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The Big Issue, the Dalai Lama and some great works of literature

A very English sky

Evening: an English sky

For some years now, a young woman has sat outside a shop in the centre of town. She sits alone. Even on the coldest winter days she is there. She’s a sad-eyed girl who always declares her presence with the unobtrusive and hopeful cry: ‘Big Issue, please.’ Sometimes I stop and buy a copy and sometimes I don’t. It depends …

Little by little I accumulated a large number of ‘The Big Issue.’ I also accumulated a number of other publications (magazines, brochures, catalogues) – and so, it was time for a clear-out.

As I was sifting through the piles of assorted texts wondering which to keep and which to put in the re-cycle bin I chanced upon a copy of ‘The Big Issue’ that had been published in the first week of July 2012. It caught my eye because it had a photograph of the Dalai Lama on the cover – along with the caption WISE GUY. The Dalai Lama has an endearing face and, probably because of this, I started to leaf through the pages of this copy of The Big Issue. On page 31 I discovered something that I hadn’t noticed when I originally bought the magazine; a column was headed: ‘Five books everyone should read before they die.’ The choices were by Edward Skidelsky. I was intrigued by his selection, three of which I’d actually read. And so, in response I pencilled out my list of five books that I would, similarly, recommend.

Later that day I received a visitor – an Englishman – who was currently living abroad on the continent of Africa. He was staying for just a few days in England before continuing his travels. The Englishman told me that he was ‘fed up with Africa’ partly because he was beginning to find himself unwelcome (‘they’ve started to adopt an awful African-American mindset’) and partly because he was missing some of the unique aspects of England. He was well-read (he’d spent his student days at Oxford University) and he knew the classics, Shakespeare, and the moderns – so I asked him to name ‘five books that everyone should read before they die.’ He replied that this was ‘not at all’ an easy task especially because there seemed to be a definite moral nuance to the question. He then added that he would not choose anything that was a translation – and that although Shakespeare was ‘de rigeur’ he didn’t really like the structure of his various plays: Shakespeare, therefore, ‘would not be on the list.’

So, what was he going to choose?

“I’m going to have to restrict myself to some notable works of fiction. I won’t choose something like ‘Hitler, a study in tyranny’. And they will have to be weighty books – no slim volumes. I’m going to have to rifle through the memories of all the books that I’ve read.”

But ‘rifle through’ his memories he did and, little by little, he identified the following five works of literature, to each of which he appended a brief comment:

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
“What’s so good about David Copperfield? Well, it’s a magnificent English tale about fortune, good or ill, in which most of the characters get their just desserts.”

East Of Eden by John Steinbeck
“A terrific story about the nature of identity and the sheer inexplicability of love.”

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
“I’d have to include a story about war and this is as good as they get.”

Child Atlas by David Mitchell
“It’s a kind of melange-fiction – brilliant – with as many meanings as you feel able to construct.”

The Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics (originally selected for publication by Francis Palgrave in 1861) – the OUP edition.
“Milton, Coleridge … Christina Rossetti and Philip Larkin … simply superb.”

It took him about an hour to determine his choices. Even though one of the selections is by Steinbeck, I think they reflect a distinct and enduring Englishness.


In answer to the question ‘Which five books should a person read before they die?’ I chose:

The Republic by Plato
The best place to start the study of politics and ethics.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
A wonderful portrayal of the male psyche.

Human, all too human by Freidrich Nietzsche
Iconoclastic: humanity unmasked.

Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe
One of the very best studies of culture and the way it makes people.

Wind, sand and stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Beautiful: The magic of the everyday and a perfect riposte to alienating consumerism.

A sky like a battle

Across the fields, a sky like a battle

Across the fields, a sky like a battle

“And the battle clouds changed their shapes momently.”

