On The Line

My commuter life has turned from bus-centric to tube-centric, so there’s no better time to catch up with BBC’s The Tube on iPlayer.  For those of us intent on cursing through gritted, irritated teeth each time the tannoy tells us we are delayed due to technical issues or signalling faults, watch this programme.  The army of diligent night workers repairing tracks, ensuring safety with deft experience would chastise anyone.  One of the world’s most efficient transport networks runs with a 99% safety and delivery record thanks to the army of technical staff who maintain tracks and trains at night while London sleeps.  Then we wake up, chuck back a coffee and hop on the network without thinking twice about the nature of the work involved.  Perhaps this says something about the blase attitude of the urban traveller.  Perhaps this says something of the culture of the declining of respect in our public services.

Take, for example, Mike, who has an air rifle and ten children.  He also appears to have only ten teeth.  Mike was seen at 4 in the morning in Acton Town station, taking part in the war against pigeon crap as the only way to stop the line becoming filled with bird shit is to shoot the pigeons.  Their crap gets everywhere, making tracks and lines filthy and dangerous and occasionally, I learned, even managing to get into the tubes and shit on the seats.  “Shoot ’em straight in the head to go for the kill,” said Mike, as one perky pigeon bought the farm and flopped down out of the eaves.  Mike is one of 20,000 people trying to keep 4 million of us moving safely and swiftly throughout the network.

On Friday nights, the engineering works that cannot take place during commuter travel begin.  There is a 52 hour window in which vital work must be completed before the morning commute on Monday,  Harrow-on-The-Hill, Ealing Broadway, High Barnet – these suburban outposts suddenly get temporarily shut down so an army of bright-orange-jacketed men descend below stairs with hard hats to resolve track issues, replace electrical wiring and dance around the rats.  The words “Rail Replacement Bus Service” are usually enough to bring any suburban Londoner out in hives.  Such was the damage of the tube infrastructure during the years of fundamental under-investment in the 1980s and 1990s, that a fortune is now being poured into the system, and every single weekend vital – and expensive – works take place to render the underground truly fabulous.  £10billion will be spent over the next 15 years.  The chief engineers monitor progress scrupulously.  None of this explains why my morning train between Euston and Oxford Circus smells of undigested pie and week-old urine, however.

We saw a train announcer drily stating over the tannoy to a late Friday night crowd that he was sorry the last train was cancelled, but there was “significant vomit” in the carriages.  Other Friday Night Liverpool Street Station specials included people playing plastic guitars whilst dancing the wrong way down / up an escalator, random strangers hugging ticket inspectors and announcing they “loved” them,  and kindly, concerned Underground staff asking boozed up insurance brokers who were dribbling into the Burger King bags on the Westbound platform whether they were okay.  Most people, when alarmingly drunk, are very apologetic.  They’re sorry about the can of Grolsch they accidentally brought into the station and started swigging from.  They’re sorry they used their Visa Debit card to tap into the barriers rather than the Oyster, meaning an Underground employee had to run down the escalator after them.  They’re sorry they sang “Happy Birthday” to strangers six times before passing out in a puddle of their own bodily emissions.   Jane, the Station Supervisor, has a natural authority about her.  “It’s concerning really,” she says.  “These people hold our financial world in their hands,” she noted, watching a City broker fail on his fifth attempt to press his Oyster card against a barrier reader.

