Books I read this September

img_1451.jpgThis was my first month teaching in the secondary school system, and if I still managed to read eleven books, it’s only down to the fact that many of them are slim Penguin biographies of under a hundred pages. I’m looking forward to breaking into something substantial over October half term.

Accelerando, by Charles Stross

Nothing dates faster than the future, and this early work by one of my favourite writers already seems a touch dated. The opening chapters are cyberpunk to the point of self-parody, but each of the chapters time-jumps a decade or more, and halfway through the book most of the inner solar system is already being broken down for computational substrate, while an interstellar mission has discovered an alien wormhole network out in the Oort cloud. It’s a bit like watching The Expanse on fast forward. Exhausting at times–Stross does love to ping the ideas about–but never dull.

The Homeric Hymns, trans. Jules Cashford

Worth reading as the earliest source for Greek myths–the abduction of Prosperine, for example, which my girlfriend maintains is the cover for an awesome Goth romance, but as told here is more of a mother-daughter story. The longer ones–to Apollo, Demeter, Aphrodite and especially Hermes–are most interesting, since most of the others are short and unremarkable, and Cashford doesn’t do these many favours by centre-spacing them, in a bid to make them look poetic by the standard of Instagram. Hermes is far and away the highlight, since the hymn to him as a wildly precocious young trickster God is a total tonal leap apart from the rest of material. It’s funny, sarky, and full of life, and I may try my hand at writing my own slang version.

The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester

Another dated future, this one of the 1950s. The solar system’s colonised and a sizable proportion of the human race have developed telepathy, but computers are still specialised devices the size of rooms. This one’s a crime proceedural, rather than a mystery. Ben Reich, head of the Monarch corporation, plots the perfect murder, and then Lincoln Powell, the telepathic Chief of Police, has to catch him out. The Freudian twist is that Reich’s motives aren’t what he assumes. Would make an interesting companion to a Philip K. Dick novel.

George I: The Lucky King, by Tim Blanning

Blanning admits immediately that the first Hanoverian King isn’t the most interesting in the dynasty, but the advantage of these sub-100 page Penguin Monarchs is that you can learn a good deal about the lesser lights without having to swallow a doorstopper. The biography of Henry VIII I read in this series felt overstuffed–poor Catherine Howard was married and killed off in the course of a paragraph–but here we get an easy tour of the reign’s highlights: Handel’s water music, the South Sea Bubble, Walpole scheming, ructions with the Prince of Wales, and endless European wars handled with admirable clarity and lightness of touch. Blanning has a good eye for anecdotes, and never lets the Electorate of Hanover slip out of focus while he’s narrating the affairs of England. Overall, rather a lucky commission.

James II: The Last Catholic King, by David Wormsley

The cover of this one presents James II as a looming, bewigged panto villain, so it’s a surprise how handsome he is in his portraits, particularly in his younger days as Duke of York and Lord Admiral, with a strong chin, good posture, and none of his father’s wispy facial hair. Wormsley likes to focus on this period, the colourful Restoration days when Pepys, Evelyn and Dryden were writing, and we’re halfway through the book before James comes to the throne. The question Wormsley focusses on is how it all went so wrong so fast, and while this threatens to enmesh him in tangles of historiography, he pulls through and gives a vivid portrait of a tactless, stubborn and imperious monarch who kept blundering and blundering until he finally had to flee the country. Plus, I have a soft spot for any historian still willing to quote Macaulay with enjoyment.

Edward II: The Terrors of Kingship, by Christopher Given-Wilson

Another failed King, this one famously a) gay and b) executed by red-hot poker up the jacksie, though both these received facts are questioned in this book. His struggles with the barons are rather hard going at times, since there are a lot of Mortimers, Pembrokes and Gloucesters to keep track off. Given-Wilson does manage to give a character to Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, and keeps us clued in to Robert the Bruce’s nation building and the dizzy throne-swapping in France. The life is briskly run through in four equal chapters, plus a welcome epilogue on legacy, which touches on a failed sainthood bid, Marlowe’s history play, and his adoption as a gay icon.

