Reflections on a decade of reading

To early morning prayers on the first Saturday of this new month, this year, this new decade: outside, squirrels and magpies go about their winter business. As the day dawns, the exquisite light cheapens and becomes more banal, less delicate.

And now a look back at some of my reading over the last ten years. I have – at least according to my own records – read 491 books. Of those books, 349 I read for the first time: the rest, were books I have read before, sometimes once, sometimes more often. Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion” and C.S Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” top the re-read list, followed closely by Tolkien’s “The Children of Hurin” and R.A Heinlein’s “The cat who walks through walls” and “Friday”. Did I re-read any non-fiction? Why yes! I read twice these last ten years, Sebastian Junger’s “War” and Jon E. Lewis’s “The Making of the American West“. Also, Anthony Beevor’s account of the Spanish Civil War, and N.A.M Roger’s history of the Royal Navy, “The Safeguard of the Sea“.

I read two books called “On writing” – one – most excellent work – by Stephen King; the other, by George Orwell. I’ve read every one of Alan Furst’s dozen delicately written European spy novels set generally at the outbreak of World War II.

Alex Scarrow’s “Last light” was an apocalypse based around the end of electricity – how thin is the barrier that keeps the rule of law in place? How quickly could a person – or a society – somehow stumble through that barrier, and find themselves trampled to death by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming at a fast gallop in the other direction? In Scarrow’s book – about 48 hours. The Prime Minister fumbles a vital question in a press conference on a Monday morning. Wednesday afternoon, a policeman is shot dead at a motorway roadblock – and so the die-back begins. It was reminiscent of Nevil Shute’s propaganda piece “What happened to the Corbetts“, which was a fictional account written in the late 1930’s, of the bombing and destruction of the city of Southampton by an unknown enemy.

I had a re-read of Antony Beever’s masterful account of the Spanish Civil War – a book I enjoy reading, as he deals very lightly with the grey areas, the nuance and complexity of that conflict. I read a paper copy of the collected short stories of Arthur C. Clarke – always a pleasure to re-read the story of the Master, or the story of Grant and McNeil marooned on their freighter between Earth and Venus – with only enough air for one. I read and re-read Bill Bryson’s book “Mother tongue” about our great language. I was particularly impressed with “The man who went into the west“, being a biography of that sublime and yet oddly disquieting English poet, R.S Thomas. A clergyman who hid from his parishioners, a most peculiar and perhaps unlovable man, and yet, what poetry:

 The priest would come
and pull on the hoarse bell nobody
heard, and enter that place
of darkness, sour with the mould
of the years. And the spider would run
from the chalice, and the wine lie
there for a time, cold and unwanted
by all but he, while the candles
guttered as the wind picked
at the roof.

I read a number of China Mieville novels, and was most impressed by “Embassytown“, a story where the human ambassadors to a race of beings who speak with two mouths, have to be telepathic identical twins trained from birth. A very strange story – but fundamentally, all about language and communication. I read a couple of the memoirs of the late Clive James – what a writer, what a great guy. There are and have been few role models in my life, but God knows I’d regard him as one. Inspiring to me because he came from nothing. In “Unreliable memoirs” he writes of small boys throwing stones at an old lady, and compares it with Kristallnacht, noting that “the difference between mischief and murder is no greater than the law allows“.

I went through a Dennis Wheatley phase, once his material became available on Kindle, and relived some of the stories I first read in my early twenties. Evan Connell’s “Son of the morning star” was a biography of General Custer – and hence, of the development of the American west. That is a particular historical interest of mine. F.A Hayek wrote “The Road to serfdom” – a destruction of the errors of socialism – and perhaps the most influential book I’ve read this last ten years. Though oddly, it did not stand up (or has not yet done so) to re-reading.

I went through a Bond period and re-read much of Fleming’s original 007 stories. Great, spare writing. I also read a good few of Iain Banks space-opera novels, and also his de facto autobiography called “Raw Spirit” which I found encouraging. I read some of Keith Laumer’s science fiction stories, and Lord Moran’s excellent “The anatomy of courage” which every single one of us ought read. I read the journal of the Lewis and Clark expedition- that was long and tedious in places, but rivetting and exciting in others. Neal Stephenson’s work was a blessing to me – particularly “Cryptonomicon” and “The System of the World“. Nevil Shute’s “In the wet” I’d also highly recommend. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the radical and strange voting system he proposes in that story.