The Network Operations Centre stands as some kind of Orwellian omniscient eye over the entire network.  It’s like their masterminding a war from there.  A buzz of efficiency dominates the atmostphere as unintelligible, miniscule lights flash and beep and make pretty patterns.   All of London Underground’s 500 individually numbered trains are monitored and buzz around the screens like little underground PacMen.  Back at Liverpool Street, a station controller confirmed the tannoy codes:   Cleaner Code 1 = blood.  Cleaner Code 2 = urine / faeces.  Cleaner Code 3 – vomit.  90% of tourists to London brave the tube.  89% of them haven’t got a clue where they’re going and are convinced of mysterious truths, such as Big Ben being a station.  One French woman lost her husband, but then the tannoy told her they had located him at Goodge Street.  A station worker accompanied her to the right platform to be reunited with her family.  The map, although a feat of design (as covered in these blog pages before) heralds nothing but confusion and frustration to those unfamiliar with it’s eccentrities, line branches and short cuts.  “I don’t understand it at all,” announced a worldweary Newcastle housewife, seemingly close to tears.  One Australian man, who looked like a spitting image for Danny Baker, thought that the platform numbers on the indicators were train numbers and couldn’t understand why all the lines had to be different colours as well.   The fact that the Northern Line also runs south is a real bone of contention.    Fair enough that the tourists are confused but the natives?  Why are they so dim?  In The Tube it showed all kinds of people, most likely indigenous to these islands,  running like nutters because they had not realised that the last tube was at about twenty minutes after midnight.  The last tube has been at about twenty minutes after midnight for about 60 years, but you’d be amazed at the people who turn up at stations at 1.30am utterly dumbfounded, only to be faced with a disgruntled cleaner.

When I was a child I was always misspelling the word “modern” as “morden”in my homework and would then get irritated notes from the schoolteacher in the margin saying “You don’t mean Morden!  Morden is in SURREY.”  There are many randoms who get the last tube home on the Northern Line and end up falling asleep and waking up Morden, the Northern’s last stop.    “Wakey Wakey, rise and shine! It’s the end of the Northern Line!”  announces doughty Mark Jenner, Morden’s station supervisor, to three slumped figures, worse for wear, dressed in high street suits and clutching Sainsburys bags.   Most of his night routine involves waking North Londoners up to tell them it’s 1.30am and they are in Zone 6 at the wrong end of the city now unable to get the tube back in.  “I was at Chalk Farm.  I went out to dinner with some friends and then fell asleep, ” seems to be the most popular excuse.

After service, the 250 trains go into a depot to bedrooms and have a little sleep.  That’s of course, after the revellers have gone home.  On Saturday nights, Leicester Square station has the biggest incidences of crime related callouts, with almost Dickensian levels of pickpocketing through the evenings.  One Saturday evening at 11.30pm, a stabbing on Platform 4 of Leicester Square turned the station into a crime scene and left hundreds of revellers forced to seek alternative transport.  This crowd, the tired, drunk, surly, disobedient one,  renders the tube station supervisor most at risk from physical attack.  It was odd that the station supervisor at Leicester Square called patrons psychological states on entering the system as featuring  “tunnel vision.”  He believed that travellers see no other objectives other than their need to get to where they want to go.  His story about once witnessing patrons stepping down an escalator over a corpse, was offered in support of this, without ever realising that most of those travellers probably thought they were just stepping over another drunk.     Regular readers to this blog may have detected The Bluebird Ethic : not for us the prurience and macabre rubber-necking of some of our most blighted journalism.  Whilst certain daily periodicals in this green and pleasant land are intent on convincing you that society has self-combusted, that there is no such thing as decency any more, that we are all powerless in a vortex of mediocrity, fake tits and dysfunction, and that we have nothing to feel but futile negativity, we aim to show the fundamental decency in most of the population – and most of Londoners – and celebrate the aspects of our city life that work, that should be celebrated and that cause pleasure in those about their leisure, and how, put simply, if all the 70 million people on this island were flailing in their own moral vacuum, wearing hoodies, obsessing about the X factor and smoking crack whilst downloading porn then we wouldn’t actually still be here.