William I: England’s Conqueror by Marc Morris

William the Conqueror (or the Bastard, as he was known in his own times) is one of those Kings who exist as dates and battles rather than personalities. Aside from sketchy representations on his coinage and the Bayeux Tapestry, there isn’t even a portrait of him, so while Morris fills in the build-up and aftermath of the famous battle in Hastings well enough, the material can sometimes be a little dry. Two new facts leapt out at me: firstly, William was England’s first abolitionist, abolishing chattel slavery among the Anglo-Saxons, something that sits very oddly alongside his reputation as a brutal overlord. Secondly, it looks like the Domesday Book wasn’t a tax record after all, but a land register: a way to establish property ownership, alongside the principle that all land was held from the King.

Complete Poems, by Basil Bunting

I’d read through Briggflats a couple of times, and always put it aside as a poem needing more study and annotation that I could spare. So the sheer readability of this collection came as a surprise to me. Bunting’s other long poems, or sonatas as he calls them, are relatively accessible, filled with a pugnacious vitality, and very much of their eras. The 30s stuff, filled with meditations of castration and sterility, is influenced by Eliot’s The Waste Land without being slavishly imitative, and Bunting, never without as sense of humour, can be entertainingly brusque with Eliot’s elegaic postures. The short poems, or Odes, are a marvellous assortment. I was delighted by the pair of emigrant ballads smuggled in alongside the verse libre, and sniggered at the appendix of limericks.

Henry V: Playboy Prince to Warrior King, by Anne Curry

A neatly structured pocket biography, but I got to the end feeling like Shakespeare had covered all the major points. It was good to hear about some of the behind the scenes events–troubles with Lollard heresy, Henry IV’s probable syphilis and relations between King and parliament–but nothing here challenged the narrative shape and characterisation set by the history plays.

Pericles and Fabius Maximus, by Plutarch

Not the most obvious pairing in the Parallel Lives, Pericles being the politician’s politician, and F.M. the general’s general. I find the latter more sympathetic, in the stoic tradition of generalship that extends to Grant and Patton, fighting off Hannibal and public opinion simultaneously. With Pericles in the golden age of Athens, you can see why the rest of Greece hated them, and how much effort it took Pericles to keep the wheels on while he lived. Still, it was worth it to leave us the Parthenon.

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

My first time reading through this Dickens novel, as part of the project of reading all the school set texts I should probably have read by this stage. George Bernard Shaw does right to call it his most compactly perfect novel; Our Mutual Friend is still my favourite, but that’s an enormous, baggy, novel full of tour-de-force chapters, while this is one complete, compelling tale with nothing superfluous in it.

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Books I read this June

IMG_1352As an English Literature PhD, you can expect that I read a fair bit. Eighteen books this month, in fact. Here’s the full list from my journal:

An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile by Donall MacAmhlaigh, trans. Valentin Iremonger

Colourful and insightful diary of a working-class immigrant from Kilkenny to Northampton. Interesting insight into how important talk and storytelling were in the absence of TV and radio, and how much the navvies lived a life of the mind even after a day of backbreaking labour.

The Bramble King by Catherine Fisher

Poetry collection that’s more like the material for an autobiography and several fantasy novels, laid by and preserved. Full review here.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

I fell in love with this for the footnotes, but despite the abundance of local colour and fascinating glimpses into a closed society, there wasn’t enough plot to urge me to seek out the sequel, and the central couple were considerably less interesting than the supporting cast. Would be tempted to seek out the film, however.

Aladdin, or The Wonderful Lamp, trans. Sir Richard Burton

Enjoyed reading this Arabian Nights original and noting its many variances from the Disney movie, but rather missed Burton’s lengthy and eccentric footnotes, not included in this edition.

Nets to Catch the Wind by Elinor Wylie

A recommendation from Jo Walton’s Tor blog, which I read on Project Gutenberg. Lush Yeatsian verse. Discovered the last line of ‘The Falcon’ has been haunting me since first I read it in some anthology or the other. Ordered the collected works.

In Search of Sir Thomas Browne by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Not a biographical study, but a meditation on what unites and divides two science writers across 350 years. Both are genial company, and Aldersey-Williams has some intriguing thoughts on how Browne’s worldview differs from his own.

The Birthplace by Henry James

Enjoyable novella where the Jamesian style is distinctive but not laid on thick enough to suffocate, coupled with an insufferable smug introduction by Mark Rylance.

