Mother Who

Question:

What could be better than chocolates, even better than flowers or perhaps breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day?

Answer:

When, part way through Mother’s Day brunch, your sixteen-year-old son enthusiastically suggests that you could be the next Dr Who!

P1040511 - Copy

Nothing to Declare

As I, along with the rest of my travel-weary family and the multitudes of other similarly afflicted passengers inched our way towards a Customs Officer at Auckland International airport, my thoughts necessarily drifted to another long-ago passenger, Oscar Wilde, who on arrival at the New York Custom House, is said to have uttered, “I have nothing to declare except my genius”.  Likely, amid this throng of humanity, were ‘remain’ and non-Trump voters, who, on arrival at the customs desk, might reasonably echo this 19th century sound bite.  Whereas, I had nothing to declare but my waywardness.  Evidence of which—one hardback and one paperback—lay concealed in my suitcase.

In truth, it wasn’t that I’d fallen off the wagon, but rather, stepped off it briefly to save a couple of books in imminent danger.  Let me explain.  We were holidaying in Cambodia and naturally, added to the ‘to see and do’ list was, ‘find bookshop(s)’.  Finding them was not difficult. In fact, I discovered two fine Phnom Penh bookshops—D’s Books and Bohr’s Books—near our hotel.

What did prove difficult was comprehending the reality of what I’d found.  Book-selling in Cambodia is not for the faint-hearted.  Thanks to unrelenting humidity—even in January relative humidity seldom drops below 41% and can reach as high as 99%—Cambodian booksellers must contend with, what Andrew Lang once described as, “the first great foe” of books, damp. And, despite seemingly excellent air circulation in addition to overhead fans and air conditioners, its destructive presence—foxing in particular—was all too evident.  So, if you’re in Cambodia spare a thought for these tenacious book-folk and please do buy some books.

Books & me: Quantitatively Speaking

How I see my books has always been a view through rose-coloured glasses.  The imaginative lens that overlooks the rising tide of books and frequently underestimates the depth relative to my reading strength. That conceives of beginning a secret bookshop—think Brazenhead Books with better amenities—Front Room Books, a deliciously acceptable front for further acquisitions.  So, buoyant and bespectacled, I remind Ali, “You can never have too many books”.

fullsizerender-1-glasses-on-top

Looking back it was inevitable really.  Loss of buoyancy and glasses, a direct consequence of lugging twenty-two boxes of books single-handedly from the basement.  And it was, as I reached for a towel to halt the twenty-two rivulets of sweat coursing down my face that I began to wonder if I might indeed be sinking in this sea of books.

Which brings me to what I’ve been doing lately.  Counting and cataloguing the sea of books; reminiscing with those into which I’ve dipped and dived, while shamefacedly confessing to others that I’m still dithering at their pages edge.

reading-roll-call

I have unwittingly, it would seem held an audit of my reading.  And so, faced with the evidence that unbridled book acquisition does in fact interfere with actual reading, I have resolved that 2017 will be a year of determined reading and book-buying abstinence.

gifts-from-the-sea

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Trumpery – in my book

“That trumpery hope which lets us dupe ourselves” OED

Chapter 1

chapter-1Chapter 2

chapter-2Chapter 3

chapter-3

“Even the soul most heroically endowed with firmness cannot maintain a consciousness of inward worth when such a consciousness can find no external basis of support”

Simone Weil 1909-1943

 

Books Redux

I read recently, in the magazine supplement of our weekend paper that books are back. Great. So are mine. Back on their shelves after a five-year, earthquake-enforced slumber.  In fact I had just lifted the last box of them from our basement that very weekend.  But what, if anything, did it mean to have books back.  That finally, normal transmission had been resumed?  It certainly felt that way to me.  For the record, my books are like family—entertaining and exasperating in equal measure—but they’ve always been there even if I’m distracted and forget to stay in touch.   So perhaps it is us, rather than books, that are back.  Back in touch with print culture and the tangible trafficking in books.   Because, according to the story I was reading, across New Zealand independent booksellers, both established and fledgling, are happily holding their own, amid a culture still awash and in thrall, with all things digital.

As if this news alone might not convince me, Ali, waving her latest issue of Next magazine in my general direction, called out “take a look at this, they’ve got a book-vending machine in Singapore.”   And so I also read that earlier this year, not one but two book-vending machines had materialised in the city. Although apparently common in Japan, the book vending machines are a first for Singapore.  Inspired by Allen Lane’s 1937 Penguincubator, Kenny Leck, owner of BooksActually, installed the two S$9,900 machines—a third is in the pipeline—with a Capability Development grant from Spring Singapore. Each book vending machine houses between 150-200 books—with an emphasis on Singaporean writers—and thanks to a collaboration with local artists and illustrators, each machine wears its own metaphorical dust jacket.  One resides at the National Museum, the other you’ll find on Orchard Rd at the Visitor Centre and the Goodman Arts Centre will be home to the third. But, not unlike a mobile library, the book vending machines will be peripatetic, moving location around Singapore every three months.

