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Friday, 1 May 2015

Thank (the) heaven(s) for rainy days

6 books that changed (at least) my world

It’s a rainy, cold-ish 1st of May in northern France where I live. Not the sort of weather to stay outside too long. But one of those days – and moreover a bank holiday – where the delicious opportunity arises to just…not do anything much in particular but take your time and nonchalantly peruse your bookshelf you haven’t had the time or thought to peruse for ages!
I finish off my breakfast of buttered toast and sweet pear jam, enjoy a hot cup of black coffee I insist on preparing with a Bodum (none of your fancy Clooney machines here) and finish it all off with the day’s first, and best, cigarette (we only live once, and I refuse to feel guilty for this pleasure in an existence). The ritual over, I realise that my gaze is hovering over my bookshelf. I get up, walk over, and begin – as though looking at something anew – to study what’s on it. I surprise myself by realising that as I discover the titles one-by-one, I’m actually producing little hums and aahs: either falling upon a title I’d forgotten I’d once bought or else coming across my good friends, the ones I’ve kept with me ever since adolescence: and the ones that changed my world, changed my life, all those years ago. I extract them, flick through the pages, fall upon scribbled comments, read the odd passage that I should by now know by heart – and decide to write this post.
First, Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. I don’t have the original with the provocative cover (for the era it must have been a shocker), but I do have several different publications in English and in French. How did it change my world? My father recommended it to me and it made me understand that people are basically good anywhere you go in the world. That despite trials and errors, we can make it up somehow by showing tolerance, friendship and simply giving and that, really, simplicity is one of the best gifts we can ever inherit. This a must for those blue moments that occasionally come: pick it up, open the cover, and from the first page onwards life becomes sunshine again.  
Second, Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell. I first read this on moving to London from a small seaside town when I nineteen. In those days I was a young idealist, a young adventurer convinced that everything would be an obvious success on the road to happiness. Several weeks after reading this book I was living it out for real and learning that adventure could sometimes be desperate, dangerous and at times sordid. Still – I learned some lessons, some of which I must admit, I still haven’t completely mastered!
Third, William Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War. Back then, Boyd was the first British writer for ages who managed to produce something stunning in terms of a damn good read: funny, intelligent, ironic, tragic and exotic. I’ve read all his books ever since – even when he went, for ten years or so, out of the publishing fashion. Luckily, he’s back. And if you want to learn anything about how the British tick, then his books are a must.
Fourth: The Tin Drum, by Günter Grass. Wow. I first read this when I was fifteen. And it was probably the book that really made me want to write. Weird and fantastical, with a tangle of styles and stories, sometimes hilarious, sometimes revolting, other times killing in its stark realism: it made me travel throughout Germany and write those first, copy-cat style stories that if you weren’t called Günter Grass no-one would ever read. Grass recently died, and was for some quite controversial. But it can’t be denied that he captured a certain feeling that was the Europe of the ‘50s-‘80s.
Fifthly, the anthology of poetry Staying Alive edited by Neil Astley (who once wrote me a rejection slip basically informing me my poems were crap. Thanks, Neil – but it didn’t stop me from reading the trilogy over-and-over every year). Staying Alive is so vast, so complete, that you never get bored with it. It has travelled with me everywhere – train journeys, planes, continents, the office and on all those other, emotional, journeys too. It is a compass and has the uncanny ability to point you in the right direction when all seems lost, including you.
And sixth, and last, that incredibly simple, incredibly powerful book The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Together with Cannery Row, it’s the book I’ve offered most to others as a present and a message I’ve always carried with me. It picks you up, sends you soaring up into the wide blue sky of hope and belief – both in yourself and in Humankind. Perhaps, one day, The Alchemist will be honoured with a Nobel. Deservedly.
So thank heavens for rainy days! They make you do the cleaning, take extra care with the cooking, explore the jumble-sale of a neglected cupboard, watch an old favourite film and…return, intrigued, to the bookshelf that shaped your world.
Enjoy this rainy day and all those that will come.
Tom ;-)