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…

4 Responses

  1. Graham says:

    Hi Hilary. How are you? oh God, I hadn’t thought about DVD’s, CD’s, clothes, shoes! I’ve got shoes that I couldn’t abandon to the flames. Pelican Strut! And my cameras, my photographs. My Bohemian glass pieces. Elizabeth David up on the top shelf! Nooo! I just hope that it’s a very small fire and that the fire brigade get here quickly. I’m just going to check the batteries in the smoke alarms now. I shan’t sleep for worrying about it all.

  2. Hilary Marchant says:

    I also loved Longitude, Graham, though I have now lent it to someone, so unless their house goes on fire simultaneously I’d be able to count on keeping that in my collection. As far as books are concerned, I would want my Louis MacNeice collected poems, which I have had beside me since I was 16, and the Louis MacNeice astrology book which has the advantage of being the next one on the shelf, thus easy to find, and also being one of the first books bought for me by my husband (before he was my husband). Apart from that I would grab my JS Bach organ DVD, and the china box containing my engagement ring. Ideally I am hoping to be running out of the house while wearing one of my best pairs of boots and most expensive outfits, but I probably wouldn’t actually stop to get changed.

  3. Graham says:

    Beautiful baby back. Strangely, I had just finished my final edit of that post and when it published I saw your comment. It’s a different beast now. Slightly.
    In the event of imminent nuclear holocaust, I’d have to first of all save Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita on account of the fact that I’ve only just got it and I’ve only reached page 45. I don’t fancy entering oblivion without knowing how it all ends. It’s a cracking good read so far.Four more, eh?
    Goodbye To All That would have to go in the carrier bag, as it means a lot to me. Longitude or The Planets both by Dava Sobel wopuld have to fight for space, and I think The Planets would win.
    I would cheat and count A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor as one, because they remind us of so much that was lost in the 20th Century and they are good at transporting me away.
    Portnoy’s Complaint. Because it still makes me cry with laughter. Every time I read it.
    Radio Four, tomorrow afternoon. Right. I’ll listen. TELL YOUR MOTHER IT’S ON BEFORE SHE MISSES IT IAN.
    She does get upset when you tell her that you’ve been on the radio you know and you forgot to tell her in time. She told me.
    chin chin.

  4. Clare Stevens says:

    I LOVE Archie and the Strict Baptists! My son liked it too but his absolute favourite wa ‘I Want to see the Moon’ by Louis Baum, a former editor of The Bookseller if memory serves – lovely representation of a Dad’s evening with his toddler son, perfect in every cadence with chaming illustrations of a house that was just like ours at the time. I used to give it to every friend who had a new baby and was very, very sad when it went out of print. Can’t possibly think what I’d save from my collection of books for grown-ups, but in the event of fire, in addition to my grandmother’s diaries (dating from 1910-1918) I’d grab another children’s book: ‘Mary Lou’, a picture book with a text written by Rene Henry, a schoolfriend of my grandmother in Londonderry around 1907-10. It’s based on stories my grandmother used to tell about her childhood on a mountain farm in Donegal. My sister has our family copy but I found one for myself through the magic of the internet at a fairly reasonable price – I recently looked for another for my brother, and there is one listed but it’s £42 a nd I can’t afford that at the moment!

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