Post McEwan Stress Disorder

This picture is from tiny card my mother once sent me. The message inside is mundane:

Monday, 2pm

I received your letter. Went over to the garage. Explained about little red spanner [Skoda’s irritating ‘service due’ warning light].

They can deal with little red spanner ie: take it off so that it won’t be a nuisance any more.

I left the key with them. It will soon be dealt with.

Love, Mum XXX

It felt a bit creepy reading this so-ordinary and long-forgotten message from Mum’s earlier self, but it was nice to see her handwriting, and to see that all the full stops were once again in the right place, the ‘i’s all meticulously dotted and the ‘t’s all crossed. The style’s clumsy for her, though – ‘it’ must already have begun at that point, and I didn’t realise.

It was a long drawn out and horrible Flowers For Algernon process, for us both, first watching her handwriting decline and then her mind refusing to tell her what to write in letters to friends, and her desperate strategies to keep doing so: the sudden change to writing in pencil – I bought her a whole box of 2Bs and a desktop pencil-sharpener which neither of us could then fasten to the desk; the endless, obsessive process of rubbing out bits of sentences and trying again; the rewriting of entire letters; the asking me to check them before she posted them.

I have a little nightmare of the same thing happening to me one day – and not realising – and gibberish appearing in this blog, and either no one telling me (and who would want to be the one to do that?) or everyone just Unfollowing. Oh, God save us from an unknown future.

I found Mum’s butterfly card in one of my books. Being lazy and using everything from letters to bus tickets to torn-off pieces of cereal packet does have its upside. You never know what little treasure you might to come across when you get round to tidying your books. I also found a lot of bookmarks from a particular second-hand bookseller.

Every time you order a second-hand book from them, no matter if it only cost 99p, they include a nice cardboard bookmark with a design submitted by a reader. And they are excellent bookmarks (they must have many graphic artists among their readers) and also an excellent selling point. It works with me anyway: I always look down the list and see if I can get the book from them rather than any of the alternatives, out of sheer bookmark-greed.

I notice a preponderance of the black-and-white-one-with-the-many-skulls. I remember, in fact, them sending me three black-and-white skull bookmarks inside a single ancient paperback one time, and picturing some poor, bored school-leaver on work-experience in an office on an industrial estate, fishing for the umpteenth time into a plastic bin full of pretty bookmarks and flinging in whatever happened to come out. I wonder if they do swapsies?

And now, by the magic of technology and a lot of messing about with fancy filters I am able to use Mum’s little butterfly card in a post. Mum would have been horrified, not at the idea per se but at the prospect of me attempting to explain it to her. Her eyes would glaze over the minute I started on about my computer: Mum was very good at un-listening, as no doubt most Mums are.

Why am I going on about butterflies? Well, I was going to use this picture as an illustration for the next Books From My Bookcase item. This was going to be a debut collection of short stories called A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray (2004). The book leapt out at me because it is one of two physically beautiful books I possess, the other one being the hardback first edition of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – the one with the gorgeous red flowers. Hang on, lets try to find it:

how i live cover

The above doesn’t do it justice. Bits of it (the leaves) are all shiny and lit up – sorry, metallicised – can’t find it in the dictionary but sure it’s a real word – metallized just wont do! – and bits of it are left matt. And Tropical Butterflies is yellow and brown and kind of fusty-Victorian-looking, and inside there is a bonus – an extra sheet – what do you call that? – the front paper – with a glossy version of the same yellow cover, a delightful little shock when you open it.

Now, later on in life, I understand why I married an artist. I thought it was only an unhappy childhood and alternative brain-wiring we shared but it was also an eye for beauty. In another life, maybe, I shall be a  collector of objects d’art Maybe I can go back (since I doubt that ‘lives’ are in chronological order) to the 17th Century and be a man (makes life easier, always) and have a cabinet of curiosities full of wonderful and mysterious things that I can show off to callers. Or maybe I’ve already had that life.

Rats.

