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May 9th, 2004

The Wellness of Lost Plots

I've managed to resist the temptation to delete the last entry on the grounds of it being melodramatic drivel. It is, after all, how I felt at the time. And I love melodrama and frequently spout drivel so it is fairly representative of me.

As you will have noted, dear readers, I have been pretty quiet lately. I would like to say that this because I have spent so much time with the new, ahem, man (he shaves, honest he does) in my life and in the kind of state of delighted amorousness that stops one doing anything else. Sadly that just wouldn't be true. I have seen a fair bit of him - and all his bits are fair believe me - but the main reason I haven't journalled is that I have been Sorting Things Out. Books mainly. I spent virtually all of last weekend sorting through my books and putting them in some sort of order so that I could get rid of stuff I no longer want/have space for. Terrifically anal - I've even put the poetry and biographies in alphabetical order - the latter resulting some pleasing juxtapositions such as Stephen Fry bedding down next to E M Forster, and Louise Brooks next to Emily Bronte (strictly it should have been Charlotte, but she's far too disapproving, and I'm not that anal).

My personal library is probably a damning indictment of my general dilletantisme. It has sections for biographies (mainly writers, mainly women and gay men and soldiers/airmen) poetry (very varied but mostly pre WWII), drama (mostly Shakespeare's contemporaries and the restoration period), Shakespeare, classical history and art, sexual history and sexual deviance up to the Victorian period, history of London, art and art history (but only up to WWII), British military history, WWI generally, WWI fighter planes, England and Englishness, cookery, and dandies. Then there's the stuff for my almost entirely putative PhD which somehow cuts across all the other categories - which probably explains why it remains putative. I do not own a single self help book, nor will I ever.

What has alarmed me about this process is how much I enjoyed it, and how much pleasure it gives me walking about the house surveying my books. I didn't respond to davywavy's meme about selecting those three author's one considered to be "the greatest" because I think I would find it hard to do that even by category of book ( a point made by DW as it was a challenge he had been set by someone else), and because I am deeply resistant to league tables of any kind. Do it for schools and the place where I spent some of the unhappiest years of my life comes out in the top five every year, and do it for books and "the nation's favourite" turns out to be Lord of the Yawns.

But what I have managed to do, after much pondering and speculation, is select my three most personally significant books:

First would have to be A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. I bought this with book tokens on my 5th or 6th birthday because I loved Hilda Boswell's illustrations, and because I suppose I knew I liked verses. It let me escape into an Edwardian world of delightful whimsies and implacable certainties and a sort of incipient, and entirely spurious, nostalgia for the world it depicts that I've never really shaken off.

Then I would have to pick the Ghormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. I read this in the wrong order in my first year at secondary school. The first time I read the section of Titus Alone where he is trying to escape from the underground is the last time I remember being truly transported, by and into a book. I think that even then education was depriving me of that joy, and there was a level at which I knew that I judged it on an emotional level even as I was beginning to delight in making (and being seen to make) intellectual judgements. I still reread it every year or so and find it incredibly comforting. I have so often wished I had a Dr Prunesquallor of my own... This trilogy also inspired to write a sort of terrible pastiche/homage of it, which was the first half-decent thing I wrote - and probably the last thing I finished - and which stickette may just rememember.

I used to have a friend called Angeline, and whilst we liked many of the same writers we came to the conclusion that they appealed to us for very different reasons. She invariably sought herself in the novels or poems she read; characters that she identified with, writers whose sentiments she shared. I think I, at least at the time when I knew her, sought characters I wanted to sleep with and writers I could learn something from. Only once have I had a real sense of identification with a fictional character, and that was with Billy Prior in Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy. The novels themselves are brilliantly written, vivid and intelligent and intensely moving. Billy is a bisexual, working class Northern boy who loves his mother, loathes his father, gets educated into grammar school by a priest he allows to molest him, becomes an officer, suffers terrible shellshock, is invalided out of active service, becomes a sort of spy on working class agitators, betrays his friends, then ends up blagging his way back into active service and certain death. So far, so dissimilar. What I identified with was his mindset - the alienation of someone who is a misfit on many levels and who has a particularly trenchant bloody-mindedness. And he was played by Johnny Lee Millar in the film of the book...

So now, gentle readers, which are your three most significant books?



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