Doctor Who: Interference Book One by Lawrence Miles

I got into Doctor Who in the years prior to RTD’s big 2005 relaunch, when BBC books were still printing an Eighth Doctor novel every month or so. They were meant to be read sequentially, but as an impoverished teen I was limited to what I could get out of the library and the occasional remaindered stock that turned up in the works. The effect was rather like being introduced to the Steven Moffat era through Let’s Kill Hitler, only worse.

There’s a hardcore completionist still lurking in me fifteen years later, so spotting this book in a secondhand bookshop for half what it goes for on eBay, I took a pop at this famous novel from the enfant terrible of the range. It’s brimming with ideas and well-written, with a pleasantly period tinge of the nineties, but it suffers from the BBC author’s habit of putting the Doctor through as much torture as possible. I’d be tempted to go on to Part Two–but have you seen what that goes for on eBay?

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirilees

An English fantasy novel, drawing from Goblin Market and The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and influencing Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Deals with the lives of folk who live on the borders of fairyland, and the attractions and dangers of luscious contraband fairy fruit.

Doctor Who: The Taking of Planet Five by Simon Bucher-Jones and Mark Clapham

Interference tempted me to return to old Doctor Who novels, and this crossover with H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness was less solemn than the last book but very successful at presenting a huge-scale science-fiction adventure–entire universes hang in the balance–without drowning in technobabble. A very satisfying munch, and a surprisingly good entry-point to the arc.

Poirot’s Early Cases by Agatha Christie

Eighteen stories makes this collection overstuffed–I would have liked fewer stories of greater length–but Poirot and Hastings are charming, and some of the stories are little masterpieces, particularly ‘The King of Clubs’, ‘The Third Floor Flat’ and ‘How Does Your Garden Grow’. They need to be read over a course of evenings, however, because all at once is too much.

Solon and Alexander in Plutarch’s Lives

Two very different men–one a lawgiver so ambivalent about power he left Athens for ten years in order to give his laws time to bed in, and the other the conqueror of one of the greatest empires known to man. Solon’s is the more endearing story but Alexander’s is the most marvellous. I may steal some details of the Siege of Tyre for a short story.

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

The sequel to The Just City, a book that enthralled me but ended unsatisfactorily, The Philosopher Kings ends with a literal deus ex machina so complete that seeking out the third volume, Necessity, hardly feels necessary. I still find the plain, unsensuous philosophical style a great draw, even as its attention to torture and sexual violence repels. I still enjoy the long stretches of conversation and debate, and still skip ahead to read the sections narrated by Maia, unquestionably the best character–the two others, Apollo and Arete, start to sound the same after a while. Where the previous book made me eager to read more Plato, however, this book with its long sea voyages made me keener to reread Homer. With the Platonic cities removed, at the book’s conclusion, from the pre-historic Aegean to a far-future planet, my enthusiasm for the series drops off.

To Catch A King: Charles II’s Great Escape by Charles Spencer

Read over a period of several months. A compelling history borrowed for a mooted historical novel I will likely never write. I already knew more than most about Charles II’s famous sojourn in the Royal Oak, but the book is particularly good on the background of the Battle of Worcester and the details of the escape, narrated in a moment by moment fashion. The final forty pages of wrapping up are rather dull.

Phaedrus by Plato

A brisk short dialogue, by no means as intimidating as The Republic, covering love, virture, reincarnation, the use of rhetoric, and the translation from an oral to a textual culture. Socrates is wonderfully sarky throughout (a modern translation helps bring this out) and it has a pleasing outdoor conviviality to it, rather than some of the more public, competitive dialogues.

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers

My first Lord Peter Wimsey, a whodunnit set at a 1930s ad agency, like a British version of Mad Men. Surprised it isn’t the highlight of ITV’s autumn schedule–like Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, it speaks strongly to our own times and is more than ripe for adaptation.

Doctor Who: Festival of Death by Jonathan Morris

A past Doctor adventure with the Fourth Doctor and Romana II, the novel faithfully recreates the feeling of a 1970s serial right down to the retro-futurism and the bungling bureaucrat. An interesting exercise in story-telling in reverse, but lacking a little in atmosphere. Made a good beach read.

