Newspapers in England used to refer to this, with some justification, as the silly season. Parliament is in recess, the schools have begun their summer holidays, the sun is shining and the “British public” have fled to the beaches for the annual ritual of pretence that a dip in the cold and murky North Sea on the Norfolk coast, can be likened to frolicking in the Mediterranean. The spirit is one of holiday optimism and I love it. Before long I too will be enjoying a break away from the oppression of e-mails and meetings, freed from a desk and indulging in those leisurely pastimes that I look forward to all year, but recognise as an artificial interlude in the realities of earning a daily living. Yes, the British holiday with its familiarity and orderliness gives us a brief respite, during which it is possible to become immersed in the self-delusion that life could be for ever strawberries and clotted cream.
There is, however, a slightly sinister aspect of the summer break that has troubled me over many years. Whilst others make New Year’s resolutions I always find myself, in the run up to August, making false promises of tasks to be achieved at home whilst away from the university. For the past couple of years the same impending mission has occupied my mind and has left me with the merest soupcon of personal reproach as I have returned to my work after a couple of weeks of self-indulgence and a failure to accomplish my assignment. But early this morning my mind was eased and I now feel that I can spend a couple of weeks guilt free in the knowledge that I am not alone in my failures.
This Damascene moment came to me from the most unexpected quarter, when having woken early I was enjoying a quiet half hour reading in bed prior to rising for another working day. (Why is it incidentally that as I get older I seem to wake ever earlier?). When I say that relief from my annual summer anxiety came from an unexpected source, I suppose I should not really have been surprised, because my reading this morning involved what I always like to think of as a silent conversation with a writer who has at once the ability to amuse, infuriate, challenge and both confirm and deny my interpretation of the world. The late Christopher Hitchens, man of letters, humanist, scourge of the media, debunker of cant and thoughtful contrarian viewed the world both on a wide screen and through the lens of a microscope. I find myself agreeing with much of what he says and feeling offended by his opinionated arguments in equal measure, which is probably an indication of his genius as an essayist and social commentator. Yet, never before today has he brought me much relief.
In order to understand the nature of this experience I must return to my afore-mentioned annual mission and its predestined anticipated failure. We live in a house full of books and I would have it no other way. Some visitors (often those who never return actually) suggest that there are too many books. Why, they ask, don’t you have a cull and take some to a local charity shop? After all this would make so much more room in the house. My response is usually brief, some may even say curt or brusque. Would you expel your brother or your best friend from your home? These books are after all, not merely pages between covers, nor are they simply the tools of my trade – though I know I could not make my living without them. Each volume, even that which may be oft neglected and shelved barely within reach, is a respected and much needed friend. Many have been lovingly caressed, some bear a beautiful patina of age and others a distinctive fusty smell acquired from others on the shelves of a second hand bookshop, where they sat long neglected, until I arrived to rescue them and give them a caring home. Many have been with me since my youth and some purchased in far off places during my travels. The very thought that I could now release a single volume to a distant source where it might suffer the potential abuse of dog-eared pages, scrawlings in margins, or heaven forbid, that most heinous crime of the folded back spine, makes me shiver and could give me sleepless nights!
I do accept that having thousands of books around the house does require occasional management and this brings me back to the annual, never to be achieved summer challenge. As May gives way to June each year and then June fades to July my thoughts turn to a master plan involving a re-arrangement of the shelves. The noble mission of bringing a certain order to what is seen by the casual observer as a degree of chaos takes over, and I invariably begin the mental gymnastics of considering how a realignment of tomes might be achieved. When I say that this has been the fruitless agenda now for probably the past fifteen years, you will see that I am nothing more than an abject failure.
So returning to Christopher Hitchens, a man who I would never have thought could have eased my mind. Sprawled comfortably in bed this morning with a copy of his collection of essays “Arguably” on my lap, I read a piece originally published in the City Journal in 2008 with the title “Prisoner of Shelves”. Here was Hitchens (Hitch to his friends – amongst whom I would I am sure never have been numbered) describing exactly my dilemma. Would he, I wondered be able to proffer advice to see me through this annual conundrum? Could he present a solution to how I might embark upon, if not eventually complete this task? You cannot imagine my relief when he, a man of far greater intellect than most, reaches the conclusion that the problem is insoluble. Hitchens accepts that living amongst his disorderly library brings comfort, and that any interference with the status quo would fail to improve significantly upon either his lifestyle or his working patterns. If this predicament thwarted the intellectual Hitchens, then why should I ever believe that I am up to the challenge? – there we are, problem solved!
Thank you Christopher Hitchens. I can now move forward into the summer, much relieved in the knowledge that for all these years those pangs of guilt have been a false indicator of a chaos in need of control. The re-organisation of books is no longer a priority, after all, when friends come to stay I don’t tell them where to rest, who to sit next to or that they should tidy their appearance. One more week of work to go before I can enjoy a holiday free from the angst that comes with a failure to rearrange my books!