The patience, tolerance and humanity of those who work in the stations was a humbling thing and one that deserves to be celebrated.  It is difficult to think of a public service system that generates less grace or thanks than the London Underground service.  What this programme reveals is that none of us truly get the work that goes into settling us into our migraine-patterned seats.  Perhaps that is merely the blase attitude of the citydweller.  We have adjusted to excellence and subsequently none of us appreciate the excellent qualities of standards that go into a system that, despite its legions of men crawling around amidst electrical cables and wiring and signals, despite its unwillingness to truly burrow into the heart of Londoners with any sentiment or affection at all, despite the complaints so drearily heard about the heat of the Victoria Line, or the delays at Camden Town, remains one of the world’s safest, cleanest and most prompt subway systems.  Unfailingly polite in the face of the most jaded, hysterical and paraletic of our citizens whilst maintaining the kind of cleaning, safety and checking standards that I have yet to witness in any other profession, both tube drivers and frontline station workers see more madness than airline hostesses or transatlantic pilots.  The loneliness of the long distance tube driver must be a difficult aspect of the job to tolerate.  I doubt that the average pilot has 41 people try to kill themselves by flinging themselves under their mode of transport every week.   It seems peculiar that the public begrudges tube drivers their salaries whilst no one points out the cost of pilots flying everybody out around the world and destroying the environment in the process.  This programme succeeded in several ways : by painting a fascinating picture of the life lived underground by a section of society rarely seen and never praised, and making Joe Public realise the amount of tolerance and strength required to deal with all of us, and perhaps learn to respect it.  They deserve every penny they get.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday. 

Boxes and tea

And so, darling readers, did you miss me last week?  I do hope last Thursday wasn’t too much of a disappointing day for you all, as it was the first Thursday this ‘ere bloggery has been unadorned with a flashy write-up since February 2010.  I had a deeply disorientating week, in which I moved house with Mr Bluebird (without the aid of a professional removals company – ill-advised, do not attempt it), inherited a fishpond, argued with a boiler, got tipsy and walked into a bedroom thinking it must be the kitchen and have now arrived at the stage that should I see another box of brown cardboard I will weep and throw it at the wall.  That, of course, is ill-advised too, as these are the first walls I have owned and therefore have a new-found respect for.  Rented walls are treated like slatterns – we pass through them bleary eyed and slightly supercilious, bashing, sliding, leaning and uncaring.  Owned walls are items to be treated with trepidation; objects must be suitably and gently lain upon them.  Minutes later, dusters arrive to soundlessly clean these cream-painted areas recently touched by human hand.

All of which is utter bollocks of course, because I don’t really own the walls, some bank in Yorkshire does.  But I have to keep the walls nice for the  bankers in Yorkshire.  If the walls depreciate then the bankers in Yorkshire will get their money back (when I die) but I won’t have much profit to speak of, not if the walls are covered with bits of spaghetti bolognese.  It’s a deeply enchanting process, going home to a place you actually own after years of renting, but it’s also quite a stupid process.  I had difficulty locating the water meter, before I realised it was in front of me.  And I don’t know one end of the arsey buildings insurance cover from the other.   I am acutely aware that there are holes in my learning.  At some stage in life, some kindly, avuncular figure who cares deeply for you ought to draw you into a velvet-draped corner of their gentlemen’s club, creak back into the aged leather, dump two gulps of brandy into a tumbler with a satisfying gloopy sound and say : “This is how it is.  These are the things you have to do, at some stage, poor, unaware, deliriously inept child.”  Then they would tell you what an endowment policy is, what LTV on mortgages means, how stamp duty is calculated, what the distinction is between a Homebuyers Report and a Standard Lenders Valuation, and generally assure you regarding life assurances. 

But no one does diggity.

No one does nothing.  And you are left, flailing in the shitty waters of your own incompetency, thinking “Oh, rent book…. give me back the rent book.  I know where I am with the rent book.  He is my friend.”

Then I went back to stroking the clean walls of the kitchen again.  Before I realised I wasn’t actually in the kitchen.  Because I still don’t know the way to the kitchen.

At times where belongings are uncertainly dumped in boxes placed in the corners of my peripheral vision, I need to take Evelyn Waugh’s advice and draw “healing draughts from the waters of Edwardian certitude.”   The delirious comfort of the tea-tray called me, rattling along the corridors of life, ready to soothe and placate with splashes of Darjeeling, tidily poured.  A life-affirming, comforting, solid, old-world experience was called for.  Yesterday afternoon, I answered to that deep-rooted desire for all things Edwardian (and cream cakes) and took Mother Bluebird for tea at Brown’s Hotel, Mayfair.  It was the first day of spring and Albemarle Street glistened with hopefulness and sunshine.

