birds fall by the wayside, tempted by grub, worm or bright shiny thing that catches a black solitary roving eye in an open field, but a good three hundred make the good course, and land on the beach that is as east as a crow can fly without dipping its iridescent plumage into the lazy sea that it knows not, for it, that black beast of god’s perfection comes from the west, and not the east.
They settle, count them if you will, one by one, and you will make three hundred jet black corsairs there on that beach, and they settle from the witches rock to the landing place of long dead invading army. Up coast awhile… and there they sit, like comical black statuettes awaiting some strange signal from the east, there they sit, the counting crows, one by one.
It is a signal unbeknown to the likes of you and me, for we carry not the evolutionary medicinal function that allows the simple perception of ‘time’ that the counting crows have inherited – along with the damned sky – for they hear the dreamtime, cast in the long lost bells which once shook them from their trees afore every dawn, as each parish peeled the dark night from its skin with the sound of the souls of each parish ringing the bells to wake the dawn, afore it struck.
You and me may strike a bell, but only a crow can strike a dawn.
That was, and still is, a lesson.
But the poor souls of each and every parish sought to exercise the demon in their midst, by ringing their bells afore the dawn, catch the devil on the hop so to speak, drive him to the next parish if you like… and the crows watched, and counted, one by one.
Counted the bells that no longer rung for the dawn that would never come. Shipped to foreign port for base and crass profit, the bells served their false masters better melted down, like the hills of the bay so many ages before, molten and melted into the sea.
But the crows wished up a sudden storm, as wild corsairs can do, and buried that wooden boat beneath the sea, just in sight of land, and the bells sank with her. But when the tide turns, as tides do, then it glances wistfully upon those three hundred bells and a signal is sent, automatically you must please understand, to the three hundred crows on the beach.
That signal is a peel of bells.
And the crows count every one of them, one by one.
NB. In 1550 the parish bells of Jersey were sold to the French to raise money for fortifications against the…French. Legend has it that the ship carrying the bells sank in St Malo harbour in a sudden storm or tempest.
The crows want the bells back.
So do I.
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In the small Staffordshire village where I live there once lived a local conservative politician named Tarquin Seabag-Anatole. The villagers were already highly suspicious of him because he had various physical deformities – specifically, one leg shorter than the other, a hump on his back and only one eye – all as a result of upper-crust in-breeding, and not suffered during military service to his country, as he always tried to uphold.
His political oratories were infused with what the townsfolk knew were absolute blatant lies. He would often suggest they’d never had it so good, when in reality many of them struggled to even put food on their tables. It was for this reason they laughingly nicknamed him “Too True Tarquin” and often pelted the gargoyle with rotten eggs, shouting “bastard” whenever he showed his gnarled features in public. The simple fact was the local people didn’t accept him as their representative because the iniquitous bastard didn’t even live amongst them. He lived on an enormous, country estate nestled amongst trees on the edge of town. His grand house sat on a hillside overlooking the town’s market-place with great pomposity.
Too True Tarquin was also an aspiring author. But so bad were his literary dribblings it was never expected that his works would see the light of day. No publisher wanted to know. In fact, the abysmal offering he attempted to pass off as a novel was so poor, unbeknownst to Tarquin Seabag-Anatole; it relegated his standing in the community to that of the village idiot. However, with the advent of the internet his writings were suddenly given an international platform. Many of the locals noted that a marked number of internet trolls around the world were beginning to eagerly look forward to the serialised blog version of his novel that his nasty little fingers were industriously tapping out each week.
The locals were extremely concerned and formed a committee forthwith. The committee met at the local pub one evening where it was decided something had to be done before a greedy major publisher were to notice the seven-hundred and fifty-thousand visitors to his blog. After all, quality didn’t matter to them, they were only interested in the sound of the cash register; and the last thing the townsfolk needed was this scumbag being given a soapbox for his bullshit.