On my desk is one of my favourite New Yorker covers, Shelved by Roz Chast.  It shows a solitary figure—perhaps you, perhaps me—hooked up to our modern day life support systems, yet all the while unconscious of the life in books that surround us.  Maybe we’re finally waking up.

my-desk

Brexit-in my book


Chapter 1

Picture1

Chapter 2

Picture2

Chapter 3

Picture3

Chapter 4

Picture4

 

In the Space of a Year

Space is elusive.  It’s slippery, difficult to pin down.  Space is at once personal and public, material and metaphorical.  It can cheer you up or get you down.   Space is political.  It can confine or liberate.  Space is contested and hierarchical.  Of the numerous permutations of space governing our lives, three defined 2015 for me.

  1. Interstitial Space

Accompanying me as I write, is the rough rapid beat of a hammer interspersed with the staccato rhythm of the nail gun.  The musicians responsible, not visible from my vantage point, are perched high in the scaffolding that surrounds our ill-fated chimney.  I am of course resigned to the intrusion, this background music has been playing in the personal and public spaces of post-earthquake Christchurch for nearly five years.  That I’m present at this unsolicited performance is rather more difficult to reconcile.  With an assuredly generous time-frame of nine weeks for requisite EQR (Earthquake Recovery) repairs, we moved out of our home and into rented accommodation at the end of February 2015.  Astonishingly nine weeks ballooned to eight months, necessitating a second move.  Ultimately, with our insurance accommodation allowance exhausted – although, squandered, is closer to the truth of it – on October 17, we returned to a partially repaired home.  Gradually we have reclaimed the garage and the dining-room has been divested of excess furniture, the outliers returned to their rightful rooms.  The lounge, however, remains divided territory, so disappointingly I have not been ‘unpacking my library’. No I haven’t!   Twenty-fifteen was a year of living-between spaces – a metaphoric fluid shift from the intracellular space that is home, to the interstitial space – where you and your stuff don’t really belong.  But it is, as Seneca observed, “the disaster of an earthquake stretches far and wide”[i] And so, as 2016 begins, we remain – like many other families in this city – in a state of disequilibrium, homeostasis not yet restored.

 

  1. Empty Space

“One day there is life…And then, suddenly, it happens there is death”,[ii] opens Paul Auster’s Portrait of an Invisible Man, written following the sudden death of his father.  Auster’s narrative, the first section of his book The Invention of Solitude, is part meditative, part forensic investigation, and it was this I reached for and reread in the days following my father’s death on April 2nd, casting aside Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, – an equally affecting account of the impact of a father’s death – which ironically, I was half way through when Dad died.  That I relinquished MacDonald in favour of Auster, had nothing to do with literary merit and everything to do with utility.  I needed a mirror.  And on the Richter scale of grief, MacDonald’s seemed at a magnitude far greater than mine, while Auster, dry-eyed and accepting, came closer.  Auster’s father was in good health when he died, my dad had small cell lung cancer, with local spread into the mediastinal lymph nodes at the time of his diagnosis in June 2014.  But, like Auster’s father, dad also, had died suddenly.  Swiftly, confounding even the doctors and nurses at the hospice, to which he’d been admitted two days prior, for symptom management.  Abruptly, and without undue fuss, dad it seemed, had just disappeared.  In the days subsequent, bereft and struggling to assemble him again for the eulogy I must write, I wondered if dad had ever really been here.  And that’s not to say he shirked the responsibilities that came with marriage – he and mum were just shy of their 60th wedding anniversary when he died – and fatherhood.  But, to me at least, dad was always just out of reach; inscrutable.   I reread Portrait of an Invisible Man, to both absolve and console myself.  That it was alright to feel as if you’d never really known your father, because, as Auster wrote, “If it is true that we can ever come to know another human being, even to a small degree, it is only to the extent that he is willing to make himself known.”[iii]  I’d found Auster’s narrative more than twenty years ago.  It was revelatory.  Insofar as, in Auster’s portrayal, certain words, certain passages, were like windows through which I would catch glimpses of my father.  Even to the story Auster recounts, when his father – described as “always a man of habit”[iv] – in the week after shifting house, absentmindedly returned to their former home, made his way upstairs and lay down in the bedroom as he typically did before dinner, all the while blissfully unaware that anything had changed.  Remarkably, dad – also a man of habit – had done almost the exact same thing, but realising his mistake, somewhat sooner than Auster’s father, had stopped short of opening the front door.

dad_0005

Caroline Bay Carnival Christmas 1968

Although the trajectory of their lives differed – Auster’s father was divorced and, at the time of his death, had lived alone for fifteen years – as children, both had survived significant events.  And, as Auster speculated, “A boy cannot live through this kind of thing without being affected by it as a man.”[v] It was only after his father’s death, and quite by chance, that Auster discovered his grandmother had murdered his grandfather.  I, on the other hand, had grown up knowing something of dad’s story.  His mother died soon after his birth and his British born father returned to England.  So, effectively orphans, dad and his older brother, were taken into care.