In any case, having found A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies I realised I had only in fact read a few little bits of it. The short stories look good, if a mite challenging. They certainly got good reviews:

“John Murray’s stories are a genuine cultural breakthrough… adventures of the mind, and rich in human feeling, true departures from any other known fiction.” Muriel Spark

I think I read a little bit of one and had uncomfortable flashbacks to Ian McEwan. I had a really bad experience with his macabre short story collection The Cement Garden (1978). Every one of those tales frightened the living daylights out of me. Never been the same since. Post McEwan Stress Disorder.

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A Cabinet of Curiosities

Until a year or two back I imagined an antiquarian to be either a blinkered eccentric of some sort – I think I had read an M R James ghost story in which an antiquarian featured – can’t say I’m keen on M R James, though he was himself an antiquarian – or some old pompous somebody who sold dusty and more or less unreadable books to people who weren’t interested in reading them anyway but just wanted to possess them. That was before I started reading John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr.

Basically, it’s the biography Aubrey never got round to writing. He spent a long-ish 17th century lifetime writing but his writings are all over the place – so much to record, so many new things to discover, so many distractions. What Ms Scurr did was to go through all his papers and extract all the autobiographical entries, rearranging them as nearly as possible in chronological order. She does not put words in his mouth, simply extracts a whole life from a lifetime of scattered notes.

John Aubrey was an English gentleman, comfortably off as a young man, desperately impoverished in later life when, his father having died, his inheritance was discovered to be ‘encumbered with debts’. He lived through all sorts of dangerous history, recording, amongst other things, the execution of the King. A kindly enthusiast, he was a man who made friends easily and kept them. He was naïve, imaginative and somewhat disorganised.

Things never seemed to turn out quite the way he expected. He suffered from recurrent bouts of ‘love-sickness’ which he describes in a matter of fact way, like a kind of indigestion – falling for young ladies who, on the whole, did not fall for him in return. Towards the end of his life he begins to feel the cold greatly. His eyes failing, he continues to record spells (To Cure the Thrush; To Cure the Tooth-ache; For the Jaundice), omens and dreams. He complains about the slowness of printers and fears he will not live to see his Monumenta Britannica in print.

He recorded everything, was interested in anything and everything. He travelled backwards and forwards from Wiltshire into Wales, to Oxford, over to France, and wherever he went he sketched what he saw. Every story he heard, he wrote down. He was elected to the Royal Society, and proposed to them his idea for moving blood between chickens, which was laughed at, causing his natural stammer to become worse from sheer embarrassment. But a short while later he was proposing to them a new idea – for a cart with legs instead of wheels.

He commissioned drawings of ancient ruins, so that they should not be lost to history. He collected things, including a turquoise ring, which fascinates him. He records where spots have appeared on the ring, and how they have moved. He corresponds with others about the ideas of fluidity in stones.

He loved Stonehenge, and realised it was far older than Roman times. He was even more deeply impressed by Avebury ring. He was anxious about the damage being done to these monuments – ancient stones being carried away to make house lintels, for instance, or ground up for medicine. The King asked him to make a sketch of Avebury and present it to him.

It seems that antiquarians have been around since ancient Greek and Roman times. They have been in China, in India – all over the world. Often mocked as narrow obsessives who recorded trivia in ridiculous detail for no obvious purpose – today’s equivalent would be nerds, train-spotters, anoraks – they have often turned out to be more accurate original sources than the ‘historians’ of the day. Their interests included customs, religious rituals, political institutions, genealogy, topography and landmarks, and etymology.

The reason they have proven unexpectedly useful is this – they believed in empirical evidence. They did not allow themselves to assume anything – ‘We speak from facts not theory’ (Sir Richard Colt Hoare, 18th Century antiquary). Neither did they presume to interpret what they recorded. They left interpretation to later generations but in the meantime saw themselves as saving what was left lying around after a shipwreck – the passage of time, history itself, being the shipwreck. They saved things – curious physical objects (often displayed in a ‘cabinet of curiosities’), stories, data, words, facts, rarities. They often collected books, borrowed books from each other, corresponded at length about passages in those books, or things they had discovered. They drew, they wrote, they thought, they shared information, they asked questions, they wondered.

In those days, gentlemen had the time to dream. They had a reverence and a fascination for the past. They were curious, longing to know anything they might know. They had opportunities to travel – slowly – and collect – indiscriminately – and were humble enough to ask the questions their contemporaries dismissed as foolish.