The following evening a group of men from the village waited until nightfall before lighting torches and marching up the hill, through the trees, and surrounding the hated politician’s mansion. They shouted for him to come out like a man and when he refused they set fire to the house, sending the coward screaming from his back door like a little girl. It was here that another division of the peoples’ committee lay in wait and seized upon his spineless being. From here it was that they dragged him kicking and screaming back down the hill and all the way to the town square. Ignoring his pleas for mercy and empty promises of bread and fish-a-plenty for everyone they held him aloft and tossed him down the well.
Sometime in the early 1940′s, a woman named Pauline Coomer traveled from Kentucky to a small town in middle Tennessee called Gainesboro, where she wound up working for my maternal great-grandparents on their small tobacco farm. My great-grandparents gave Pauline a place to live in exchange for killing chickens, cooking daily meals for the farmhands, washing, sewing, and whatever other drudgery needed tending. After both my great-grandparents passed on, the era deemed it unacceptable for Pauline to live on the farm alone with the town drunk, otherwise known as one of my great-grand uncles. She had no where else to go, so she moved in with my grandparents. The transition proved difficult.
Shunning any full time working-the-land-legacy, my grandfather become a teacher; my grandmother worked as a secretary for the state, gathering information for adoptions and other services. My granddad kept a garden up at the farm with a few animals, but never to the extent my great-grandparents did. While not fancy, their lifestyle differed radically from the farm, which Pauline missed. I also think she missed my drunk great uncle, though I know little about that. Sometimes, she’d ride out to the farm with my grandparents to help them do chores. At home, she kept busy by working her fingers to the bone and bossing around the rest of the house. She cleaned, cooked, and looked after the kids, one of whom was my mother. She also raised cain when my grandparents disciplined the children. When I was born, Pauline came to live with us. Family history says this happened because moms need help with newborns, but I overheard snippets here and there about how Pauline drove my grandmother bonkers with all her “interfering”. So, off she went.
My parents were young professionals and it was the 1970′s; growing up, Dad’s most cherished crop was whatever food he and his siblings could gather in the slums of Chattanooga, a factory town on the Tennessee River. To say he knew nothing about farming or the kind of rural life Pauline led would be an understatement that deserved an award for being so understated, but both he and my mother felt that Pauline would be happier with us.
What does this have to do with why I like books?
Well, Pauline was an orphan; in the early 1900′s, her mother ran off with a man, leaving her tied to a rocking chair. Her dad went to prison for some minor offense; her brother, Jesse, run over and killed by a drunk World War I veteran. Pauline didn’t even know her birthday. When she went to my great-grandparents, someone decided to celebrate it on May 8th. Later, my grandmother estimated her year of birth as 1903, based on old Kentucky school records. Apparently, Pauline attended school for a short time, then dropped out to survive. Her whole life was just back-breaking work.
Sounds like a Faulkner novel.
Anyway, Pauline adjusted to life with us well, mostly because of me. My great drunk uncle had passed, and any pining away ended. She spent a lot of time fussing over me, growing to love me as her own. My parents never asked her to lift a finger, but like she did with my grandparents, she insisted on cleaning and cooking to make things nice, especially for me. Easier to let her do as she pleased than to argue; the word “stubborn” fails to capture a tenth of it, my non-farming father soon learned. Pauline had a way to do things, and she did them despite what anyone else wanted. Honestly, I am glad she cooked, otherwise I wouldn’t have the memories of her homemade rolls, greens, or fried chicken, seasoned just right. She fried little homemade pies with fruit filling made by hand, and stuffed me well before my parents even got a sniff. She let me do just about anything, but if I got too far out of line, she’d pull a switch from a tree in the yard and swat my legs. That rarely happened, though. If my father or mother so much as looked at me with a sneer, she was on it. I lolled away the days happily— I spent hours singing into a mirror while a Barry Manilow 45 spun (I know, and please forgive me), playing dress-up in my favorite aunt’s old clothes, performing mini talent shows for anyone who would watch, getting dizzy on Sit ‘N Spin, and enjoying books.