Who else is there to mention? Kipling, perhaps. I went through a Kipling phase after one of my daughters spent time at Simla, and later, lived for a year or so near New Delhi. “Plain tales from the hills” demonstrates that astute observer of the human condition in his best form. “Kim” I would put on the list of books everyone ought to read. Two interesting things about Kipling’s “Kim”: 1) it is available extensively in translation throughout India – but it is not available in Urdu and hence not available at all in Pakistan – where much of the story is set. I leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about that. 2) It is not so much the startng point of the Scout movement – that would be B.P’s “Scouting for Boys” – as the grandfather or underlying source material for Scouting. You want to understand what Scouting is about? Read “Kim”.

We may add the former astronaut Stephen Baxter. Whilst no crackerjack conspiracy theorist, he suggests that NASA exists not to faciliate human space flight but to prevent it – we could have gone to Mars in the 1980’s. I recommend “Flood” and “Ark” and especially “Moonseed” with a character whose immortal line is – after Arthur’s Seat becomes once again an active volcano – “Edinburgh is Olympus Mons now”. Also the learned Doctor Theodore Dalrymple. Never less than a pleasure – such works as “The politics and culture of decline” and “The Wilder shores of Marx”.

Tom Bingham wrote “The rule of law”, a helpful book on a vital concept. It is a book I bought and read after an oddly encouraging visit to Parliament which my wife and I won in a raffle. Up for re-reading in these interesting times, is that one. The leather-faced explorer the late Wilfred Thesiger was one of a series of Arabist explorers of the last 150 years. He was effectively guilty of opening the flood gates and allowing the desecration by oil companies of the Rubal Khali or Empty Quarter of Arabia. But he writes wonderfully of the (now doubtless long-vanished) desert Bedu. Read his autobiography “My life and travels“. Read “Arabian Sands“.

Much that perhaps ought to be included has been omitted. But I just read a book called “Steal like an artist” by Austin Kleon, and he notes that the future, in the present world where we are swamped by easily available data and information, belongs to those who know what to leave out. It was perhaps ever thus…and on that note, I bid you good day.

Nick Hough <nick@houghlife.com>Fri, 3 Jan, 18:46

Churchill and Orwell, by Thomas Ricks

As ever in my book reviews, the word “readable” comes near the beginning and is intended as a compliment. As Orwell himself wrote, the writer should be doing the hard work, not the reader.

Three writers of the last century, have influenced me greatly. Churchill and Orwell are two of them. The third is Ian Fleming. I knew I had to have a copy of this encouraging and inspiring work, the moment I set eyes on it on the shelf in a bookshop in Sevenoaks. A single book about two of my favourite writers, it did not disappoint. Part commentary, part biography, it revealed things that I did not already know. It made me think about my own position – how was I like Churchill, like Orwell? How was I dealing with the Lord Halifaxes, the Neville Chamberlains, the Franklin Roosevelts, in my own life? Neither man was perfect; both had feet of clay. As much can be learnt from a study of their flaws and failures, as from their successes and their greatness.

Churchill, as well he might, tends to dominate that part of the work dealing with their actual lives – the biographical section. Orwell is predominant in the latter part of the book dealing with their legacy. Orwell, virtually unrecognized in his lifetime, is today considered one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. Ricks argues that Orwell was and is the more influential author and “thought leader” for today’s world, even if Churchill was the more influential at the time. It was interesting to read of the two characters being unrecognised and “in the wilderness” at different times.

There were a few unsure steps and odd passages, some occasional gushing and some arguably unnecessary detail in places, but in general, this was an excellent and worthwhile read. It is amongst those books which I might call “life-changing”.

Istanbul

Between the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Marmara, there lies the narrow passage of the Bospurus, a shallow gorge only a few hundred metres wide. It is bridged several times by new and glittering suspension bridges, and on either side, lies the ancient and noble city of Istanbul.  It is not hard to imagine that this city is not modern Istanbul, but the Stamboul of Graham Greene’s novel, or the Constantinople of the Middle Ages, or even the Byzantium of antiquity. Even the Istanbul visited by James Bond in “From Russia with love” is full of romance. 