I had reached for Portrait of an Invisible Man seeking absolution and consolation, but in rereading what I really found was some perspective.  Whether because of, or in spite of, the circumstances of those formative years, dad wore life with equanimity.  And perhaps, in the end that was all I needed to know.

 

  1. Breathing Space

Yes, it was a holiday, but it was also a means of escape from the diet of disinformation fed to us by EQR for the past seven months.  We sought refuge in Wellington for a week at the end of September.  And needless to say, I resolved to visit as many bookshops as time – and family patience – would allow.  I reasoned it would be an antidote to EQR-angst, a salve for the spirit.  Thankfully the capital is blessed with many fine bookshops and, as I discovered, book hunting adventures boosted by a new publication, Book Wellington: The Booklover’s Guide to the Capital, designed by Fitz Beck Creative.  Whimsically described, “like a pub crawl for books” by the Association of New Zealand Booksellers, the map offers the truly obsessed with directions to, and descriptions of, eighteen bookshops.  Familiar with many of them, I began my pilgrimage at a favourite, Pegasus Books, situated on the Left Bank of Cuba St.

SAMSUNG

Pegasus Books Left Bank Cuba St Wellington

 

Spread over a warren of rooms, John Hoskins bouquinerie offers a rich array of books, from antiquarian to nearly new.  I lingered contentedly amongst shelves that served a bouillabaisse of Poetry, Music, Art, Philosophy, Literature, Classics, Mythology and much more besides, before chatting briefly with John.  A bookseller for fourteen years – Pegasus first stamped its hoof in Newtown – John was upbeat about the book business, telling me he saw no sign of a downturn.

SAMSUNG

Pegasus Books Wellington

 

 

Pointing enthusiastically towards a stack of booklets atop a low shelf, just across from his desk, he asked if I’d be in town long enough to catch some of the events at the inaugural Featherston Booktown, of which he would be part.  Sadly, I would not.  Nonetheless, I popped one of the rather eye-catching black and white booklets into my bag as I was leaving, at least I could read about what I would miss.

I journeyed on further up Cuba St, bound for The Ferret Bookshop, where I would, as owner Terry encourages, poke my nose in.

SAMSUNG

The Ferret Bookshop Cuba St Wellington

Opening its doors in 1979, happily, The Ferret can boast of longevity not enjoyed by its mammalian namesake.  And although requisite earthquake strengthening over the past few years has twice seen The Ferret scurry further up the trouser leg of Cuba St, Terry’s eclectic collection of books remains constant.  Tucking my purchase, the first UK edition of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, into my bag, I left The Ferret and headed back down Cuba St towards Manners St and Arty Bees Books.

SAMSUNG

The Ferret Bookshop Wellington

With acres of space in which to house more than 100,000 books, Arty Bees is, as it claims, the largest independent seller of new and used books in Wellington.  If you can’t find what you’re looking for in Arty Bees, never mind, because you’re bound to find other books you didn’t know you were looking for.

SAMSUNG

Arty Bees Books Wellington

But, if you find yourself truly out of your depth, as I did on a second visit with my teenage son Max, happily, help is never far away.  Matt Morris, Sci-Fi sage and Arty Bees manager – although alchemist better describes what it is that Matt does.  Let me illustrate.  We arrived at the counter and I asked Matt if he could suggest some Sci- Fi titles.  He turned to Max, smiled and asked with alacrity, “robots or magicians”, (it was magicians) “action or beautiful worlds”, (it was beautiful worlds).  Then he stepped from behind the counter, and with a wave of his arm, said “follow me, young man”.   And with that they were gone.   After much deliberation with Matt, Max settled on Magician by Raymond E. Feist, while I jotted down names of the other authors Matt recommended; Fritz Leiber, David Eddings, and Elizabeth Moon. 

SAMSUNG

Arty Bees Books Wellington

We left Arty Bees carrying books and wearing smiles.  “That guy was quite cool” Max ventured.  I nodded in wholehearted agreement, and told him he’d probably just experienced that wondrous phenomenon, bookshop alchemy.  Those serendipitous, magical moments that no algorithm can replicate because, they’re intrinsically human.  And why, often when you leave one of these sacred spaces you feel in possession of a gift rather than a purchase.

 

[i] Seneca. The terrors of earthquakes. From Natural Questions, in Dialogues and Letters, edited and translated by, C.D.N. Costa, 2005, Penguin Books, London, pp. 112-113.

[ii] Auster, Paul. Portrait of an invisible man, in The Invention of Solitude, Faber and Faber, London, 1989, p.5.

[iii] Ibid., pp.19-20.

[iv] Ibid., p.8.

[v] Ibid., p.36.