Brown’s is London’s first ever hotel.  It was founded by Byron’s valet, James Brown (not that one) in 1837 and in 2009 it trumped all other London hotels with the Tea Guild’s Top London Afternoon Tea Award.  The expectations therefore, were as high as the price.  Both the Roosevelt American Presidents liked staying here, and in 1876 Alexander Graham Bell popped into the hotel and secured its position in posterity by making the first successful telephone call in England. To Room Service, perhaps.  Basically, it’s 11 Georgian houses meshed together to form a rock-solid bolthole for the internationally wealthy desiring utterly English, utterly understated classic glamour, which now restles smoothly under the Rocco Forte Luxury Hotels banner.  Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book in the English Tea Room.   I didn’t write The Jungle Book there.  I just drafted my blog on the iphone.

Despite the hotel being Georgian houses clubbed together, I was blown away by the Jacobean ceiling of the Tea Room.  I felt that I had been scooted back- soundlessly and brilliantly – to another London ; a London of langour and elegance, of seclusion and money.  The hotel is personal, but smart.  I particularly enjoyed the TripAdvisor comments: “Recently stopped off at Brown’s to celebrate my investiture. We enjoyed a couple of bottles of fizz in The Donovan Bar..!” and class totty like that.  Rocking on up to the hotel yesterday, I was forced to change my footwear in a shop doorway as my shoes were pinching my toes into fat, pink sausages.  This was not very classy.  Browns Hotel exudes restrained politeness.  The old, pale red mosaic of the hotel insignia when it was Browns and St George’s Hotel still remains on the outside wall. 

Americans are terribly fond of Browns.  It sells a particular type of self-effacing Englishness.  I think of Browns as a “Hello, Charles!” sort of hotel.  You know in the first scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral, when Charles, our loveable and tardy hero, arrives at the first wedding in deepest Devon and rushes past the bridal party?  The bride, debecked in Fulham flounces and due to marry a landowner with a receding hairline called Angus, glances breezily over a horsey shoulder and chirrups “Hello, Charles!”.  Well,  Browns is full of wide-eyed SW10 girls who have attended inferior public schools and who are constantly saying “Hello, Charles!” to somebody.  Because everyone in their circle is called Charles.   Even some of the women.  The tea room is haltingly smart, and immediately reminded me of the neo-Georgian wooden panelling of our headmistress’s study.  An effusive waiter, sparkly eyed and slightly theatrical, in a suit clearly two sizes too big for him, ushered us to our table, where the chairs were bolted to the floor and designed to swivel about.  This was slightly peculiar.  I kept trying to draw the chair tighter towards the table but of course it was bolted down and immediately swerved in a little circle towards the right instead, nearly depositing me onto the lap of a Japanese woman at the next table.   The waiters were fabulously attentive, explaining the varieties of the 20 different leaf teas on offer, and easily accommodating vegetarian preferences.  The strange thing was, tea is charged per head, not per tea.  We therefore ordered two set afternoon teas, but although two sets of sandwiches soon arrived, there was clearly not patisserie on our sterling silver tray for two people.

The scones were a delight.  Sweet, slightly crisp and served with generous bowls of clotted cream and real fruit jam.  The jam was tart rather than over sweet.  Five small scones soon disappeared, and were replaced with five more.  The tea was excellent – I had second flush Darjeeling – and served in silver service that seemed to remain hot for an age.  The pianist was rippling away on a baby grand behind us, going through the usual repetoire to accompany tea for two (like the song Tea for Two and, dreadfully, something from Chess : The Musical).  Requests for soya milk and extra hot water came quickly, in the hush of pinstriped excellent service.  One waiter was particularly helpful with a broken digital camera.  I resisted the urge, when the bill came, to fill in the section on the bill charging “Room Number” and pretend I’d just checked into Suite 316.  Bear in mind, Browns is not cheap.  But it is better than the Savoy or the Ritz who charge similar prices in a less atmospheric and elegant setting.  For those of you braying for raciness, I direct you to the Donovan bar at Browns, named after Terence Donovan, and it’s range of pornographic prints on one side of the bar. 

