Monday, 16 April 2012

A Saturation of Books

I reached a tipping point I never knew existed the other night. ‘Oh, what shall, what shall I read?’ I said poetically, twirling around my room, neatly avoiding all the Avalanches Poised To Happen. And then, akin to a Tim Burton film, all the books waiting to be read sort of leered at me from their shelves, spilled out of drawers, lurched out the wardrobe, and gurgled ‘me’, the way they would do if Tim Burton let Stephen King take over the script.

I backed straight off into PG Wodehouse’s Summer Lightning quicker than you can say ‘arghhhhhh - comfort read!’

I was out with good friend R on Sunday (yesterday in fact, although if you read this on a coffee break on Tuesday you might be confused) and we wandered into a vintage emporium. ‘I’m not going to buy any books at all,’ I said, in manner of one making a Stern Vow, and then added (quickly and softly) ‘apart from books that look good,’ in the manner of one sheepishly knowing they have introduced a get-out clause.

But this is my problem. I can’t stop buying books. I buy more books than I know what to do with. I get given books. I rescue books from second-hand stores. I keep ALL books. Pretty soon there will be one of those hoarder documentaries of which television is so fond, and it will be me peering fussily at the camera,  leading bewildered television presenters to worm and wriggle through my book passages. (Read that last bit carefully. No mucky minds here, please. And if you didn’t spot anything mucky, then count yourself on a far higher plane than me.)

The problem (and glory be that this should be a problem) is that I have an influx of hardbacks that want my attention. I am really looking forward to reading them – lots of debut authors, and many others who are established that I haven’t yet had the pleasure of an introduction. But hardbacks! It’s like lugging a breezeblock to work, which I haven’t tried, by the way. I haven’t ever lugged a breezeblock anywhere. But I can imagine it’s a heavy, tricky business.

Perhaps I need to invest in a sturdier bag. Mmm. I love solutions that involve shopping.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Surrounded by ghosts

It dawned on me the other day that I spend far too much time surrounded by ghosts. The films I love to watch are predominantly full of actors no longer with us. The authors whose books populate my shelves no longer breathe. The people who created the music I listen to are now eternally silent. The hands that made the art I adore are forever still. Even the house I live in is a constant reminder of other, happier days, when everyone I loved lived and their laughter filled the rooms. Slowly melancholia takes over until it fills my soul with its soft incessant murmuring. Time is going by, time is over, time is moving on. And am I? I don’t know.

The prompt for this latest bout of sadness was, funnily enough, the nicest feel-good musical known to mankind, Singin’ in the Rain. I saw the stage show in London's west end recently, and it was so fantastic it tipped me straight back into the film. Although I always delighted in watching Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor dance across the floors (and chairs, tables, off walls), it’s only now, as I have practised more dance myself, that I am thinking all kinds of holy wow at their talent. So I have been dipping into YouTube, watching clips from distant television specials and black and white films, and it’s so un-nerving to go from seeing Donald O’Connor aged ten tap-dancing with his brothers for an audition to – one click! – his last ever performance as an elderly man. One click – he was born! Next click – his obituary. A whole life – boom, bang-a-lang – and then that’s it, folks. Show’s over, and no amount of applause will coax an encore, not this time. Not in this life.

This sort of thing gets me every time – from well-known actors to people glimpsed in social history, from documented famous lives to unknown faces fading in second-hand photographs. I find myself looking at people coming to the end of their twilight years and thinking ‘how was it for you?’, hoping that the answer is good, as our journeys through living time are so relatively quick. One tick, here. Next tick, gone. And the meter keeps running no matter what. Who pays the bill at the end? I guess that stays a secret.

When melancholy gets too heavy I have to step out of the past and surround myself by my contemporaries, by people who breathe. And so I make a point to watch films with actors who see the same sunset as I do, and read books by authors who wake each morning to tackle a new page. I add new tunes to my playlists by musicians currently recording, and go to exhibitions by artists who are alive. Remind myself to look around every so often and see the world as it actually is – right here, right now – not a sepia reproduction but a living place with possibility.

Sometimes I spend so much time looking backwards that I forget about looking forwards. I have to surprise myself, take future-thinking unawares. I’ll make a sneaky plan and then jump ahead a little, and am almost surprised at getting a step closer to my goal. Deep down I really want to look ahead, but layered on top are years of conditioning that tells me to be wary, that unpredictable things are always bad, that if you do that you will fall, that if you take risks you will sink. But I’ve been working very hard to make this conditioning diminish – even if it doesn’t totally leave me, I can make it lesson, take its power away. And keep facing forward.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Sunday on the South Bank

Spring has come early to the city, and, just like the daffodils, Londoners are unfurling in the sunshine, willing to trust in the blue sky and hope that the weather isn’t playing an April fool. I, like many others, headed to the South Bank, and went to...

...a chocolate festival. Or, more aptly, a chocolate scrum. The thing is, thousands of people mill around the Royal Festival Hall on a sunny day in search of something, anything, to do that doesn’t involve listening to chamber music. So any little market that sets up around the back is pounced upon by everyone and their niece faster than a cheetah in Nikes, especially if it starts handing out free chocolate.

The best way to imagine the scene is to picture a stall covered in bunting, manned by shell-shocked chocolate makers. In front of them is a jostling, heaving wall of people, all seemingly absolutely desperate for a taste of dark chocolate and chilli. Occasionally the stall holder will gingerly hold out a free sample, akin to feeding ravenous penguins. I had this vision of me leaping out from the back, catching a piece of chocolate in a single bite, and then vanishing into the crowd with a self-satisfied ‘arf’.

I didn’t do this, good people. But I might have done, had I stayed there any longer. Instead I went and...

...watched some break-dancing. We sat opposite Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and were treated to a fab impromptu display from four guys and a girl, all throwing athletic shapes and spinning arms over legs on the dusty concrete floor. We clapped and we cheered; we threw money in the hat and marvelled at folk who go out dancing wearing a crash-helmet. I mean, you’ve got to be seriously committed to doing a head-twirl; it’s a tricky style look to pull off, otherwise.

We walked on and heard music drifting up from the Thames. A quick peer over the wall, and down in the murky water there’s a bloke in waders, playing a guitar. He sings to us, and we see that he has a blanket pegged on the strip of shoreline, covered in coins. We turn back and narrowly miss bumping into a bloke dressed as Oliver Cromwell, strolling through the crowds, his lady-friend nonchalantly carrying a trailing pennant. Following behind, we came to my favourite place...

...the long trestle tables filled with second-hand books underneath Waterloo Bridge. Five minutes later, and I’d already bought a 1963 Pan edition of Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie, and the 1968 book Poor Cow by Nell Dunn, author of Up the Junction. It’s too dangerous for my wallet’s health to linger so we did a quick flutter around the arts and crafts found in Gabriel’s Wharf before retiring to a secret place overlooking the river, continuing our evening inside while the sunset transformed the water into dusky pink and shot silver.

Chilly, chilly is evening time
Waterloo sunset’s fine...

The Kinks, 1967