To me Istanbul is one of the most evocative and exciting places in the world. At a cross-roads of cultures, neither Islamic nor Christian, not Mediterranean, but influenced thereby. The might of Russia lies to the north like a sleeping giant, the deserts of Arabia are near enough to the East.

And we came there, by ship. Our ship came from Constantza, in Romania, and arrived in the roads on a rainy morning one February. We were taking the ship from Constantza right round Europe to Bergen in Norway, a journey of many weeks, and the majority of the crew were gathered ready to get off and go home – from right here in Istanbul. What a place to go home from…one minute, the exotic banks of the Bosporus, a few hours later – Birmingham New Street. What a contrast!

There were all manner of ships in the roads. Rusting, nondescript freighters from Cyprus. Small fishing boats, huge bulk carriers. The wind whipped the sea, and the rain spattered down. Mist obscured the top minarets of the Blue Mosque and the towers of St. Sophia’s cathedral. It was not a pleasant morning – but this was Istanbul. What possibilities!

Our boss was a man called Marco, a big man in his late thirties, half Italian and half Brazilian, a man who spoke excellent English despite not having heard a word of it until the age of sixteen. Marco took one look at the city and said, “lets go ashore”. Even as our colleagues were climbing onto a small boat to take them ashore to a fleet of taxis and the airport, we were going to be left behind. A word with the Captain assured us we had time to go ashore for an hour or two. A moment to collect our passports and such cash as we could muster, and we were on the boat ourselves – in our work clothes, in sea boots, with no coats. But Marco was taking us to Istanbul.

The rain was against us, but we cared naught for it. Romance was in our veins. Once ashore, the rest of the crew said their goodbyes and melted away. For a brief few hours we were alone with this great city. She would surely give of herself to those who dared for a day to visit her, to those who seized the moment. Could she be romanced for a brief fling? We started with a few beers and a light lunch in a dockside workman’s café – it was that time of day and the place recommended itself to us by being a dry place to sit out of the rain, no more than yards from where we came shore. Thus fortified, we first spent a little time obtaining some local currency, and then we sallied forth in a taxi to see what we could find – we were bound for the Bazaar.

Marco was an interesting character. As a youth he had run carpets out of Iran in the days before the Iranian revolution of 1978. He had spent time in the East and was confident he could find a fine carpet here in the bazaar. He was the kind of person that got things done, quite frequently by breaking or bending the rules. I had a stormy professional relationship with him, but one of the rules of our business, strict and unbreakable, was that work was work, and it was never brought into the bar or the social setting. Here we were amiable companions, work completely forgotten about. Such people as Marco are rarer nowadays, in our modern world of Safety standards, regulations and operating procedures, work instructions, meetings and Powerpoint presentations. And our world is poorer thereby.

The bazaar was a riot of colour and fragrance, all manner of things hung up for sale, every possible variety of cloth, leather and material. Carpets and kitchen utensils, trinkets and tools, presents and gifts. Here of course one had to bargain. Marco, who knew about such matters, warned us solemnly. You MUST bargain. They will not take you seriously otherwise. They will start the bargaining at four or five times the lowest price they could sell it at and still turn a profit. Keep that in mind…

Wandering around the bazaar my eye was caught by a merchant selling waistcoats. These were in gorgeous fabrics, a sweep of colours and styles. I thought they were great, but not so great as to part with serious money for them. The trader saw me and came across to pluck at my sleeve. He named an outrageously high price; insulted, I suggested to him that he might keep his waistcoat at that price. Those were not my exact words. After some bargaining and good natured insults, this peddler of cheap cloth, this charlatan who had tried to get me to part with over sixty dollars, sold me a rather fine waistcoat for a little over a tenner. I was delighted with my purchase. My wife wore on it occasion – it was in very bright colours – for a year or so, and I think it is still in the children’s dressing up box.