The people who arrive at the open door of the English Tea Room look delighted and content : Americans in white trousers and over-dressed young ladies out to tea.  This is horsey-country, so the average woman in the room was about half a foot taller than me, bedecked in glorious hosiery and smelling of Penhaligons.  However, this does not have the laid back relaxation of Claridges.  The tea seating is not as luxurious, the sofas not as deep.  There was something slightly terse in the atmostphere.  Perhaps it was the headmistressy-type walls, but I felt I had to be on my best behaviour and was unable to completely relax and loll about and have a light snooze, which I think is necessary after high tea.

Eventually, we hauled ourselves out of our velveted, swivel chairs as the rush hour tube home called.   I resisted the urge to bray, SW10- like, into the bathroom.  The black and white tiles in the hall were covered with footmen who, I think, bowed at us.  The hush and Edwardian certitude would have pleased Evelyn Waugh – that is, if he had managed not to fall off his swivel chair onto a fellow diner.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you have enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Jazz & Bird Tables

I have to buy a washer dryer.   As the move gathers apace I have to fill the kitchen with white goods.  But for Monday to celebrate exchange, I filled my mojito glass and loafed off to Ronnie’s with my Jazz Buddy.  Although the evening centred around the compositions and arrangements of that winner of the 1987 Toronto Slimmer of the Year Contest, Oscar Peterson, my head was not in a jazz place.  I was not ready to slip into a syncopated place.  I was ready to make lists and draw neat, pencilled lines around words and think in straight, classical lines.  I kept remembering all the institutions and organizations I have to write to to tell them I’ve moved – the HMRC, the banks, The Nice Free Library, The Charming Expensive Library, not to mention The Bobby Darin Fan Club – and I kept working out whether I now have any money left (I don’t).  But, by golly, there was finance enough for a rare steak and a round of drinks, and although I wouldn’t exactly have to sing for my supper, I may have had to end the evening by washing up in the club kitchen.

First of all on early Monday evening, while enduring shock-Exchanged-on-a-flat induced hysteria, I calmed myself with a Bar Italia lemon tea.  This meant having to deal with the peculiar vortex of energy that surrounds Bar Italia and vibrates from it’s retro-chic glass counter tops.  Here, no sooner have you peered at the cheesecake and several family members manifest.  Why do the law of physics dictate that within a minute of poking my thinly sliced lemon in my cup of tea my brother will walk in, look  unsurprised to see me, and tell me I’ve got something stuck in my teeth?  Unnervingly, he says he knew I was in there because he was having me followed from Oxford Street.  But even he cannot deny the Bar Italia law.  Sometimes, it’s like a weird JB Priestley play (as if there was any other kind) where time starts going backwards and families get younger and stranger, balder and fatter, thinner and menopausal, but the room never changes.