Mom and dad always read to me. Dad also concocted outrageous tales, including one about me escaping from the hospital as a newborn, then driving to Florida in a stolen car. I loved just about anything to do with adventure and make believe, which probably explains a lot about how I became an actor and writer. They all encouraged it, including Pauline. She clapped at my untalented talent shows, told me stories about working on the farm, and gave me old yellow or brown towels to drape over my pixie cut so I could pretend to be a woman with long blond or brown hair. Sometimes, I put a rubber band on the towel, and brushed the “ponytail” while she read to me. We’d sit together on the couch; she’d open a book, studying the pictures before launching into the tale. I always asked for repeats of my favorites but with her, the story changed from reading to reading. I always noticed, and always corrected: “That’s not what you said the first time,” or “That’s not what happens,” or something equally annoying. She fixed it quickly, moving on to the next correction.
All the focus on books helped me read early. I particularly enjoyed taking turns reading, but when I took turns with Pauline, I noticed the words she said didn’t match the words on the page. Every time she messed up, I tried to correct her, and every time, I failed. It confounded me, so I asked mom about it. Mom explained that I needed to be nice, because Pauline never learned to read or write. I proclaimed that I’d teach her, but mom said that wouldn’t be possible. Mom said she was a “little off” mentally.
Excuse my French, but the reason why is that Pauline was not just a little off, but crazy as a shithouse rat.
With age, I realized this myself. Really, I guess it’s not surprising to be crazy after such a life. Who knows what happened to Pauline; big chunks of her existence remain a mystery. But for some reason, she simply couldn’t be taught to read, as my grandmother and others had tried to help her. Their efforts resulted in a lot of frustration, huge tantrums, or extended silent sulking on Pauline’s part.
Not being able to read meant she learned to navigate the world in other ways. When she lived on the farm, she developed methods like weighing things to make sure door-to-door sales people didn’t cheat my great grandparents. She cut the edges off of small product boxes, and asked whoever to write down a needed phone number on one side. When she wanted to make a call, she’d ask someone to find the one she needed, then match the numbers on the phone to the numbers on the cut-off edge. She kept those phone numbers bound with a rubber band around her glasses case, the same case that held the glasses never used for reading. Naturally, outrageous beliefs developed from years of wandering around with other people who didn’t know a damn thing. She warned me that strings on bananas contain poison: I carefully de-string each banana before consumption to this day, even though I know better. Often, she admitted she had no idea what year it was, even if told a few hours earlier. She didn’t understand how babies were made, but being naked with a man was bad. Any concept of a bigger world completely eclipsed her; if i talked about going overseas, she asked if that was nearby.
It didn’t matter, though. She guarded me, and later my brother, like a mama bear. Her love knew no bounds. She watched us from the window as we played, and cuddled us at night. She slipped us treats and quarters, because they seemed like a lot of money to her. She was family to us—family that thought soap operas were real and who told us she knew where the kidnappers were holding the character Roman Brady from Days of Our Lives, though it wasn’t her business to interfere, but family all the same. And yes, I tried endless times to explain that TV wasn’t real, which always lead to this:
“Well, I know I see it!”
Crazy and illiterate, but my protector and encourager, even though she knew not what she encouraged me to do. She just wanted me to be happy. I could have killed chickens, or read the classics. Whatever made me happy made her happy. She loved me. I loved her. I love her. She wouldn’t even be able to read her tombstone. In my version of the afterlife, she does.
That’s why I like books.
My personal experience with books began before I remember, but the first I remember is a story about a tiger lost in the woods. This was followed by a longtime love of Uncle Remus and Grimm’s Three Billy Goats Gruff, where my father provided the voices, and I yearned for him to read them over and over, again and again.
Once I got to school, story time on the rug was my favorite. I fell in love with Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, and Lois Lowry. For all the young adult books I read, no one could ever replace Beverly Cleary and most of all, her character Ramona Quimby. Like me, Ramona was clumsy, curious and had great imagination. I was sure Ramona was the best girl I would ever meet. She and I are still friends to this day, although at times I must share her with my daughters.
As a child, my parents must have taken me to hundreds of games and races, where I would hide out in the loft of our RV, turning the pages of The Very Busy World of Richard Scary, coloring cut-out characters and play-acting with the stories. “Always with her nose in a book!” became a way for my parents to describe me, lamenting to their friends about my pallor.
