Wednesday, March 18, 2015

holiday reading

To start with:  two books that I didn't take.

In the checklist of things I had to do before leaving, one of the only unticked entries is "Buy Flora of Western Australia". This was my facetious term for a beginner's guide that would help me identify a few of the plants I might see as we walked about in this distant continent. It was a good idea, but I never got any further with it, or I might be able to tell you the names of the plants in these photos.

The second book that I didn't take was John Wilkinson's  book of essays The Lyric Touch. (I bought it primarily to read the piece about Andrea Brady; the one about Prynne is downloadable in the preview that you can find on Salt's website.) It was delivered a few hours before we left, and after skim-reading a few pages of Wilkinson's profoundly-considered but disputable prose I felt tempted to bring it along with me (plus I remembered reading his Lake Shore Drive while in Spain about ten years ago).  But I also knew that Wilkinson's text would try to make my brain work in a different way from the way it works on holiday. I need an emptier head than that.

As always I packed at the last minute, and books just got flung in. Here's what I took with me.

Xenophon, The Persian Expedition (Penguin Classic, Rex Warner's 1950 translation of the Anabasis). I don't know why. It was one of the treasure trove of mainly classic Penguiins that I had persuaded my pal Richard to give to me last September (instead of to the charity shop). I just remember having the thought that this was the only way I'd ever get round to reading it. It worked, too. I finished it in the departure lounge at Perth International. More thoughts about it here.

Tim Winton, Dirt Music. Laura's Lonely Planet guide to Australia had helpfully listed some authors from Western Australia. Of these, Tim Winton was the only one that showed up in the Swindon branch of Waterstones. Dirt Music is evidently a widely-admired modern classic in WA itself (I also found it on the bookshelf of the place we stayed in Fremantle). I was half-way through it by the end of the holiday, and when I read the rest it prolonged the sense of being there. As I later found out, Winton himself lives in Fremantle. Dirt Music is an epic of WA in which the backgrounds are huge, the foregrounds minimal; it centres on two main characters who for most of the novel are apart. Yet the book also strikes us foreigners as principally about this land, this life, and this language.

Marco Polo Map of Australia. This was the other thing I bought in Waterstones. (I had a cursory search for the "Flora of Western Australia" but you'd be pushed to find that sort of thing - i.e. field guides relating to countries other than the UK - even in the Piccadilly branch of Waterstones, never mind Swindon.) The map was totally impractical since our own rovings around Greater Perth occupied only about a centimeter in the bottom left-hand corner.  But it was fun to marvel at. Inevitably, my eye kept coming back to those huge empty bits like the Great Sandy Desert and the Nullarbor Plain. A couple of times while in Perth we chatted with people who had visited Kalgoorlie (the gold-mining town 600km inland). I got the impression that once was enough. One day we were briefly on the Great Eastern Highway ourselves (before turning off to Kalamunda); I saw some of the trucks with gigantic plant that was bound for Kalgoorlie. I got a breath, but only a breath, of the inhuman scale of the hinterlands.

Teach Yourself: Read and Write Arabic Script (John Mace). I bought this in Dubai and I take it with me every time we go back there (we book-ended our Perth trip with two short stays in Dubai; Laura's daughter lives there).  This time I didn't look at it for long enough to recover all that I'd learnt on previous trips. I did learn that the hamsa is implicit in the alif madda.

Berlitz Arabic for Travellers. Interestingly outdated phrasebook that I picked up in a charity shop somewhere.

Katrina Mazetti, Grabben i graven bredvid plus Swedish dictionary. I was in the middle of reading this when we set off. I think I read one dozy page while we were on the flight from Gatwick. Then I discovered that you could watch Wallander (in Swedish) on the Emirates In-Flight Entertainment system, so I did that instead.

John Donne's Selected Poems. Grabbed it because it was compact. I had time to read The Sunne Rising and Elegy on His Mistres Going to Bed before I accidentally left it propping up a wobbly table in Salty's at Quinn's Rocks.

Monica Rinck - Barque pamphlet containing a few of her poems, with Alistair Noon's translations. Packed at the last minute in response to a sudden feeling of guilt about not having taken any modern poetry. Never a good motive. Fittingly, I never opened it.

And a mini-volume of Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona. Designed to be carried with me at all times and resorted to in the absence of other books. It only emerged once, when Laura and I played a game of trying to read the tiny print upside down.

Inevitably, I also bought some books while I was on my travels. They are my favourite kind of souvenir.

Bram Stoker, Dracula. Bought at Borders Express in Dubai Marina Mall, because it was cheap. There wasn't a huge choice of literary stuff. The bookshop is notably strong on self-improvement books and books about how to succeed in business. It also has a whole section devoted to Sheikh Mo's publications (His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum), such as Flashes of Thought (thoughts on leadership - we did read some of this) and Flashes of Verse (poems). I've had it in mind to read Dracula ever since I admired the first few pages while at a boot sale last spring. The admiration fluctuated as I read more of it.