The story of Ronnie Scott’s interior decor would make a chilling JB Priestley play.   The play would open in 2012 and with the club looking decidedly balder and thinner than it did after it’s all-singing, all-dancing makeover five years ago.  The carpets on the stairs now have holes in them and the ladies loos are almost back to looking as decrepid as they did in the 1990s, with scraped floors, damaged paintwork and a general feeling of being sweaty and unclean.  The carpeting on the main floor of the club is tacky underfoot and there are what appear to be food stains on the ceiling.  I don’t know how you even get food stains on the ceiling.  The drinks menus are extraordinarily sad looking – rocking the “lived in” look with a series of cracks, stains and rumpled, damaged edges.  This is a drinks menu that has lived.  You can smell the stale rum from the mouths that have jazzily breathed over them.  Then the curtain would come up on the Second Act of this depressing play and it would be 2006 .  The club looks shiny and sparkling, resplendent in it’s own chic glamour, following its extravagant overhaul and full with the taste of promise and the sight of young jazzers in neat suits and ties.  You can taste the lost hope because you’ve already seen Act One.  The Third Act would be set in its original incarnation in the 1960s to the 1990s.  This set would feature shabby, gaffer-taped carpet, astonishing toilet facilities, thin gingham tablecloths and brown wicker lampshades cradling orange lightbulbs, which would lend an increasingly sinister light onto the already sinister looking house vegetable soup.  The end of the play would be back at the beginning.  The audience would be shakily rising to their feet probably feeling queasy and a bit jazzed out.   It is wonderful that Ronnie Scott’s has survived, but must it be destined to return to its slightly cheap, uncared for look that it spent millions trying to eradicate in the early years of the Noughties?  Obviously, I can’t clean anything because I obviously don’t have a washer dryer, but I’m sure someone could get the Domestos out.

Yahama had lent the club a second grand piano for the evening so it was a crammed stage – two double basses, two grand pianos, a guitarist and a drummer.  The support was a surprise – not the support listed on the website – but the lovely Dave O’Higgins.  He looked very clean.  So did the main headline act, especially Matt Skelton who looked like a man who not only had a washer dryer but a lovely ironing board too.  As we were taken through the story of Oscar Peterson’s life in chronological form, we were treated to a beautiful rendition of Yesterdays featuring Dave Newton, as well as rarely performed sections from Peterson’s Canadiana Suite including “Place St Henri”, which I had never heard before and was a remarkably robust piece of double piano performances from James Pearson and Dave Newton ‘cutting heads’ throughout.  Backed by the already mentioned Skelton – his generation’s most reassuring and versatile drummer – the group also featured Len Skeet and Sam Burgess.  A wrong decision was made to place Burgess and Skeet on the spot somewhat by nonsensically encouraging them to awkwardly interview each other in the second set, but half way through the first set the two of them treated us to a beautiful double bass duet of Bye Bye Blackbird.  Hush fell on the club, until you couldn’t even hear the plop of the dessert spoons scooping into creme brulees.  The two double basses caught and carried each other’s melodies beautifully until:

“Do you want a microwave?”  said Jazz Buddy suddenly.

“Eh?”  I said.  “Got a spare one.  When you move.  Want a microwave?”    This was a quiet moment.  Bass player Len Skeet turned around, perhaps thinking he was being offered a microwave.

“Yeah – great.  Thanks.  Love one.”  

The waiter, pallid and looking a bit strained, returned.  There were new mojitos in front of us where our empty plates had been.  This was pleasing.

Dave Newton looked very cool.  I bet he’s got a microwave.  And a washer dryer.  In fact I bet he’s got a bird table and one of those washing machine lines you get from Lakeland that twirl about.   He dresses like a very popular History teacher, who would take his A Level class for tentative end of term beers at the pub.  His delivery was so lackadaisical as to be almost soporific.  The guitarist Colin Oxley took a solo at this halfway point in what was turning out to be a maligned evening for him.  The musical director had repeatedly forgotten to announce his name for a round of applause at the end of each set.  Whilst gazing at the flotsam that washes up underneath drumkits and grand pianos (plastic water bottles, various cables for some numpty to fall over, crumpled bits of sheet music, tupperware boxes) I wondered if I should invest in a new fridge freezer and thought about IKEA wardrobes.   I considered floormops.  I riffed on curtains whilst listening to a drum solo but by the end of Have you Met Miss Jones? I was still undecided as to whether to go to John Lewis or Homebase.   I thought of towels and remembered I had a Zara Home voucher stashed away since Christmas.  I would buy red towels I thought.  Then I realised that of course I wouldn’t buy red towels, I had just had five mojitos and all sorts of things seem like a good idea once you’ve had five mojitos.  Before now ideas I have had after five mojitos include:

1) A holiday in St Petersburg

2) let’s email a cinema and say that we want to rent it out and play Back To The Future in it really LOUDLY.