I found Marco in a carpet shop, arguing with the owner. He had strung the owner along and had a dozen of so of his finest carpets laid out over the floor, examining them minutely. He clearly knew good from bad in the Turkish Carpet scene, but I don’t think he had the slightest intention of buying a carpet then and there. But Marco was a Poker player and you could not read his face, this not being helped by a big black beard. He nearly caused a scene, mind. One of the pointers to a true Turkish carpet of quality, he had opined earlier, was that it could be washed and would not stain. No substance would stain it. The truth of this assertion I did doubt somewhat, but the evidence at the time – our subsequent escape from the carpet shop –  did point to him being quite correct. The carpet merchant served strong Turkish coffee to Marco, as was the custom in such shops. And Marco, sipping this coffee, quite deliberately spilled some on one of the merchant’s carpets. It all looked quite accidental, of course, and he was all apologies, but we onlookers knew he had done it on purpose. A cheap carpet would be ruined by strong coffee. We do not know if the actual carpet on which Marco spilled his coffee was one such, because we made our exit shortly thereafter, as it became quite clear to the carpet merchant that Marco had no intention of actually buying a Turkish carpet.

Alas, our time was coming to an end. We found a taxi, and made a mad dash through the rainy streets back to the dockside, to meet up with the small boat that would take us back to our home away from home. Istanbul, goodbye! You showed us a little of yourself – just a glimpse, a tantalizing glimpse. Not for us a whole night with you, but just a hint of thigh, a hidden curve of bosom. Istanbul – well we remember you, though we visit you again as older and perhaps not so wise men.

.

An account of suffering from pneumonia

Tues 13th January

On my way to Aberdeen on business, I had a beer with AK. in “The Head of Steam” at Euston station, with a nice burger and pleasant conversation as ever. I note in passing that over the last few days I felt some slight aches and pains in my left upper back from what I thought was some kind of pulled muscle.

I took the sleeper train from Euston to Aberdeen. This train was heavily delayed. I was woken up by silence when the train should have been thundering along. As a former seafarer silence can often wake me up – sudden silence on a ship at sea, particularly a seismic survey ship, is always a serious matter.

Weds 14th January

I was not best pleased to wake up finding the sleeper train parked at Edinburgh Waverley and that the time was a little after 6a.m – the train was nearly three hours late. It should have been through Edinburgh well before 4a.m.

We were asked to leave the train, which had broken down. I went from being snug in bed, unshaven, in pyjamas, to being smartly dressed for business and hurriedly shaved, on the station platform, in less than 15 minutes. The time was 6.45a.m and I felt dreadful, like death warmed up.

However, feeling rough at an early hour is part of life for the business traveller, and it wouldn’t be the first time, so I shrugged it off. By the time I got to Aberdeen it was 11a.m, and I had started feeling rougher still on the train North, with an unshakeable headache and terrible weariness. I did some business but the flu-like symptoms worsened to the point that by mid afternoon work was no longer possible, and I cried off sick. I recall shivering hunched in my greatcoat in the foyer of an Aberdeen marine contractor, waiting for a cab to my hotel, feeling like a character out of Dickens – “I have the ague”.

I had a bath, and retreated to bed. During the night the hotel turned off the heating, and I needed to call reception to get it back on again, as I was shivering.

Thurs 15th January

I just managed a light breakfast (always a clear sign that I am not well). The snow was sifting down outside as I ate. I managed to do my job as secretary for a certain committee, the primary reason I was in Aberdeen. Back to London by air, feeling rougher by the second. I was blessed mightily by the lady in the BA lounge who (as a favour to my Gold card carrying boss, not to me) allowed me to travel back on an earlier flight. Answered prayers! Shivering in the taxi back to to my home, into the bath and into bed by 8pm.

Fri 16th  January

A day of unavoidable hard work which was shared by others in the community. I’d given warning that I needed assistance, being poorly, with the setting up of the Frost Camp. My wife helped, and WC, Mrs P and Mrs D. My strength ebbed by mid-afternoon but there was no escape. I was much blessed and encouraged by the presence and the prayers of Susan Hanson at home.

At Bentley Copse my Scout colleague and I worked ourselves silly putting tents up from 3pm til 6.30pm, at which point I could no longer stand.

I went to give team information to the Wardens up in the lodge, and the Warden’s wife made me a cup of tea and brought it to my hand. This caused me to burst into tears, at which point I knew that I was gravely ill and deeply tired as a consequence. (I am often very emotional when exhausted and in my last job sometimes I had to bite my tongue to prevent myself from crying when absolutely shattered. There would be no sympathy for mere tiredness on a seismic ship.) It was warm inside the hut and I was overborne with exhaustion and a sense of responsibility for all our youngsters.

