I’m saving your new novel for my summer holidays!’
‘I take half a dozen books on holiday. It’s the only time I have to read.’
How often do I hear that!
It has just occurred to me that this puts the simple act of reading books on a par with exotic, esoteric activities such as scuba diving or camel trekking. In fact reading is the most straightforward of activities: you choose a book; you engage the eyes, the mind and the imagination. Then you’re off. Lovely!
Perhaps reading for simple pleasure has been lost (apart from holidays) even by the most literate of people like you and me. In our non-holiday lives we respond to the siren call of television and the World Wide Web as an easy fix for exhaustion, stress and boredom. We may claim - with some justification - that TV and the Web may be as intelligent and as good an escape any day, as some old book. And easier.
But at least on our holidays many of us find time to read a book. To be honest, reading widely is so much part of the writing life that reading yet more may not count as much of a change for me. But what I enjoy on holiday, in a strange kind of way, is the lucky dip you experience when you rent a house. What you find is a strange collection of the books that others have left behind - the literary flotsam of other people’s lives. These books are not precious enough to take home but show keen evidence of enjoyment.
I did my usual thing and railed against panto-speak blurbs that might have – but did not – put me off some very good reads. I have to admit I threw into a corner one made-for-the-market collation by a famously faux-Fascist comedian. Of course, he might say it isn’t his faux that I don’t have a sense of humour…
Of them all, I very much enjoyed a novel as yet unknown to me Horseman, Ride By, by David Crackanthorpe, an ex barrister born in Cumbria who now lives (or lived - the publication date says 2000) in the South of France. It’s a kind of suspense novel but more than that. This writer’s take on modern French history and culture and his unique sense of character - as well as his dark, loving evocation of the port of Marseille and the territory of the Camargue - lifted this book out of the straight suspense category. The best treat here is the main character - a complex, haunted lawyer called Bernard Vipont, whose family came to Marseilles generations before, from the English port of Liverpool: this novel was an unlooked-for treat in the pick ‘n mix of books here at Number Eleven.
I nearly didn’t read this one because it was literally falling to pieces, as though it had been dropped in the sea twice and rescued. But it was very much worth rescuing.
Up to present, though, my favourite book here - without so much as a flashy cover or a panto-speak blurb - is a battered, 1958 edition of Bitter Lemons, Lawrence Durell’s account of buying and living in a house in Cyprus in 1953. He says in his preface This is not a political book, but simply a somewhat impressionistic study of the moods and atmospheres in Cyprus in those troubled years 1953-6.
(As an over-aware child I was very aware of the strains between Britain and Cyprus in those years before the partition of Cyprus and its separation from Britain. Yet again I am reminded that not only do I write about history – I have lived through it! A chilling thought.)
Nothing chilly about this book though. What follows this preface is a wonderfully joyous evocation of a place and people written in a fashion that is literary , transparent and very accessible. I did wonder know how politically correct it may be, though, in these days when both Peter Mayle and Louis de Bernieres have been seen to have bitten the hand that fed them.
Even so I enjoyed reading it and would not have read it, had it not been on the shelves here an Number Eleven…