Theseus and Lycurgus in Plutarch’s Lives

On the borders of history and legend, Theseus is not Plutarch’s most vividly drawn subject, though his theories on the real-life inspiration of the minotaur myth can be fascinating. With Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver, details of his life are thin on the ground, but the details of how he reformed the Spartan state are fascinating, and rich material for young-adult authors looking for a new dystopian society.

And that’s it for June; more next month!

Ode to my study carrel

assl Nothing is quite as exciting as having a new library to explore, and I’ve been granted access to some good ones of late – Chawton House Library, a women’s studies centre set in a house which once belonged to Jane Austen’s richer brother; the high shelves and Victorian stepladders of York Minster Library; dozens of beautiful old Carnegie Libraries from Clitheroe to Cathays; even the high Medieval surroundings of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, thanks to a Postgraduate Studentship and the fact my supervisor emailed ahead. Yet despite all their glorious architecture, surroundings, and selection, none of them have usurped that place in my heart reserved for the drab concrete outlines of Cardiff University’s Arts and Social Sciences Library, where I now have a small office to myself.

When I first applied for a study carrel I suspected that it was a word entirely invented by librarians – indeed, who better to do so? – but I made recourse to the OED and discovered that it is precisely the appropriate word for what it is – a small desk for private study within a library. Cardiff University’s Arts and Social Sciences Library boasts a row of eight on their second floor, which are given to MA and PhD students on 3-month rotas. Bute library may have the spiral staircases and the Science library the Victorian neo-classical flourishes – at least, before they stuck an entire unnecessary floor right through the middle of it – but none of them have anything so useful as the study carrels. At first glance, they maybe rather poky and predominantly brown, with a view of the Lidl car park, but such an opinion is IMG_0562 sole preserve of the philistine who has not grasped the delight of having one’s own private space in the midst of a library. Safe behind my yale lock, I can actually stack my books in there without fear of some overzealous librarian returning them to shelf, leave my laptop or phone on the desk without fear that anyone might nick it and best of all, I can sit on the floor, or put my feet up on the desk, or roll into the footwell and doze off without anyone looking at me strangely. The view may not be the most sublime in existence, but mediated by the swaying birches and their million new leaves, it’s rather pleasant. Even then, it doesn’t take a lot of craning before I achieve a sightline across the thousand chimney tops of Cathays stretching out towards the Rhymney Ridgeway.

Cardiff University gave me access to my first university library, and after months spent scouring the secondhand bookshops of Winchester to build a poetry collection, I can still remember the thrill of discovering that they had collections by almost any author I could think of. I’d arrive, tap ‘Thomas Gray’ or ‘Gerald Manley Hopkins’ into the search engine, memorise the local reference and dash upstairs, chanting ‘PR4803.H44.A16.F80’ under my breath and hoping I’d get there before the rush. I often got my digits muddled up, but surprisingly enough, there’s yet to be a run on the literature shelves. The closest thing to it is when the first year essay titles are announced, and the shelves of Beowulf and Chaucer criticism empty as if by magic.

IMG_0565 For there’s still magic among these dusty shelves, even in a warm day in May. Since my first days at Cardiff, I’ve studied in places as diverse as the British Library and the Bodleian at Oxford. Even York University library had more power sockets, comfier seats, continuous 24 hour access and a better DVD collection. I still keep up my self-initiated tradition of jogging up the stairs, however, and there’s still nothing I like better than when a likely tome catches my eye mid-stride, and I have to take it out and flick through it until the original book I was searching for is quite forgotten. Having my own little piece of it – however temporarily – is like having my own box at the theatre. Sheer class.