In adolescence, reading was no longer about tests of comprehension or who was in which ability group. I saw fewer and fewer students reading, and as a result, I set myself apart as a reader. I traded well-loved books with classmates for whom I had no particular affection.
One summer I read every book my mother had on her bookshelf, after which, she was forced to take me to get a library card.
On outings with my parents, I took books. Instead of banal comments on how big I’d gotten, or what grade I was in now, the books offered themselves up as a platform. “Oh! You know, if you like Gone with the Wind, you’ve got to read John Jakes!” Friends of my parents would pile my arms with books, delighted to see a young person reading.
I didn’t have great beauty, a social butterfly personality, and I certainly had no aptitude for sports — but I was a great reader. Books would long entertain me while my best friend tried on clothes for modeling school, or while I sat in the bleachers at games for boys I’d liked.
In a recent conversation amongst bibliophiles, it was revealed to me that I do not worship the books themselves the way others might. Oh yes, I love the smell of old books. I, too, relish the first bend in the spine of a hardback, with its delicious crackling. But I do not treat books with high reverence for their physicality. My books are bent, dog-eared, highlighted, written in, and occasionally stained by strong coffee or tea. I’m no stranger to falling asleep in one, waking up with pages stuck to my face. The book, to me, is a conduit of the writer’s words. I want to escape into words. I want to be where the words fill my head with images, intrigue and ideas.
My own bookshelves are libraries, with some books borrowed, some on loan and some, I suspect, that will never be returned.
I like books because every book is a unique experience. To be enraptured by a piece of literature is as close as I can come to living as an entirely different being, in an environment which is different from my own. For a few hours a day, I am transported deep into an unfamiliar city, a foreign jungle, or even an undiscovered plane. My mind can experience adventures in which I would never place my own body. While I read a writer’s voice, I am male or female, human or animal, alien or observer. It doesn’t matter the period or setting of a book; while I read I am not myself, yet I find the universal truths between the writer and myself. Books we read redefine the spectrum of our minds. With each piece, we are expanded and included into the combined human experience.
Books have always just been there. Loads of them, spilling over their allotted space on shelves, stored in the garage, the loft and the spare room in my family’s house.
My most intense memories of my mother are of her reading to me, which she did each night at bedtime when I was a child. I was number 4 so how she found time I don’t know. She read House at Pooh Corner, and did the voices. Somehow it was just understood that she was Kanga and I was Roo. When I had children of my own and read to them I found myself doing the same.
I remember learning to read with my dad, my finger underlining the words, struggling and failing to read ZEPHYR, and his explanation, telling me it was a kind of wind. Later he would creep down the stairs in the dead of night, cricket bat held aloft ready to bludgeon to death the burglar who had disturbed his sleep only to discover my sister in her nightie and spectacles, reading by the light of the fridge.
These days I have few books, I just don’t seem to need to keep many of them after I’ve read them. You could be forgiven for thinking I don’t care for books at all if you consider the condition of those I do keep. I love the comfortable crunch of bending back the spine of a new book in anticipation of a great read, folding corners, eating corners, reading in the bath till the pages corrugate. I love giving books away, leaving them on airplane seats for some other traveller to find, swapping them on holiday, fishing pages out of the pool.
As a teenager I would love to eat an apple and read under the covers with a torch long after lights out. Some might consider my habit of writing phone numbers, or a word to be looked up for definition in the fly leaf as undesirable.
When I think about why books are important to me and how they have influenced me though my life I realised how many memories and defining times are accompanied by books of some sort or another, from the magical and cherished stories of my childhood to teenage sex education with my peers in the school library at lunchtimes where we would giggle over the strange homunculus diagram with his giant hands and cock. In my later teens and twenties, alone with Nancy Friday and Anais Nin, the Delta of Venus was my bible. I tore through the pages of Red Dragon Trilogy in terror, the first time a book scared me half to death so I couldn’t turn the light off to go to sleep.
