It’s Book Lovers Day, apparently – or was. Help. I wonder, are there any book lovers who like a book stack? Not the kind that accumulates by your bed, but the kind you keep seeing on your screen. Piles of newly published works with spines unbroken, their contents, one suspects, unread, the selection of titles entirely predictable, synchronised with the review pages in every newspaper in the land. I must admit they’re right up there with selfies and gratuitous shots of or – worse? – by one’s children on my list of pet social media hates. But then I must admit I rather long for the end of social media. Instagram, the only one I’ve ever dug, is already digging its own grave shifting to videos to lure the young away from TikTok, so perhaps the end is nigh. On the other hand I do wish people wrote more about old books. About obscure works that you can still find in second hand shops or old people’s libraries, or in libraries, full stop. So until I leave the bandwagon, until the writer’s publicity model changes again, I thought I’d write a bit about some old favourites of mine.
#1. How to keep well in Wartime, Hugh Clegg, 1943.
Bear with me. This one really came into its own last year, but it applies at any time of life. I found it unexpectedly among the scary tea towels and novelty hand rakes in the shop at Blenheim Palace. It is filled with words of sanity rather like those of MD in Private Eye – words, I have just discovered, which were written by a grandfather of Nick Clegg. The main gist of this booklet is that health is something you work at every day in a sort of unfussy, entirely feasible way, even under difficult circumstances. It presents the pursuit of health as an adventure and places responsibility for it firmly in your hands. It includes A Word to Those Who Worry, a bit on Some Sex Problems and a refreshingly calm view on inoculations. It disappoints me in not mentioning chocolate, but life is not like the movies, or so I’m told. “To get the most out of life you must put the most into it. To live, to love, to laugh, to labour to the fullness of your capacity, get fit and keep fit. Remember, too, that good health is not just something the young have. Each period of life has its standard of good health. The health of old age is ripeness, mellowness. The health of youth is energetic and expansive. Whatever your age, strive for the best health available to you. … Good health is the real riches: it is up to you to get it and to keep it.”
#2 The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, 1918.
I think if I had to name three things that significantly helped me as a writer (apart from reading, obviously, and writing a lot of drivel) it would be this book, Miss Christine Wilson’s English classes at my school in New Hampshire, and drama school. Drama school drilled into me the deceptively simple “say what you mean and mean what you say”. Miss Wilson taught me how to construct an argument and gave me the confidence to write at all. Kickoff in terms of grasping the nuts and bolts happened when I got this little gem.
This book is controversial because it reads as a set of rules, when in fact what it tries to get at is that style is a matter of choice and a means of expression. It’s tools to play with. My Dutch teachers were sticklers for grammar and spelling, but with the exception of one they only vaguely made us aware of style, and because we were never expected to write anything (essay-writing not featuring on the Dutch curriculum – don’t get me started on that one) the whole sense of making active choices in writing was new to me.
The aunt who gave me this was English, read a lot, and knew enough Dutch people to be aware of our problems. She noticed that I had fallen in love with her language and wanted to fan the flames. To her credit, she didn’t even mind that Strunk and White were Americans! She took me and the “high mysteries” of language seriously and I will always be grateful to her for that.
#3 In the Blink of an Eye, Walter Murch, 1992.
This is a generous book by a brilliant man. Films are made in the edit, but not many interesting books about film editing seem to exist, or not for non-editors. I think directing is a nightmare and editing a dream, but as Murch writes, good cuts are made along the lines of something we do every waking hour. He writes about the blink, the way in life we naturally cut “the flow of images into significant bits, the better to juxtapose and compare those bits” and make sense of the world.
Unlike most editors, Murch cuts both picture and sound, and the more you read about how he does this, the more you realise it’s a fine art. Famously, he prioritises emotion and story over the planarity and continuity rules taught in film schools. He also writes about the different creative processes and gifts that different editing machines and software can bring. His hand is in some of the greatest films made in the last fifty years. It’s well worth delving into his brain.
See also Michael Ondaatje’s interviews with Murch, published as The Conversations, and Behind the Seen, about Murch’s pioneering work editing the film Cold Mountain on what was then brand new, barely tested software, Apple’s Final Cut.