On the arrangement of books

A rainbow of books

Clearing out my childhood bedroom recently, I found throwing out all my old books to be a miserable experience. There’s something crushing about coming face-to-face with those hopes and ambitions of long ago and realising that there’s no day rainy enough that I’m going to read the Mahabharata, that research project on Dark Age Wales has long since fallen by the wayside, and that no-one, not even Andrew Motion, has ever written a halfway satisfactory sequel to Treasure Island. Still, now that I’ve moved them all to my new flat and have begun to find them homes on my shelves, I find the cliché is truer that many people realise: books really do furnish a room. Of course, you can bind them all identically in morocco leather and house them in oak cabinets; or you can buy individual cased hardbacks from the Folio Society to adorn your living room in style; but even my ragtag collection of poetry, science fiction, outdoor adventure and Russian Literature; ranging from svelte, selected modern paperbacks to tome-like turn-of-the-century collected works; even this can furnish a room. It provides an abstract pleasure for the eye as it slides along the row of spines, enjoying the change of colour and texture from jacket to jacket without thinking unduly of authors or subjects. A well-tuned bookcase can be a work of art, a kind of linear mosaic that provides visual pleasure independent of intellectual association. After having moved and reshelfed several times in the past few months, I can see fragments of the old patterns on my shelves, broken up where I unloaded a box in a different order, or found space to squeeze in an extra volume. It would be possible to agonise infinitely over the placement of everything, but I’ve decided to slot them in in any order and let them settle in for themselves.

A French friend once asked my advice on ordering her books, and I flippantly suggested colour-coding them by spine. What I didn’t realise is that French paperbacks are an almost uniform flat white, of a sort I only recall seeing here on the spine of a 1970’s Dickens reprint, so that idea was doomed from the start. English books may be more colourful, but they present their own problems. Do I shelf the matte black Penguin Classics together in one great uniform block, or leaven the effect by scattering them among the more vivid shelves? What do I do with something like Branch Lines: Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry, whose publishers gave it a dust jacket that was half green, half brown? Do I even own any indigo or violet books? At least the Faber and Faber paperbacks provide a basic spectrum from which to expand.

All this for the moment is academic; perhaps some very rainy day, after I’ve laid the Mahabharata aside, I may set to work on an aesthetic theory of bookshelves. In the meantime, it merely adds a new pleasure to that small empty space in the bottom right hand corner, where every night, at the stroke of midnight, the ghosts of all the books I have ever owned and am yet to acquire flicker past; red, purple, green and sober black, they dance briefly and then vanish into a haze of possibility.

The City of Dreadful Night

durer_melancholia_i

Lo, thus, as prostrate, “In the dust I write
My heart’s deep languor and my soul’s sad tears.”
Yet why evoke the spectres of black night
To blot the sunshine of exultant years?
Why disinter dead faith from mouldering hidden?
Why break the seals of mute despair unbidden,
And wail life’s discords into careless ears?

So begins James Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night, a work with justifiable pretence to the title of the most depressing poem ever written. Throughout its 21 separate sections it fleshes out an urban nightmare – a lifeless city of perpetual darkness illuminated only through the baleful glare of street lamps, along the streets of which lost souls wander aimlessly, each weighed down by their own tragedies. It is a place where the poet’s own alcoholism and depression, interlocked with the poverty and inequality of Victorian London, becomes solidified in bricks and mortar. No resolution or glimpse of a happy ending is offered, and at the close of the poems alternating sections of tragic narrative and Gothic description, Thomson leaves us only with ‘confirmation of the old despair.’ As far as I know, it is the only poem ever to advocate mass suicide:

They leave all hope behind who enter there:
One certitude while sane they cannot leave,
One anodyne for torture and despair;
The certitude of Death, which no reprieve
Can put off long; and which, divinely tender,
But waits the outstretched hand to promptly render
That draught whose slumber nothing can bereave.

Perversely, I love it. I must have read it twenty times over, and no matter how miserable, worthless and forlorn I feel at the time I pick up the book, by the time I put it down I always feel that perhaps my life really isn’t quite that unbearable after all. The world seems a brighter place in comparison with the gloom of the City, and after bearing with the unnameable sins and sorrows of the characters for a thousand lines or so, my heart leaps with catharsis. Not only that, but much of the poem’s violent atheist rhetoric is enjoyable and intensely quotable.

“The vilest thing must be less vile than Thou
From whom it had its being, God and Lord!
Creator of all woe and sin! abhorred,
Malignant and implacable! I vow

“That not for all Thy power furled and unfurled,
For all the temples to Thy glory built,
Would I assume the ignominious guilt
Of having made such men in such a world.”

“As if a being, God or Fiend, could reign,
At once so wicked, foolish and insane,
As to produce men when He might refrain!

A more pungent antidote to the mellifluous platitudes of Victorian religious verse cannot be imagined!