3) I’m going to put some tap shoes on.

4) I am going to take the tap shoes off, now that I have attempted and failed at a triple timestep and done something embarrassing to my groin which may or may not require Non Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug medication.

5) Berkshire.  It sounds lovely.  BERKSHIRE.  Let’s all go to Berkshire.

All too soon, the evening had swung to a close and it was – amazingly – eleven o’clock.  The last double bass solo was accompanied only by the brisk whir of twenty chip and pin machines as patrons gave payment, and the flourish of the rip of the Visa receipt from the machines was punctuated by a piano note.  We scooped up our bags and my head kept running with the things I have to do.  I thought, as I traipsed across the floor which had clearly not been vacuumed since 2009, that when I buy my heap of towels, my washing fluids and my diamante rubber gloves, it will take all my willpower not to march back to 47 Frith Street and scrub the whole, dastardly place clean.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is usually updated every Thursday, but please note there will be no update on Thursday 15th March.   See you on the 22nd.  Thank you!

Brought to Book

As the Bluebird prepares to move home soon, the great Book Giveaway has begun.  I have assembled a collection of  500 books or so, my husband double that number.  In honesty, as a literature post-graduate, I am slightly ashamed at the size of my book collection and think it should be bigger.  But we are downsizing in space, and unless I start gluing home-made bookshelves to the ceiling, or storing them in the bath, bringing all of them with us is a no-no.  Instead I have to abandon those which are no longer required.  In half an hour yesterday 140 of them were earmarked for the loneliness of the charity box. 

The criteria for ridding is as follows : I cannot remove anything that may be of academic value in the future of whatever academic career I may chose to have, nor can I remove those books brought down from the shelves in company, at one in the morning, after a festive, alcohol-fuelled evening with me spluttering – “THIS! – This book – this changed my life did you know that do you UNDERSTAND?”   Clearly, I cannot remove anything for which my heart beats or which I truly love and deserve to keep.  This leaves a glut of paperbacks enjoyed once, and never to be enjoyed again, of teenage Beverly Clearlys and Judy Blumes, of the Time Out Guide to Bars and Clubs 2004, of well-thumbed, dog jacketed pocket-size guides to Athens, of David Nicholls and Jane Greens.  These take up a vast, troublesome amount of nothing books that have been my companions from bookshelf to bookshelf in the 18 years since I moved to London and what shocked me was the ease and brevity with which I identified a hefty whack of them for the lady from Jewish Care.  I have a selection of books stolen from my school library on my last day there ( Iris Murdoch’s” The Sandcastle” and the Collected Poems of Shelley) which I shan’t return because they’ll put me in detention or something.  Anyway, I love their ’50s retro jackets.   I had four copies of “Great Expectations” and two each of “The Scarlet Letter” and “Decline and Fall”.  I found pink London Transport travelcards from the 1990s, split and missing sections to build roaches, from my copies of “A Passage to India” and, scarily, “A Womans Guide to The Car”.   Those I am proud of will not be evacuated : my Victorian bookshelf is only now truly coming into its own, I have every single book ever written by P G Wodehouse from when my father wrote a literary biography of him, I have also a wide selection of 1970s and 1980s history and literary criticism books sent free for review, including the brilliant “The Long Weekend : The Social History of Great Britain” by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge – now disastrously out of print and being exchanged on Amazon for £65 per used paperback.