At the same time, Laura bought The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin S. Sharma and she read it every night before dropping asleep. (We called it The Monk for short, a title which seemed to go better with Dracula.)

Rex Warner, The Greek Philosophers. When we got to Fremantle I had to go to the library to do some internet stuff, and here there was a book sale, just like you'd expect to find in the UK. All libraries are falling over themselves to offload the books that no-one borrows any more. I was determined to find something, and I chose this (obviously to go along with the Xenophon). Laura got Louise L. Hay's Meditations to Heal Your Life. We read a Meditation each evening, until Laura could improvise them on any topic.  As for The Greek Philosophers (commentary with selected texts), I eagerly read the Epicurus section but I found the rest a bit dull and I ended up donating it to the bookshelf at our AirBnB place in Fremantle. I once read a lot of Plato and Aristotle - and Anselm and Abelard and Aquinas. That was for my PhD. Now I begin to think that it isn't only "theory" that bores me. it's philosophy in general. Perhaps that's wrong and perhaps one day it'll change.

Henry Fielding, Jonathan Wild / A Voyage to Lisbon. This is a classic Everyman paperback that I've owned once before and have always meant to read, though I still haven't. (Desire re-ignited of course by a recent reading of Tom Jones.) Bought in Elizabeth's second-hand bookstore in Fremantle. Late-opening bookshops are a feature of Australian cafe strips that I admired very much.  

J.C. Ryle, Five English Reformers. Bought in a charity shop in Freo (they call them OpShops). Fiercely readable book with a mission of attacking the burgeoning Ritualist movement. This was the kind of controversy that C.S. Lewis tried to put behind him with his vision of "mere Christianity".

Dodie Smith, The Town in Bloom. A later novel (1965) by the author of 101 Dalmatians and I Capture The Castle. Bought from a newsagent in Mends Street, South Perth. Like the previous purchase, I bought it mainly because I was struck by ifinding it where I did, standing out from all the John Grisham and Stephenie Meyer. This was a reprint from 2012 by Constable & Robinson (Corsair). Who did they think would buy it? Smith's gentle London comedy is, however, very pleasing.

Robert Gray, Coast Road (selected poems). Almost at the end of my time in Oz, I returned to Crow Books in East Victoria Park (another late-opening bookstore) determined to buy some Australian poetry. The first time I'd gone in there, I'd goggled at, and felt dismayed by, the big books that I knew I ought to read if I had any pretensions at all to understanding modern poetry: Prynne's Collected (I didn't know then that it had a Fremantle connection) and Pierre Joris's Celan. Gray is by no means so essential, but he is an Australian poet and I liked reading his book very much, though of course it's distinctly mainstream and poetically conservative. There are always interesting reasons for taking any journey in poetry; poets are like other people, they are never normal.

At the last minute, while going to the departure gate to fly home from Dubai, I snatched up the free Dubai Pocket Guide published by the Department of Tourism and Commerce. This is actually pretty informative, for example about social etiquette and the region's flora and fauna.

There were some other things I read while I was away.

During our first stay in Dubai, Jazmin's boyfriend passed on to me a travel book called Hello Dubai by Joe Bennett. It was published in 2010 but is still a pretty good guide; the topic invites buffoonery but there's a lot of intelligence and information amid the comedy. Colin also wanted me to take away Ken Follett's World Without End (a massive medieval epic), and in a perfect world I'd have liked to, but I doubted I'd ever get round to reading it.

Bill Bryson, Down Under. This was on the Fremantle bookshelf and I read a couple of chapters while we were packing up to move on to our next AirBnB gaff. Clearly extremely readable and informative in the best Bryson manner.

The place we were going to was a beach-hut up at Quinn's Rocks, and there were some books on the shelves here too. I read as much as I could of Henning Mankell's The White Lioness, a Wallander novel; I had to leave it behind at the point where he was starting to fill in the South African background to the mystery.

[Well I know what those flowers are: Gazanias - maybe Gazania rigens. These are plants from southern Africa, naturalized here on coastal dunes, along with a low-growing Evening-Primrose (from America). There were actually a lot of other plants I recognized in the urban and coastal areas of Perth and Fremantle: pretty much the same sort of international collection that you'd also find in any Mediterranean resort - bougainvillea, oleander, palms, etc. However I did make some mistakes here. For instance elsewhere on the dunes I assumed I was seeing lots of another S. African plant, Hottentot Fig (Carpobrotus edulis); a plant you can also find in great quantity on Bexhill beach. Only when I got home did I realize that the plants I'd seen were Coastal Pigface (Carpobrotus virescens), which is endemic to Western Australia. And I hadn't even taken a photo!]