Its extremism offends perhaps as much as it entertains, but it is a helpful extremism, a place which marks the far end of the scale of disillusionment on which we all have to live. Somewhere between the rose-tinted glasses, and Thomson’s ‘bitter, old and wrinkled truth’, we have to strike a balance. The City of Dreadful Night is a warning not to slide too far to one end of the scale, and let your worldview become an unbearable trap. Even Thomson himself was happy for a good deal of his life, and other’s among his collected poems, such as ‘Sunday Up the River’ are joyous celebrations of bourgeois domesticity. Unsurprisingly, they don’t exact the same pull as the great gloomy Gothic edifice of his most famous work.

I have never believed in Thomson’s City to the extent that I have been prepared to throw myself off a bridge, but I have found the scale of disillusionment has tipping his way more than once. Here, for example, is a recording of Part IV of The City of Dreadful Night I made some years ago while suffering from a broken heart and an extremely bad cold:

City of Dreadful Night Part IV

Chawton House Library

Chawton House panorama

It is always nice to turn up at a country house as something other than a paying visitor. The best part of collecting my Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, for example, was turning up at St James’ Palace with an invitation. Compared to that, the two minutes of bob and nod with the Earl of Wessex was something of a disappointment – we didn’t even get Prince Philip. Yesterday, I was not a daytripper but a visiting scholar, and at nine o’clock I was making the 45 minute drive in the pouring rain to Chawton, just outside of Alton – home not only to Jane Austen’s House, but to Chawton House Library, one of my new favourite places to study.

Owned by Jane’s brother Edward Austen in the Georgian era, Chawton House was bought by a charitable foundation in the eighties and, as well as being a fine country house in its own right, now functions as a Centre for Woman’s Literature 1600-1850. This means that, with a few days forward notice, even sciolists like myself can turn up and have access to the main library collections. As the public is only allowed in for brief tours at 2:30pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I effectively have a fine old country house to myself. The prospect never fails to raise my spirits.

Yesterday, for example, I came in from the rain to find a lovely smell of woodsmoke seeping back into the ancient boards, from the Edwardian Christmas event held a few days beforehand. The (insanely lucky) visiting fellows who dwell in cottages around the back of the house had all wound their projects down and gone home, and aside from me, the librarian and the receptionist, there was hardly anyone around. In the faint December light, it seemed the ideal place for Gothic fantasies, but I had an essay to write and was too busy to dream for long.

The library is on the first floor, blessed with good light and fine, weighty desks to study from, though to someone used to padded deskchairs the wooden frames take some getting used to. The only sound is the whirr as the air conditioner keeps the room cooled to British Library specifications. At my elbow five massive leatherbound quarto volumes of Catharine Macaulay’s History of England sat, second editions from 1766 that I would never get a chance to handle in a university library. I browsed through them, enjoying Macaulay’s republican rhetoric and the wonderful texture of the old book, with its long s’s and strange spellings, and Capitalisation of abstract Nouns. But this was no time to idle, for I had an essay to write, and was swiftly constructing my plan and pulling in quotations from a dozen different sources, scattered through the library – pausing only to divert myself briefly with some of the Juvenelia of Jane Austen.

The library closes for an hour at lunchtime, and I took the opportunity to wander through the old house, whose floorboards roll and buck beneath you like rough ground, looking up at the pictures of famous women they’d assembled, and blundering into rooms I’d never seen before. I finished curled up in a bay window behind a curtain, reading a publishers catalogue and trying to pretend I was Jane Eyre. Then, back to the library again, until by 4pm I had a one page plan and three pages of usable quotations, and saw myself out with some sadness. I would have liked to remain, and read through Austen’s juvenelia until my stomach began to rumble uncontrollably. I would like to have stayed the night in one of the bedrooms, or the cottages of the visiting fellows. But alas! I had to return to my parents modern house, with its televisions and kitchens and conveniences, and leave grand old Chawton House behind.

The Thirty-Three Happy Moments

Of all the books on my shelves, one of the ones I’m fondest of is also one of the shabbiest. It’s a small, gunmetal grey volume about the size of an old tobacco tin, heavily creased up and down the spine. It’s called ‘The Knapsack’.