#4 The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Matthew J. Bruccoli ed., 1995.
Ah, New York. I remember being hit by it instantly when I first got off the train at Penn Station as a teenager, the famous energy of this city, THE city, injecting you and infecting you right off bat. I may have been primed by years of films and music, but when I came back a few years later to work in Tribeca, I loved it even more. Bars downtown felt like actual melting pots. Anyone talked to you, curiously, impatiently. It really felt as if it didn’t matter if you’d just arrived or been there a hundred and fifty years. The world has changed and I miss that New York, that kind of place, although I nurture the dream that we’ll find it again. Some years later again I visited a man there, someone I’d met at a wedding and who had started writing to me. It came time for the writing to lead to action, so I spent three days with him and he took me to all the places he knew and loved; I even thought he loved a little of me. Then I watched some more Woody Allen films and realised he’d simply cast me in some kind of private movie, a cross between Annie Hall and Zelda Fitzgerald with a bit of Greta Scacchi thrown in. But he also gave me this book and these stories are the greatest. So yes, “thank you” too. It was worth the bloody pain.
#5 Life’s Little Destruction Book, Charles S. Dane, 1992.
A seminal work of the nineties. At some point, packing for a house move, I chucked it, no longer amused by its dictums. I don’t think my brother has ever forgiven me and so I recently bought it again. Now I am so tired and cynical I find I can enjoy it once more. “Eat crackers in bed and then move to your side.” “Chase ambulances.” “Pass the buck.” “Try whining.” And a shocking amount of things that have been normalised in the past twenty years… Surely this is due a sequel? I’m missing the one about duct tape.
#6 Kinderen van Moeder Aarde, Thea Beckman, 1985.
A story about a boy in a matriarchy six centuries after a global war and climate change… I optioned this Dutch children’s classic when I was in my late twenties and threw everything I had at getting it off the ground as a proper big-budget international film. It was my version of business school, working my way past publishers, lawyers, executives and various charlatans, always racing against the clock and fighting to secure another option extension, meeting some amazing filmmakers along the way (although they kept dying on me!) and writing, rewriting and rewriting my script. Eventually it got good enough for the Oscar-winning actress I’d always wanted in the lead to like it and send it to her producer; it even went with recommendations to the producer of The Hunger Games. But it is “unfilmable” because the book has never been published in English and thus created a worldwide market for itself. It is also not as well-written as I remembered it! But it is prescient, and I have my own English translation of it sitting in a drawer if anyone in the UK-US publishing industry is interested after all? It deserves the mass audience it needs to get filmed and hammer a few truths home.
#7 The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, 1963.
I may not be especially well-read, but even I am shocked when I look at how white my bookshelves have been. With the exception of a few Asians and South Americans, all the authors I read growing up were what immigration forms used to call Caucasian. What a shame, in every sense. In our innocence, we thought loving our friends regardless of their skin colour was enough, but decades later the street where I grew up, even the street where I now live, are still terrifyingly unmixed. Clearly more is called for if society is to get healthier. We all seek within involuntary confines; still, I try to build my library for the young people who will graze in it and I’ll be damned if they don’t find certain volumes on the shelves. This one, though small, is a doorway.
#8 Rajasthan, Pauline van Lynden, 2003.
I am obviously not prejudiced about this one. The publication journey of this book was a trial by fire for my Mum, and for reasons other authors will understand (though few have had the courage and stamina to do it) she took it out of print when her publishers kept breaking their contract at every turn – this in spite of the fact that by then it had sold tens of thousands of copies in four languages and was still selling well. Her experiences, along with some of mine in various industries, led to us publishing our next two illustrated books with maximum author control – a path with its own challenges, a riot of fundraising and admin and dealing with designers’ egos, divine printers, possibly even more divine lithographers, then booksellers, lazy media editors and, well, some of the book world’s weaker side branches.
Although I would probably not repeat the exercise, the fire hasn’t gone out. Nor has this book about Rajasthan ever been paralleled, no matter how many ‘homages’ to it may have since been produced. Impossible to do it justice with a few snaps, so these are just some of my favourites; I particularly love the dads running around the fire with their newborn babies in their arms at Holi.
