In case of fire…
I got a call today from a journalist on The Sunday Express, who wanted to talk about the series I’ve just done for Radio Four, which is called ‘The Completists’, and which starts on Sunday 23rd January at 2.45; right after Gardener’s Question Time, and before the Classic serial, and an ideal time for a nap, as a chum once pointed out to me. For the full experience, you could buy the Sunday Express and have a nap underneath it whilst dozing through the show. The series runs for five weeks, but I suspect that the Sunday Express will only run the story once, so you might want to hang onto your copy for the whole run.
Anyhoo, this journalist was talking to me about my collection of books, and what would I save in case of fire. This is a hard question. I suspect that I would just grab whatever I’m reading at the moment, especially since I’m reading Alexandra Harris’ fabulous ‘Romantic Moderns’ which I’m gobbling up with huge excitement, and which I can hardly bear to put down anyway. I suspect the livre du jour might be what I grab because when I was rushed into hospital with a dicky ticker a few years back, and again when I was arrested for my ridiculous refusal to pay parking fines last year, this is exactly what I did.
But, faced with the question, you can’t help but think. I told the journalist that I’d take Benjamin Capper’s Topographical Dictionary, which I would. During the day, though, the question has nagged at me somewhat. First I thought, actually, I’d take ‘Archie and the Strict Baptists’ by John Betjeman, which I used to read to Charley when she was wee, and which still has great personal resonance.
Then I thought, no, I’d take my almost complete collection of the Uncle novels by J.P. Martin, in hardback, with dustwrappers. It’s taken me a lifetime to find the first five, and one day I’ll find the last volume, ‘Uncle and the Battle for Badgertown’, which is only available on the interweb for two arms and both legs.
But then, I’m like ‘Whoa.’ Because of course I’d want to save the beautiful ‘Atlas of Remote Islands’ that my beloved wife gave me for Christmas. it’s much too lovely a thing to imagine it covered in smoke stains.
But, in the end, I decided on Issue 17 of ‘The New Review, from 1975. Having spent years collecting different editions of books by Anthony Powell, I know that I wouldn’t be able to scoop up three shelves full of stuff in the face of a fast moving fire. And I know that I can never afford firsts of everything, and that the only two firsts I do own are fairly easy to find and relatativly inexpensive. But a fellow collector and Powell nut once cast his eye over my shelves, and this old magazine was the only thing that made him draw breath and turn just the tiniest bit green. It only cost me three quid, but I reckon it’s pretty hard to find. And I could skim through the index of characters from ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’, and look at the excellent Osbert Lancaster cartoons, and think to myself ‘Let’s rebuild!’ The collection that is…