I learned what wasn’t taught to me in school about my country’s history, the story of the expansion of Europe and our crimes against other peoples. I satisfied my curiosity about the political history of the Middle East, and of Israel’s grotesque and complex relationship with USA and the west by reading Saed and Norman Finkelstein. How else could I have been educated by an Arab and a Jew? My father believed that the difference between not being able to read, and being able to read and not reading was..no difference. Reading is freedom. The books I have on my shelves now are the ones I never quite finish with. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With Wolves, and Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements, for advice and comfort. To Kill A Mocking Bird, because I can re-read it and never get sick of it. A couple of James Thurbers, because he is funny and I like his weird little illustrations. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, because I might get around to reading it one day. And a hundred billion cookery books, their pages stuck together with scraps of dough and cake batter like well used porn mags.
Books have guided, comforted, distracted, amused, confused me. They have provided hot meals and hot sex and I have been illuminated, edified, terrified and comforted. I’ve left reading at busier times in my life but always always come back to curling up with a book . Reading is a solitary process, it is an important part of my relationship with myself and the time I create to live in my head and expand my universe.
From where I’m sat in my front room, on the right of the bay window I can see a pile of four books. There’s a Tim Vine joke book. I usually buy a myself a joke book at Christmas, a kind of reserve fund of emergency fun. There’s a baking book from a popular TV show, a gift from me to my hopefully some-time flour fingered girl. Then from a charity shop for a pound, Talking About Cakes With an Irish and Scottish Accent, a sixties recipe book once homed, I can tell by the stamp, at Bishop Burton Institute of Agriculture. Top of the pile is the latest wannabe Po Ballantyne- Kem Nunn – cod Bukowski – Alex Garland baloney, it might be good, it might be good.
Then on the sofa is a chunky Bloodaxe anthology, with many bookmarked poems. Also on the sofa, is a witty but ultimately too verbose and pretentious book about the paraphernalia of everyday objects. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. Best, so far, on top of the pile, on the sofa is the beautifully jacketed, The Following Game, a father and son biography written by Jonathon Smith, father of the England cricketer Ed. I won’t say more about this particular book here, but that I tend not to have a middle ground with books, I either hate them because the author can’t write or it is the most fantastic brilliant book I’ve ever read. The Following Game falls into the latter. It’s terrific. I loved it.
Why are books important to me?
I was going to walk around the house a bit and tell you about the little piles. Say by my computer, under the phone a book of the history of soul music, an anthology of Hull poets that I edited or the pile in front of the fire place in the kitchen, but I need to get to the question, why are books important to me and I will in time.
There is a reason the books are on the sofa and by the curtain on the floor and the reason is my book cases are full. This is a complete guess, but we might have 4000 say, ish. My brother came round once and said jocularly, “Gosh, imagine how long it will take you to read them all.” I never said anything. My wife and I shared a guilty look with each other. You see, I have read them all, and then some. We don’t keep many of the books we buy, we pass them on to charity. But we, ok I, keep some. I’ll keep Fante, by Dan Fante and no ones’s having my copy of 86’d and I’ll keep The Following Game, or give it to a very good friend, these are the books that are important to me.
Here’s me, early forties book cases full, always a book on the go, bibliophile, writer, editor, runner of small press from kitchen. That’s me.
My dad. Champion darts player, student of the sport of kings, avid reader of The Sporting Life and race day Tote cards. Books. I can honestly say I never saw my dad read a book ever. Some people are non-readers. Is that the right term? He could read. He chose not to, or never chose too.
Why are books important to me? Well as TV becomes increasingly unbearable, actually let’s not say books are good cos TVs shite.
You can buy a book, say Magnus Mills, Joseph Roth, Irvine Welsh or Simon Armitage and, it’s like it’s your book. Our lives are made of songs we’ve heard, films we’ve seen, our experiences. But books give us much more don’t they? This year I’m going to Croatia, for real. But I could go on countless holidays, through books. That’s bullshit; which reminds me of the brilliant Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Books eh. They can transport you, but let’s face it, I’d rather have a shag than read about it.