It doesn’t bode well that in recent popular opinion the word “bibliophile” has been mistakenly replaced with the word “bibliomaniac”.  Does it say more about certain societal values that people who develop a high quality library for personal use are assessed in ways that people who have 20,000 songs on their iPhone are not?   In other words, is this about the long running, and boring, opposition of high and low culture? Probably not.  It’s more to do with CDs being flexible enough to chuck into your computer and instantly convert to iTunes, and the refusal of books to do the same.  After all, you cannot convert a paperback to a Kindle ebook.  You have to buy the ebook.  An ebook for fuck’s sake : –  an invisible, slim, delicate, vulnerable file, bereft of coffee stains and the underlined pencil passages, and prone to breakage at the sign of a technological white-out. Yup.  Perfect.  I cannot present a class with a Kindle.  If the anxiety surrounding the acquisition of a lot of books – and I do mean acquisition, I do not mean hoarding  – isn’t about inverted cultural snobbery, then perhaps it’s time we agreed with Foucault : “I believe that the anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space”.  Books take up space.  They invite dust and they are clutter.  We are depressingly programmed in the modern age to act with irritation and unjustified territorial anguish when something takes up space within our precious tiny homes of alloted modern space.  But something is always clutter.  If it’s true we are all suffering with spatial anxiety in the modern age, then it’s also true that nature abhors a vacuum.  Inevitably some other bit of modern detritus will come along and replace the books with less meaningful and instructive clutter.  It will be a sizeable coffee table, or a calendar, or a framed picture – and then you’re in the same position, except this time, when searching for something to help you rise above the malaise and seek solace from this world of material detritus and spatial anxiety, you can’t reach up for a comforting chapter or two of  “Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky” because you threw it away.  At least, if we must be spatially impoverished, we don’t also have to be poetically or literally impoverished.

The difficulty in throwing away books becomes apparent when you recognize that books are not books.  Or rather, they are books, but they are more than the sums of their parts.    If you were raised in a godless house, as I was, your shelves become your spiritual guides.  And what guides they are, because – at risk of falling into platitudes – literature renders our world comprehensible and when confronted with the bits we can’t understand, takes them by the short and curlies and grapples them like there’s no tomorrow.  You could argue that once they have been read and absorbed their philosophical work is done, but that’s not true.  Reading a book ten years apart is a different book (as the beady-eyed amongst you will have noted from my entry “A Right Charlie” a couple of weeks ago) and offers a different manifestation of beliefs for you to applaud, converse upon, or downright disagree on and throw the book out of the house.  Even the depressing ones might offer some comfort or reflection in the years ahead – even that great pessimist Virginia Woolf sitting high and frigid on top of the tree of turgid dustheap of English modernism.  All right Virginia, you have scraped the test and will stay with me.   There she goes, bonnet a flutter, dressed in her flat-chested smock-type dress, into the back of the removals van.   Thomas Hardy, who I don’t enjoy at all, but who I think I ought to keep as its supposed to be very good and one day I might get it, is staying.   His face just blinks at me, resplendent mustachios a-quiver, with a supercilious faraway look, as if I have yet to realise that he is a literary marvel, despite all that clumsy, metaphorical lay-it-on-with-a-trowel-stuff about strawberries in Tess of the Dooberrys.  He goes off into the van, nostrils flaring with fear when he realises he has to sit next to Virginia Woolf.  Little does he know.  I’m sending Patricia Highsmith into the van next.  Nothing can agitate your fatalistic writer of nineteenth century naturalism more than a massive  lesbian from Texas.

I am parting with the monstrous “Guide to Olde English”, “The Canterbury Tales”, anything by Dawn French, paperback Margaret Atwoods, Gilbert Adairs and second rate frothy literature.  But the Life Guides I keep : nothing more brilliant has been written about the hypocrisy of respectable society than “Vanity Fair”.  No one could read of the cruelty in the first seven chapters of “David Copperfield” without becoming a better, kinder, more sympathetic human.  What could make alcoholic addition more dangerous or more destructive than F Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and the Damned”?  Not much – apart from F Scott Fitzgerald himself, of course.  But don’t worry, I’m not about to take Life Advice from a man who spent two decades blustering about in plus fours, bitching about Zelda and chucking the rye whiskey onto his morning Coco Pops.  There’s enough madness in the world already.  But his stories – the stories will be staying.

And so I’m off – back among the spine-filled shelves and delving into my reading past to continue my packing.  As soon as I’ve finished reading my book.

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