Reading: serendipity, synchronicity, and the secondhand

This summer, I have felt a strong need to change gear: especially to read fewer new books of argument which the books pages promote. So: more of the books in my late parents’ shelves; or found in charity shops; or in a holiday cottage… It’s gone exceptionally well so far.

In Solva, I came across the remnants of the library of Maurice Wilson. He reminded me of the classic English type represented by my wife’s late father: their bookshelves would have been alike, I suspect. Mr Wilson was  an Alpinist who loved Crete; he was a patriot who had few illusions about the mistakes the great are inclined to make, but felt well-led in the war. He wrote a sharp little memoir of his time in the 79th Armoured Brigade in WW2, and that took me to a remarkable history of the short-lived unit. This elegant, beautifully-illustrated work (available in PDF from a US site) was surely one of the first books to be printed in the ruins of post-war Hamburg, and would be worth a history in itself. Also on Mr Wilson’s shelf was the autobiography of Hastings (“Pug”) Ismay, and that led me to snap up the diaries of General Ironside (which I found in the s/h shop at Mottisford Abbey, along with a slim volume by Ian Proctor, the designer of dinghies, in which were pictures of the two classics – the Cadet and the National 12 – my father bought me when I was barely heavy enough to sail them, but which I loved). Ismay and Ironside: I hope they liked each other as much as I do.

The Ironside volume sits very well on the beside table beside the extraordinary, and beautifully-produced, The Byzantine Achievement by Robert Byron, whose book on Athos was my best guide to the Greek Orthodox world when I visited the monastic republic, first alone in the early 1980s, and then with Glynn Griffiths a few years later (he was then a photographer and is now a brilliant sculptor, and working with my daughter’s outfit, The Horsebox Gallery). Byron was a special kind of Hellenist, whose thesis was that Greeks, ancient and modern, have a happy knack of epitomising the merits of the Levant, in being able to see the merits of the Roman world to their West and the oriental world to the East. There are subplots to his view, but they depend crucially on not liking the view (hilariously and beguilingly put by H A L Fisher) that the modern Greek is a sorry type compared with the ancient. I bought The Byzantine Achievement in the s/h bookshop at the New Park Cinema, where there are few, but eclectic, offerings.

I am a sucker for the Levant, to which I pay daily homage by following Yotam Ottolenghi and consuming industrial quantities of fresh coriander and flat parsley. Both do wonders for a cuppa-soup.

In the levantine groove, I picked up a copy of a very, very useful account of the life of Bimbashi McPherson. It was minding its own business in an Oxfam shop in Pimlico. This was the best sort of colonialist: literate, spiritual, practical, brave and a student of the culture of the country he helped govern (the sort of student whose researches were a revelation to its own citizens).



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Publication date

10 August 2013


Mind & body; On books