Books and self-isolation

If these posts continue (which means I’m not prostrate or terminal), I guess they’ll amount to little more than a reading diary. No bad move in itself, for it implies a concerted assault on the foothills of my guilt-pile. And, as I always recall, a bad dose of ‘flu, circa 1966, was how I finally made it through The Lord of the Rings.

Now there were a couple of days of my life I’ll never reclaim.

Odd, but telling, many of my books from that time have survived — Lawrence, Joyce, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Anthony Hope, early le Carré, & co. — but Tolkien hasn’t. No paperback is forever, but some linger on.

I’m not doing too well with James Meek’s To Calais in Ordinary Time. Coming up to half-way, in small doses. Fortunately, it’s memorable stuff, which bears cogitation. Atmospheric, yes. Definitely good on the inner soul. Adventurous? Hardly.

And there have been distractions.

The Lady in My Life has joined the Self-preservation Society. Not a day goes by without another new household rule, aimed at our mutual survival. We had both, for different reasons of medical history, half-expected one of these threatened notifications of our limited chances of mortality. Today, for the first time in memory, there wasn’t a scuttle to the local Sainsbury’s for ‘essential’ supplies and the daily papers: we are reckoning to survive on digital subscriptions.

By the look of Boris Johnson’s late evening broadcast, that’s going to be the sum of it for any immediate future. What struck me was someone had finally slapped the man down, and made him read a teleprompter script. Suddenly he made sense. Not wholly convincingly, but … it’s an improvement. I am reminded that Norman Shelley read Winston Churchill’s speeches for radio. Boris, please copy.


For myself, the main distraction from the very worthy Mr Meek was the need to replace one of those irritating small screws gone missing from a pair of spectacles. Last Friday, Jesse Boot’s main outlet here in York did that business. That also meant I was handed the list of tasks to be dealt with in central York: M&S, coffee from Betty‘s, several other necessities of our life.

For me to get to Boot’s in Coney Street, it means I have to pass WH Smith and Waterstone’s. Our local WH Smith is the best periodicals outlet in town, so that provides the TLS and New Statesman. I’m addicted to both — that infuriating TLS crossword sells to me on its own. Add to that a coruscating reprint of a 1920 destruction of the infamous J. Thomas Looney’s fantasy on the authorship of Shakespeare and it was worth £3.95 already. Oh. and at the other end of the package, AN Wilson chews over the 1927-8 froth about the prayer-book.

A Malcolmian aside:

Stick there for a moment. I am a man of little ‘faith’, and even less ‘Faith’. Several years sitting as a boy-chorister was instrumental in making me the man that I am, and developed an ear for language. Ours was not the spikiest church in the Norwich diocese: that would be five miles down the road, presided over by Fr Hope Patten, the bane of the Bishop’s life. The Prayer Book controversy came about because of the chronic division of the Church of England — protestantism (even puritan iconoclastics) versus catholicism (including smells and bells). Wilson makes the valid point that John Henry Newman’s conversion to Roman Catholicism (1845) was seminal:

… many who agreed with his point of view decided not to give up their rich livings and fellowships and follow him to Rome but to stay behind and introduce Catholic practices into the National Church – much to the horror of their sovereign. They began to celebrate the Communion as if it were the Roman Mass; they wore coloured vestments, and preached the actual presence of Christ in the consecrated elements. By 1928, about a quarter of the churches in London followed these practices, all of them forbidden by the old Prayer Book. The statesmanlike Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury, had been the clergyman who attended the deathbed of Queen Victoria on the Isle of Wight. He had often heard her rants against the crypto-papists in the Church of England, and it was his dearest wish, by 1927, to bring peace and order and moderation.

He adds that the episcopacy was ready for the High Church Catholicism, but were defeated by the evangelicals:

because, in 1927–8, they were at one with the laity of Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Hello! Let’s pause for thought: what else might be happened around that time in relations between ‘England’ (and its established Church) and the Church of Ireland? Why might that have swayed the members of the two Houses of Parliament? There’s a doctoral thesis in there, perhaps — as, too, the xenophobia lingering from The Italian Job (see above).

The Staggerer (also comes with a good crossword, but one with pathetically-small cells) rises to the occasion with two solid essays:

  • Ross Douthat (how the zombie liberal order might survive in an age of disease and climate change) — which presupposes those two issues are inextricably combined, and that somehow the political apparatus we have known, if not loved, these fifty years cannot cope; and
  • Jeremy Cliffe (on populism and pandemics) making, for me, rather more sense on how our hemi-demi-semi-quavering democratic leaders are managing/exploiting/failing this viral test. The NS is making quite a thing of this ‘lock-down’ culture, and the new authoritarian devices of our ‘democratic’ leaders: immediate circumstances apart, with good reason.

You remember I was walking through York’s Coney Street?

No bookshop can or should be be lightly ignored. The local Oxfam Books, in Petergate, was closed: since York is a university city (two of them, no less) all kinds of meaty stuff turns up on their history shelves — and much of it transfers to Redfellow Hovel. And we have several excellent second-hand bookshops: in one I held five figures (sterling) of a Ulysses first-edition, and lusted hopelessly.

But not this weekend. I had to make do with the 2 for 1½ tables in Waterstones. Irresistible, but an occasion for self-accusation — why are hard-backs, bought on publication, still unread, while paperback editions are now available? Another intimation of mortality:

But at my back I always hear
Times wingéd chariot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lye
Desarts of vast Eternity.

My acquisition were, predictably, two:

Celestin has taken us from New Orleans in 1919, to Chicago 1928, and now to New York City 1947. Each époque involves a seminal moment in crime, a major advance in jazz, and a changing society. These are not just techie thrillers, they are exercises in reflecting history.

In this third instalment, Celestin refers to the arrival of bebop (and mainstream) as the Big Band era winds down, to Jackson Pollack, to Stanley Kubrick as a young photographer starting out — I almost expected a walk-on part for Fred Trump (who, at this point, was getting in on the development business with housing projects near Coney Island).

Celestin’s clip-boards of Pinterest images for each book, each era, are excellent.

I have several books on cathedrals, but this is not in essence a text on architecture or a travelogue. It is a very personal account of Somerville’s perambulations. Seventeen chapters refer to a score of buildings (Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford get lumped together in Chapter 17). Famously and infamously, Liverpool (chapter 14) is binary:

In my Liverpool Home,
In my Liverpool Home
We speak with an accent exceedingly rare,
Meet under a statue exceedingly bare,
And if you want a Cathedral, we’ve got one to spare
In my Liverpool Home…..

Despite the book’s subtitle, chapter 14 takes him to Armagh, also and affirmably binary, but which isn’t “British”.

The only cathedral Somerville ticks, and I haven’t, is Inverness:

no bigger than one of those high Victorian churches in some industrial parish in the north of England.


However, I have done St Magnus at Kirkwall. The conceit running through Somerville’s book is sea imagery: each chapter introduced with a maritime tag. Nowhere is that more appropriate than St Magnus’: the roof has all the makings of a Viking long-boat.

And that, ladeez an’ gennelmen, is what got me through this first week-end of ‘self-isolation’. One way and another, thanks to the complications of authors and their subject-matters, and paradoxically, it has been quite crowded on this sofa.

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