There’s nothing that makes me feel like I belong as a good book. It’s the thrill of connection. I always loved the Big Country song, Harvest; You came like a view across the factory floor with the sun and moon as gifts, but the only suns you ever saw, were the two he left you with. I love Jeff Torrington, Philip Levine, William Wantling, Ben Hamper and Geoff Hattersley because they wrote about work, what it does to you. They make me feel like I’m not alone. They say something to me about my life and that’s important. When I left school I worked in a factory.
There’s more though, I love Magnus Mills, Charles Simic and Hrabal and I really love Vallgren’s, The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot His Wonderful Love and Terrible Hatred. These are books of real abracadabra magic, switch off the telly, switch off the phone, crash out on the sofa with a bottle of wine. What a joy, and it’s all to do with the search, the discovery, the thrill of the chase, the wonder of possibility. There are no borders in the land of fiction, no perimeters on the realm of the imagination and it’s this that is magical and each night I read to my eight year old son, Dan.
At the moment we are reading, Martin The Warrior, a sort of three musketeers where all the characters are rats, mice, ferrets, stoats, squirrels and there’s usually a badger and a hare. I enjoy it and I want to inculcate into my son the thought that in each book is a story.
Why are books important?
I want Dan and Holly to have this, this, I suppose self sufficiency. Ok, you’ve got your book, you can stop and start whenever you want, you can re-read. It’s better than TV, which insofar, says it’s good entertainment, but not why they are important?
Let’s say something political. The idealist egalitarian in me believes that in an ideal world there would be an equality of opportunity. The easiest way to redress inequality of opportunity is education. Central to most forms of education are books. Read them and learn.
Not only did my father not read, none of us did. When I left school I had no love of books, reading possibly, comics definitely, but books, no. My dad was on the dole, or on sickness benefit. I was on a YTS. I was playing football, watching Manu and dancing to Kajagoogoo.
Something happened. A lot of things happened. When I was eighteen I liked football, I liked camping, getting away from it all. I’d left school with one O level and I started to realise, when all my friends were getting four or five A levels that I needed to do something. I don’t know how to write this story. I met a girl, hippy Sarah, I fell in love and she fell in love with me at least for a short while. Sarah was feisty, argumentative. She told me to go to college. I was a DJ, Tim and Pete, we had a mobile disco, Itchy Feet. She said we’d never escape York. My dad died.
I wanted a better life. I wired up lamps from Taiwan and packed them up with lampshades and sent them to Habitat and John Lewis. I wanted the suit, the car, the life. So I went to York College of Arts and Technology and did a BTEC in Business and Finance.
Ok ok ok sometimes you have to say one thing to say another. Why are books important to me? I did my BTEC, then I went to University.
This image comes to my mind. I’m a dedicated and determined student, I’m in the University library and I see a book, Enderby (I’m 22ish) I decide to read it and see what it’s like. Anyone that knows me and Enderby must know it made me swoon. Then I read Illywhacker, by Peter Carey. What a book!
And maybe that’s it? I was at uni with clever people, we all read books and I never stopped. There’s more. Or there’s something else. I spent my evenings listening to night time radio and on the radio Mark Radcliffe used to have guest poets. I won’t say too much here, but I discovered Martin Wiley, Joolz, Ian MacMillan and Simon Armitage. I remember Billy Bragg on the radio reading Patrick Kavanagh and am I misremembering this? Kate Bush reading W.B. Yeats. So I picked up a Yeats collection, I tried Tennyson, my tastes were being developed, I was starting to explore. I read Duncton Wood.
I went to college and uni to make my life better. I needed to read books to get my degree. While still to this day, I’m on a low wage, which diminishes the idealist egalitarian in me, I still believe it’s up to us. It’s up to me. We have to take positive steps to make our lives better. I’d never regret for one second my personal push and still, I only need to get one better job, then I’ll be richer…
I need to say just a couple more things. Firstly I did some training to be a psychotherapist. Oh, the books I read. The existentialism of Rollo May and the terrific Irvin Yalom and the Logotherapy of Viktor Frankl. When I was learning how to help others, these were the guys I turned to. They said the most, in the clearest way.