Even if it were not a proverbial sin to judge a book by its cover, the utilitarian appearance of my volume is easily excused by the fact it was designed as an anthology of prose and verse for the use of servicemen in World War Two. My secondhand copy advertises itself in the inside cover as belonging to an E. Riley of Hull; there’s no indication whether E. Riley ever served in the war, or carried it into action, but I like to think he did, and while away my time imagining the battles and foreign fields this shabby volume was borne through.

The anthology, as edited by Herbert Read, has an understandably martial and Christian theme to it in many of its sections, but it is very rarely less than entertaining. As the original vehicle for introducing me to the wild and Celtic wanderings of the Irish Saint Brandon, to the ancient ballad of Chevy Chase and the beautiful lyrics of Shelley, it has a place in my heart – but what really won me over are the half-dozen pages in the back reserved for ‘Notes and Additions’.

One of my favourite items is ‘The Thirty-Three Happy Moments‘ of Chin Sheng’tan. The story of its composition is a simple one. It was a rainy day in 17th century China, and the playwright Chin found himself shut indoors with a friend. To while away the monotony of their seclusion, Chin began to compose a list of the truly happy moments in his life. They are an entertainingly varied selection, ranging from the worthy and spiritual:

I am not a saint, and am therefore not without sin. In the night I did something wrong and I get up in the morning and feel extremely ill at ease about it. Suddenly I remember what is taught by Buddhism, that not to cover one’s sins is the same as repentance. So then I begin to tell my sin to the entire company around, whether they are strangers or my old friends. Ah, is this not happiness?

to the pleasures of the flesh:

To keep three or four spots of eczema in a private part of my body and now and then to scald or bathe it with hot water behind closed doors. Ah, is this not happiness?

And including both selfless actions:

I have nothing to do after a meal and try to go through the things in some old trunks. I see there are dozens or hundreds of IOUs from people who owe my family money. Some of them are dead and some still living, but in any case there is no hope of their returning the money. Behind people’s backs I put them together in a pile and make a bonfire of them, and I look up to the sky and see the last trace of smoke disappear. Ah, is this not happiness?

And the delights of schadenfreude:

To see someone’s kiteline broken. Ah, is this not happiness?

To say more would be to deluge my article in quotations, and spoil the pleasure of reading The Thirty-three Happy Moments through properly. Suffice to say, I found Chin Sheng’tan’s work both amusing and inspirational. I have always been guilty of finding happiness in the little things, in the sly moments of creeping contentment rather than in great acts and crowning achievements. Here was a work that celebrated precisely those moments of joy – often small and silly and insignificant, but not the less joyous for that. In my notebooks and facebook statuses, I began compiling my own small list:

To eat a piping hot bowl osoupf soup on a cold and drizzly day. Ah, is this not happiness?

A few nights ago, I got so drunk I cannot remember what took place after a certain point in the evening. I worry that I spoke or acted rashly, and may have given offence to someone. Days later, I meet someone who was there, who assures me that I offended no-one, and that I am always fun and pleasant when I’m drunk. Ah, is this not happiness?

Comfortably finishing a book in a single sitting. Ah, is this not happiness?

I am riding my bicycle on a chill winters night, a few days after the Christmas lights have been switched of. The headwind pushes against my chest like an ice cold current, but I am too caught up in my own speed to care. Ah, is this not happiness?

I have discovered a bee in my kitchen on a sunny day. While I am still hunting around for something in which to trap it, it flied casually out of the door into the garden of its own accord. Ah, is this not happiness?

To watch McLintock! with a really good whisky. Ah, is this not happiness?mclintock

Bathing in a stream on a hot summer’s day, I decide to risk my neck sliding down a series of waterfalls. I end up in a bruised but exhilerated heap at the bottom, and acquire a limp for the next several days – but this is a small price to pay for the experience and the anecdote. Ah, is this not happiness?

It is the first really hot day of the year. I have taken advantage of the informality of the occasion to wear shorts. As my friends sweat in their thick trousers, a cool breeze rustles around my knees. Ah, is this not happiness?

To walk across a playing field in the summertime, while the swifts flit in endless circles around you. Ah, is this not happiness?

To visit your favourite pub on a Friday night, and find it doesn’t close until two am. Ah, is this not happiness?

To go climbing in good company; to lose all the skin from your hands in the pursuit of a worthy sport; and to return home to liver and onions and mustard mashed potato. Ah, is this not happiness?