I could not face staying up and went to bed early at 10a.m. I took a very rough night indeed, and slept not one wink, from pain and discomfort in my back primarily, from the noise of the Scouts and from the sound of wind and rain on the tent. On the plus side one of the few things I do enjoy is being snuggled up inside a tent on a rainy night.

After the fact I note that that from Thursday afternoon onwards I had the symptoms of pneumonia, but it really started to kick in on Friday night.

Sat 17th  January

I staggered to life in considerable distress with great pain in the side, upper back and chest. It made my breathing laboured and shallow. After breakfast I made my excuses and walked with difficulty, twisted and bent over, to the office, where I organised a doctor. I sat in the car wondering if I had the strength to drive; I certainly had not the strength to go back to the campsite and make a formal handover, and left all my gear where it lay. Much of my remaining strength was spent on the phone securing the assistance of another Permit holder.

Thence to Dorking to see a doctor, who prescribed “Augmentin”, and thence to Redhill where I was met by my wife who had been kindly driven through by Mrs C. My wife drove me home to a bath and thence to bed with a consolidated infection of the lower lobe of the left lung – pneumonia.

There was no measurable improvement in pain until after 10pm, when I’d had three doses of the antibiotics. Pain became ache. I was much troubled also with waking dreams, hallucinations and unpleasant visions of moving objects, swirling fantastic landscapes of outrageous, out-of-this-world colours. I slept poorly, and for the first time in my life, had to sleep sat up, because it was too painful to lie down.

Sun 18th  January

I had a slow day in bed starting the pattern of the next four days or so. Porridge in bed early, then a cooked breakfast in bed, a long hot bath and back to bed to drowse or read. I became feverish and started shivering violently at intervals, particularly after the exertion of a round-trip to the loo – perhaps eight paces there and eight paces back!

I was still troubled, more so, by hallucinations as soon as I closed my eyes. This induced nausea – as the visions were all of violently fast motion – and I reflected that if this is as bad as it gets, it could get a lot worse.

Mon 19th  January

Recovery continued almost imperceptibly. I managed a bit of email and stuff. Washing machine breaks down – what a time for it to do so.

Tues 20th  January

I watched a movie. I found that I could once again lie on my side for a short period without intolerable discomfort. I was still weak and felt particularly dreadful in the evening and around dinner time. The doc said this was usual – I was fortunate in that a doctor came to the house to see me – I could not have gone to the surgery at all and going to hospital is to be avoided at the best of times.

Ordered another washing machine on the internet – there goes our planned holiday to Lee Abbey at winter half term.

Weds 21st  January

It is becoming clear that the antibiotics are not prevailing against the infection – I am not getting better. The doctor prescribes stronger ones. Reading Scripture, esp. Isa. 38:17.

After a tough time of shivering feverishness, following my morning bath, I spent the morning drowsing and could hardly face some soup at lunch. But I rallied in the afternoon to a worrying degree. I remain ill but better than the same time yesterday. Towards dinner time feeling much stronger, but then rougher again as evening wore on. I was painfully hungry and had a big appetite for a good supper of chilli con carne. Later, another shivering attack after a visit to the loo. Did some leg exercises, as I was worried about the atrophy effects of being bed-bound for days on end. It made me tired – I am weak.

Thurs 22nd  January

An OK nights sleep. I had high hopes that there would be a dramatic improvement in health today, but instead, it has been much like the other days, with incremental, imperceptible improvement. More walking up and down in the bedroom to get my body going.

Fri 23rd  January

Last night I slept on my back for the first time since last week. However I did not sleep well; there were frequent dreams and discomfort woke me up frequently from 4a.m onwards.

After a bath, I went downstairs for the first time in over a week to sit and lie in the study, doing this and that, taking a slow day. I felt I did loads and had a full day. To bed for an almost “normal” nights sleep.

Sat 24th  January

Day nine of my illness proper.

Less sweats in the small hours, but still an uncomfortable night with frequent awakenings and nagging discomfort.

My wife and I sat in bed til 10a.m as if it was an ordinary Saturday morning. I had a shave and a shower rather than a bath, and actually got dressed! Following a hearty breakfast in the kitchen this time, I rested up in the study, though I was pottering up and down the stairs (slowly) several times during the day. By 4pm I felt quite worn out, and My wife bade me retreat to the bedroom. After another bout of feverishness I took a bath and so to bed after a relaxing evening at 10p.m. Too much too soon?