So as you can see, if you've been following closely, I only managed to finish three books in the four weeks I was on holiday (and two of those were on the flight home). Holiday reading is a scrappy experience, but that doesn't mean it isn't an intense one. With so many stimulated sensors, any few lines (even of the Dubai Pocket Guide) are enough to resonate hugely in these unfamiliar surroundings. There is a cross-current of thoughts from book to place. This can be pre-arranged (e.g. by choosing to read Tim Winton while in WA - his novel visits Perth several times)  but it's the unpredictable connections that are often most interesting. Mankell's South Africa matched the gazanias, obviously. I found the Persian Expedition of Xenophon seeming to pass ironic comment on my own oil-burning progress eastward. (The battle of Cunaxa took place somewhere near Baghdad International Airport.) As the Greek army threaded into Kurdestan, we chatted with a taxi-driver who was forced out of Iran by its theocracy. Count Dracula's ancestors fought the Turks while I ate Turkish food. J.C. Ryle's evangelicalism and combative martyrolatry provoked thoughts of present-day Salafism in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Robert Gray's journalist's outlook asked probing questions about Dubai's free market. Reading Dodie Smith in South Perth inadvertently highlit all the ways in which Perth resembles a transformed London with a Thames swelling grandly like a black swan's plumage; full of pubs, colonial-terraced hotels, cricket and strong pots of English Breakfast Tea; all the ways,too, that London is insistently Australian.

Was this really thinking, or just a passive registering of flitting ironies and minor fortuities? Why does it look so much like columnism?

The books also chime off each other, as well as the world around us. For example:

The egret is shapely and tapering as an amulet
or a slim gourd
it's compact
as though smoothed between the hands
the neck
is kinked and finely drawn-out, which suggests a loose
length of vine
sharply trimmed-off, and it is seemingly ineffectual,
One can imagine
as its claim that to pick the excess
from small life
is an honourable
scheme. It steps out of the stillness and stands
still again
and blue
like backyard smoke,
among the aimless insects of the sunlit rain.

(from Robert Gray, "The Creek").

We had seen white egrets around, but not blue ones. Gray's egret is, I suppose, the dark form of the Eastern Reef-egret (Egretta sacra). The gourd-shape is spot on, and the shaping between hands. "Amulet" is less obvious, as I'm not aware that amulets have any pre-defined shape - he might have had a specific one in mind.

Egretta sacra (dark form)
[Image source:]

But I also remembered that I'd just been reading this scene from Joe Bennett's Hello Dubai:

    Only a few yards from the ceaseless traffic a bird is bearing down on a flower bed, an egret. It is as white as a medieval virgin and shaped like a stretched Chianti bottle.
    The egret seems unfazed by the roaring vehicles, but when it spots me, the sole pedestrian in vehicle land, it stands still. I stand still. A few seconds and it resumes its progress, picking its deliberate way on huge splayed feet, reaches the edge of the bed and studies the ranks of plants, peering under leaves and flower heads and swaying its head like a charmed cobra. It freezes momentarily, then strikes. In its beak a lizard, gripped across the belly. From only a few yards away I can make out the tiny reptilian claws, grasping at the nothingness of air. The bird tosses the lizard twice to align it with its gullet, then points its beak at the sky and lets gravity do the rest. What started as just another day for the lizard has come to a drastic end. I can see the slight bulge in the bird's throat. The bird moves on and I cross the road. Perhaps five minutes later I've made it across all six lanes. I look back. The bird is hunting again.   

The Australian birds we saw were a joy. Australasian darters, giant moorhens, black swans, kookaburras, tiny doves, gulls with black beaks and birds like big terns with heavy heads. The crows (if that's what they were) were very tame. Their voices are not as harsh as British crows and the sound made us laugh because of the slow slide down in pitch at the end of a phrase.

The kind of openness to different kinds of book that I've tried to illustrate here can be put down to a healthy appetite for reading (though I don't myself think it's an adequate explanation).

Accordingly, you could argue that this consumption has nothing to say about the intrinsic quality of the books, nor about whether I myself really have any taste.

Kant said: "Hunger is the best sauce, and people with a healthy appetite relish everything, so long as it is something they can eat. Such delight, consequently, gives no indication of taste having anything to say to the choice. Only when men have got all they want can we tell who among the crowd has taste or not."

I'd rather trust my taste when I'm hungry, but there you go.

[I know this one, too. It's a Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla), a tree I'm familiar with from the Mediterranean (it's part of that international community I mentioned), but which is much more impressive here, rather closer to its small homeland (Norfolk Island lies between Oz and NZ). These mature trees are much less symmetrical than the younger ones I've seen in Spain. The growth of this one, above Fremantle South Beach, has clearly been influenced by the prevailing southerlies.

The northern-hemisphere eye may hesitate at that point. Is south on the right, then? Yes it is: down here the sun passes by to the north, and shadows fall to the south. I never stopped being childishly excited by this; nor by the moon changing phase from the "wrong" side;  nor by Orion being "upside-down". Late at night, under constantly clear skies, I marvelled at the three crosses in the southern sky.]

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