I hope one day this unicorn will have a new life under more loving wings. Meanwhile, it floats around second hand. And at the risk of sounding like the crone you try to avoid along your path… Generators of IP: learn your rights, read your contracts, get a grip on accounting and insist on getting what you agreed to from those who benefit from your work. It’s boring, but so is getting cheated, which, though some may try to convince you otherwise, is not “the author’s fate”. Nor does this make you difficult. Do your homework. It’s nice doing business with people who know their stuff.
#9 The Wonder Spot, Melissa Banks, 2005.
This is one of those books with unfortunate marketing. Its cover is awful, the reviews quoted on it are all from women’s magazines and style sections; everything about this book’s exterior screams “chick lit”, belying the quality of what is inside. No wonder Melissa Bank threw in the towel. Her work was not so much underrated (the reviews are glowing) as misclassified. Apparently she doesn’t write anymore. She teaches, arming other writers, one hopes.
This is basically Nora Ephron a generation later. It’s sharp and lovely, about a single woman with a brain and her travails in family and romantic life, pre social media, pre internet dating, pre/post navel-gazing. It’s funny, nostalgic, acerbic, taut. It’s the big sister to Bank’s short story collection, The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which my parents kindly gave me when I was still engaged in hunting and fishing and which I also highly recommend.
I suppose every woman has to brace herself for the annoying labels that are likely to be slapped on her as soon as she tries to publish anything related to being a human being involved in relationships with other human beings, and publishes under her full name rather than disguise herself behind a couple of coy initials. The only way through seems to be to have no ego and lots of trust that good writing will find its way to readers – oh yes, and money and a room of one’s own.
#10 A Perfect Spy, John Le Carré, 1986.
Who among your acquaintance do you think might be a spy? It’s a fun game to play. I know I was right about one person I used to be smitten with, but there must be more – and that’s just the ones who are officially leading a double life, the ones who admit it to themselves.
We were philosophising about this the other day: that we all kind of have to lie to ourselves on a daily basis in order to survive; at the very least, we’ve got to deny that we could die at any instant – as much as we have to remember it, of course. But what if you know you’re lying to everyone and you still carry on pretending? How long can you keep that up? People tend to think they are better liars than they are.
And then there are those nations famous for keeping vast distances between the private and the public spheres, to say nothing of duplicity. Rich territory for Le Carré, and hosannah, there is one more of his novels on the way. Of the others, beside the Smiley books, it is this one I remember best. Not only because what happens in it is so outrageous and heartbreaking it has to be very close to a lived truth, but because I remember reading it and realising for the first time that I could actually see a writer keeping up with his brain, someone brilliant who was able not to second-guess himself. It gave me a clue of what writing at the top of your game might be like.
And of course, as if I needed seducing further, it got me hook, line and sinker for a culture notorious for the art of deception. Where I come from is, by reputation, its polar opposite, priding itself on ‘what you see is what you get’, but it probably deceives itself all the more. Anyhow, complicated stuff. But in my next life I definitely want to be a spy.
If you had to pick one favourite out of every book you’ve ever read, what would it be? I have no idea, not even if I try to get around the exercise by basing my selection on memories around a book rather than the book itself. I remember reading Ronja the Robber’s Daughter for the first time, never wanting to leave The Secret Garden, discovering Jan Terlouw and Jane Austen and John Fowles. That moment when you find an author whose work you will be able to swim in for years. Michael Ondaatje. Robertson Davies. I remember Zorba the Greek, and getting insanely sunburnt reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin on the top deck of a ferry from Amorgos to Piraeus without getting up. I remember Isabel Allende’s Paula, Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing on My Grave, biographies that were perfect for you at the time and that you can never really read again. But my favourite book is the one I haven’t read yet. The one that just came in, the one you happen upon in a holiday let or an antiquariat, the one that someone who loves you mentions in passing and that answers all your prayers and soothes your sleepless nights. The one you are writing, bit by bit, note by note, in the background, as life flings you around its swings and roundabouts and you struggle to pull it all together. The one you know will make it into existence, into the hands of people you want to give courage and laughs and dreams to. The one you must get out before you lose the people you love the most. Before the children in your life get too old. Before you’ve no longer got the strength. Before… Well, best get on with it. So, down to the water I go again. See you when I resurface.