So books are important, they not only teach us about life, they teach us how to help. A doctor may read a book, to save a life. Books give us knowledge and information, just think how useful dictionaries are!
So that’s that bit. I wanted to say too. I read books because I think they are cool. I like Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim, Willy Vlautin and Knut Hamsun. Real cool cats and it’s important to be cool, to have cool books. The funny thing is though, I think Geoff Hattersley is cool and Lorna Thorpe. Joseph Roth and Geoff Hattersley say more to me about existentialism than Camus and Wittgenstein, Geoff, who comes like a view from the Barnsley factory floor… but his voice isn’t heard enough and not enough people read Simon Armitage and what about, The Horse Burning Park by Mark Robinson?
“If you want an education, drop out of school and join a library.” Frank Zappa
I learned to read at an early age and once I did I wanted to read everything. I approached every new book with a sense of adventure. I couldn’t wait to open it and go through the pages. I can remember something that happened during the school holidays when I was nine or ten. I took a mystery novel by Alfred Hitchcock out of the local library one morning, read it, and dashed back to return it and get another book about a quarter of an hour before the place closed at 7 pm. It was a blow to learn that it was against the rules to return a book on the same day it had been taken out. It meant I had nothing new to read that evening, as children were only allowed to take out one book at a time.
All this reading made me, I suppose, something of an oddball in my family. My parents weren’t literary people. My father was a steelworker. Both he and my mother encouraged me to read though, and were proud of the way I could whizz through “grown-up” by the time I was eleven. I must have been a clever and studious boy. I had no enthusiasm for formal education though and hated the boys’ grammar school I was forced to attend. I was very wilful and would only read what I wanted to. I think the emphasis upon formal education and attaining qualifications is one of the things most wrong with our society. No one seems to know how to follow their own nose any more, hence they’ll never end up in an unusual place.
By the time I was in my late teens I was working on the night shift in a warehouse and spending all my spare time reading. I’d buy new books every week and slowly acquired an impressive paperback collection of American fiction, with a few European names thrown in. I considered most British authors dull in comparison, though I had begun to harbour half-baked hopes of becoming one myself. Poetry came later, and I then acquired another impressive collection of books. I have been surrounded by books for years.
I’ve moved around a lot in my life. I’ve lost count of the different addresses I’ve lived at. In the first twelve years of marriage, my wife and I moved home nine times. I learned that the only items of furniture I couldn’t live without were bookcases. I can cope for long periods without chairs, tables, even beds, but take away my bookcases and I am fucked. I suppose the digital age should be a godsend for someone like me, but sadly I don’t enjoy reading anything on a screen, so I only rarely use the internet. I have no intention of purchasing a Kindle or whatever they’re called. I like to hold a book, to feel its weight in my hands, to savour the texture and smell of the paper. No kidding.
The treasure trove under the stairs was our first port of call when we visited our aunt’s house as children. We always found it full of bales of books brought home by our uncle who worked in a paper salvaging plant . Hours were spent in front of the fire reading everything from “Red Star Romance” to serious classics. Books took us away and broadened our horizons. We read “What Katy Did” and “Swallows and Amazons”. We read about girls at boarding schools and people in other countries. We knew that life wasn’t contained in our own streets.
Books connect us with others, past and present. We are given opportunities to consider aspects of lives dramatically different from our own. We can read “The Bookseller of Kabul” and gain greater awareness of a political situation. We can read “All Quiet on the Western Front” and consider our thoughts on war.
Books give us access to a rich variety of language and expression. There is Stan Barstow’s West Yorkshire dialect. There is the Glaswegian voice of “Buddha Da.” There is language that flows like poetry in descriptions offered by Edna O’Brien. In novels and short stories alike there is clever, economic language in which a character is summed up in a few words and rich language which creates vivid pictures. Written language fires the imagination.
Of course, we travel, meet people and learn from many other sources but books take us on further journeys. We can open them in our front room. Which takes me back to the treasure trove and the hours spent.