Belles Letters

I buy books on a pretty regular basis (a conservative average would be the purchase of about four a week), but great additions to my library don’t come along very often, and when they do they tend to follow a particular pattern.

A really great addition can’t be a book I’ve heard about, read about or otherwise know by reputation; it cannot be new (for preference, it should be out of print) and it must absolutely thrill me to my deepest and moistest core when I read it.  A slightly anally-retentive set of strictures, I’m prepared to admit.  But let me explain.

Say you read in the paper that your favourite author has just published a new book.  Fabulous.  Excitement reigns.  So you trot down to the nearest loathsome pit that is a large, shiny, well-to-do bookshop.  There’s the item as per spec. on the shelf; you pick it up and are herded like a veal calf towards the cash register; the lobotomized employee tells you with fulsome insincerity that they’ve heard a lot about the book and can’t wait to read it and then you decide to start reading the thing right then and there in the café that sprouts like a malignant tumour right behind the self-help section.

But of course you can see the problems already: the cappuccino you’re slurping at was made by someone who doesn’t know a freshly roasted coffee bean from Francis Bacon, and some particularly foul muzak is competing gamely with the screaming child and simpering mother to your left.  Then you look up, and notice the new book by Deepak Chopra on the self-help shelves and before you know it you’ve bought it, read it, and started to bore the tits off your (soon to be ex-) friends with semi-articulate paeans to ‘quantum healing’.

Right.  I mean, obviously that’s the worst-case scenario, but even a sanitized version lacks something I really crave when bibliophilia has me in its thrall: drama.

Really great books come from unexpected sources.  Op-shops.  Second-hand bookshops in dilapidated suburbs.  Garage sales that you didn’t know about but happened to pass.  These are the places the genuinely exiting tomes come from.

You wander around the shelves, or cardboard boxes or whatever, suppressing a bored yawn.  The usual piles of Sarah Henderson, Virginia Andrews, Dan Brown and Bryce Courtney are there, just as you expected them to be.  There are a couple of Wilbur Smith novels leaning up against a guilty-looking mob of long-discredited dieting manuals.

But what’s that?

Suddenly, the blood fizzes, the nostrils dilate and the hands twitch.

I speak here, I believe, for all right-thinking people in saying that when I see something that looks promising in the way of a book I’ll kick the Zimmer frame out from under a granny’s palsied and liver-spotted hands rather than suffer to have it snatched from me.

My last really great library addition came only yesterday, and the thrill of it is still fresh.

Browsing, as is my wont to do, in the excellent City Basement Books I turned to my second favourite section of that fine emporium: Essays and Literary Criticism.  And there, meekly rubbing spines with a collection of Clive James’ television criticism and a dodgy selection from the essays of Montaigne, it was.

The First Cuckoo: Letters To The Times Since 1900.

Not, I’m the first to confess, the snappiest of titles.

But did you know that six days before a certain Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Neville Chamberlain (then Chancellor of the Exchequer but eventually to be Britain’s Prime Minister) wrote to The Times to say that it ‘may be of interest to record that, in walking through St. James’s Park today, I noticed a grey wagtail running about on the now temporarily dry bed of the lake, near the dam below the bridge, and occasionally picking small insects out of the cracks in the dam’?

Bet you didn’t.

And it does go some way towards explaining Chamberlain’s ignominious fall from grace that on the 24th of January 1933 he was as blind to the imminent disaster facing Europe as he would prove to be in 1939.  The silly bugger was bird-watching all along.

And I’ll wager you were unaware that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (then merely Dr. A. Conan Doyle) once thought he had invented a means of revolutionising rifle-fire in the Boer War.  Or that Doyle was so upset when the Secretary of State for War ignored his bizarre idea that he sat down to write a letter to the editor about it.

It’s out of print (this edition anyway – check out Amazon and co. for updated versions), I wasn’t expecting to find it, it took me deliciously by surprise and I haven’t stopped laughing for a whole day.  I ambush housemates to read out to them passages on streakers, on cuckoos, on bare ankles and on the effects of violence on TV.


It’s fucking fantastic.


2 responses to “Belles Letters

  1. I love books like that. I was persuaded to purchase The Wordsworth Book of Euphemism after seeing it at a friend’s house. Again, not a snappy title, but when you have a reference book with entries like this:

    Bullet-proofed: Drunk. The similes that com[are the state of inebriation to sleep or death are legion. … Any enthusiast who WATCHES THE ANT RACES (is immobilized by drink) probably knows such names for a shot of liquor as NOGGIN, A LITTLE RUB OF THE RELIC, A MITE, A DROP, A SWAP OF THE MOP (rhyming slang for ‘drop’) or a L’IL DAB.

  2. Spot on, Estelle – and thanks for the comment!

    Love ‘a swap of the mop’, by the way – and I’ll be looking out for that book of euphemisms with a close eye.

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