Above the wasted fields, a sky like a battle; Against the blood-red darkness, a line of dark-edged sentinels. A fury in the stardust clouds, a storm of crimson warriors…

A kind of horror-splendour: the case of the bluebottle

The blue dawn over  bluebottle water

Blue dawn over bluebottle water

It is the beginning of June. The harbingers of summer have already zig-zagged their insouciant way through the bright transparent air. Which harbingers? Why, those large determined big-eyed flies – the bluebottles!

Something reassures me when I hear the buzz of the bluebottle: it’s the sound of dazzling skies and long-grass meadows, of deep green shade, swallows on the wing, picnics and riverbanks – and days that begin dawn-pink in the east and die, slowly, in glows of orange or bronze at sunset.

It’s the memory of my parents disturbed during their afternoon reading – and swishing their rolled-up newspapers – again and again – as they tried to rid themselves of the wilfully wretched beast.

It’s those crackling transistor-radio days on summer lawns back in the 60s … and most certainly the sound of the bluebottle reminds me of 1969: It was in this year that the still avant-garde and alternative band ‘Pink Floyd’ released their album ‘Ummagumma’ which included Roger Waters’ beautiful composition, ‘Grantchester Meadows’. Grantchester Meadows begins with the chirp and tinkle of birds singing – and then, every once in a while, we hear the drone of a fly. Thereafter the song begins in earnest; it is charming: there are dog-foxes and kingfishers and ducks splashing as they take to flight from the surface of water. Overall, a lovely dreamy version of England emerges through the Floyd’s plangent hypnotic sound. (It’s an England that is worth preserving.) BUT after six minutes or so the fly re-appears. Its drone rises and falls in random volumes until we hear footsteps and the swish swish of a fly-swot. Then there is one final strike of the swot … and silence.

In 1969 I also first read Mervyn Peake’s remarkable trilogy of novels, beginning with ‘Titus Groan’, then ‘Gormenghast’ and lastly ‘Titus alone’. The novels describe the life of Titus, the seventy seventh earl of the crumbling kingdom of Gormenghast. In the second novel Peake tells us about Titus’ schooling, an ink-stained wooden-desk kind of schooling that no longer exists: the young Titus, like his classmates is sleepy; while the classroom swims ‘in a honey-coloured milky-way’ of sunbeams, Titus begins, for the first time in his life, to attend, at length, to the effortless flow of his thoughts and the fruits of his imagination. As he does a fly buzzes in the classroom. First Mervyn Peake introduces us to the fly and the context:

The room was hot and full of golden motes. A great clock ticked away monotonously. A bluebottle buzzed slowly over the surface of the hot windowpanes or from time to time zithered its languid way from desk to desk.

Then he attends to the behaviour of the fly and the reactions of the schoolboys:

Every time it passed certain desks, small inky hands would grab at it, or rulers would smack out through the tired air. Sometimes it would perch, for a moment on an inkpot or on the back of a boy’s collar and scythe its front legs together, and then its back legs, rubbing them, scything them, honing them, or as though it were a lady dressing for a ball drawing on a pair of long invisible gloves.

And finally, in a celebration of the bluebottle, he considers its ultimate meaning and deeper significance:

Oh bluebottle, you would fare ill at a ball! There would be none who could dance better than you; but you would be shunned: you would be too original: you would be before your time. They would not know your steps, the other ladies. None would throw out that indigo light from brow or flank – but, bluebottle, they wouldn’t want to. There lies the agony. Their buzz of converse is not yours, bluebottle. You know no scandal, no small talk, no flattery, no jargon: you would be hopeless, for all that you can pull your long gloves on. After all, your splendour is a kind of horror-splendour. Keep to your inkpots and the hot glass panes of schoolrooms and buzz your way through the long summer terms.

And so, through his parable of the bluebottle, Peake identifies the eternal problem confronting that which is truly original: it is derogated or shunned; it is before its time.

There is something else: it’s not too far-fetched to find in Peake an anticipation of the anti-aesthetic – the ‘horror-splendour’ – that has come to characterise so much contemporary English art.