Sun 25th January

Properly convalescent now, but the weather is dreadful. Driving rain kept us indoors all day long. A day of pottering, planning aspects of Scout camp with my wife, and other stuff. I was very hungry. I needed a second cooked breakfast at noon, following my first at 10a.m. Nonetheless I have lost half a stone. At dusk my wife and I played Scrabble.

Mon 26th January

Feeling better at break of day, but still experiencing broken sleep in the small hours. Pain much lessened, now a dull ache under the left shoulder blade, without brufen. I did a little work in the study and went for my first walk out with my wife, to the end of the street and back. My wife wants to nurse me back to health as carefully as possible without relapse.

Scrabble at dusk, and a surfeit of energy in the evening. To bed, but not before 10.30pm – feeling almost normal.

Tues 27th January

Still waking up early, around 7a.m, but for the first time, without feeling the residual dampness from perspiration, coming from feverishness during the night hours. My energy levels are coming back up. No need for painkillers.

There is NO repaying what my wife has done for me as a wife this past two weeks; to say that I am forever in her debt is literally true.

Today a longer walk and a full and active morning. Remaining very hungry at intervals. I started feeling “bath-ish” and a little feverish around 7p.m. Later, at rest, I find I have pain in the left lower lobe at the rear, which feels like a step backwards. I do find more pain in the evenings.

Weds 28th January

A good nights sleep. Noting less and less pain and deeper breathing range. Nagging discomfort in left kidneys, otherwise feeling good.

As afternoon wears on, I feel less special. At 2pm I hit the painkillers again – Cocodamol and Brufen. Discomfort and nagging pain in the left lung, front and back. Feels like it is getting worse again. Feeling ratty, particularly as I find myself losing at Scrabble (itself not unusual!)

No lasting city here, but hope in the City that is to come – Hebrews 13:14

Thurs 29th January

To Westerham for a stroll and visit to a café – my first serious trip out. It was to be just coffee and cake but I was so hungry I ordered a Full English and the best pot of tea I have drunk in years.

Back home, some pottering and a relaxing afternoon. I was sketching and drawing. For some reason I am drawn to sketch, draw and paint.

At 4pm to the doctor, who prescribed a further course of strong antibiotics to finish off the remaining infection. Painkillers in the evening and cards, including a rare family game of Black Maria. And so to bed on this long road to recovery, at 10.40p.m.

A further week off is mandated by the doctor, and a trip to the Royal Victoria at East Grinstead, for chest X-rays. The doctor specifically suggested this hospital rather than the less reputable East Surrey at Redhill.

Fri 30th January

Up and feeling OK; to East Grinstead for chest X-rays. Then a sandwich whilst my wife shopped in Sainsbury’s and back home to rest up. Later, some easy work and a pleasant visit from those two affable buffoons DW and WC, which is a lovely gesture and welcome, even if I find I have little enough to say.

Later on, Anna made a nice supper, and my wife and I played Scrabble, then my wife went out. I felt very tired and had a bath, after which I flopped onto bed, exhausted. I find I have an annoying “crick” in my neck which only manifests when I lay myself down to sleep at night.

Sat 31st January – day 16

This period of illness has caused me to pray much. As I grow more accustomed to prayer, I find long-lost habits and tastes for silence before God returning to me.

Cooked some soup and made supper (Chilli) and then played Scrabble. Had a bath and then to bed – again with a crick in the neck.

Sun 1st February

Did not go to church. At 11a.m my son and I delivered the District mailing in bitterly cold conditions. Briefly saw TB at the Scout hut and discussed the new front door and its keys. Snow flurries at lunch quickly turned into a downpour which continued all afternoon.

Weds 4th February

A first day back at work – a leisured start, taking train only at 0923, but it was late! I did not get to 5LBS until 1040. I put in an acceptable day’s work and left still feeling strong – but was weak by the time I got home. My wife prepared tea for me. She had bought several shirts for me and we had a peaceful time together whilst I tried them all on. Then, I made supper, thence to the doctors and made a shopping list for the forthcoming curry night which I was doing for eight paying customers.