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Fold and Vanish

On recreations.

Many years ago—though not as many years as it should have been—I was finally given an entry in Britain’s great, grand, red and gold reference work Who’s Who.  It was not that I felt that I was especially notable, just that a lot of people who were no more notable than I am had been admitted, long before. In the time since, I have grown sure that nobody actually looks at it anymore, except to admire his own entry. Copies of it sit in every major library. Newspaper offices can read it online. But these days everyone looks you up instead on Wikipedia. In my case this is pretty risky, as I am banned from editing it (for the offense of flippancy) and cannot correct various errors and smears which have crept into its description of my life and work. And people seeking to interview me or ask me about myself (as they sometimes do) seldom if ever know the simple details displayed in Who’s Who, details over which I took some trouble. This is because they haven’t looked at it. Otherwise, they might (for instance) be struck by my recorded "recreations." You would be amazed by how many of the mighty—diplomats, authors, admirals, and inventors—can think of nothing better to say about how they amuse themselves than that they enjoy "walking" or "reading." I gave my recreations, all those years back, as "long train journeys" and "second-hand bookshops." And it was true, though it is growing harder and harder to keep up.

On a winter’s afternoon such as the one which now thickens into evening outside my Oxford window, I can imagine the supreme indulgence of both these joys. In my fantasy I begin my day with a clattering ride in a half-empty train through a part of the country I have not visited before, the fields frosty where they are not flooded, a keen Christmassy wind getting up in the exciting dark hills on the horizon towards which we make our slow way. If the train could be steam-hauled, better still. If it might include a restaurant car, serving the rich, heavy meals we now pretend not to enjoy, close to perfection. Then the arrival at the unspoiled station—with its resident cat and ancient luggage trolleys—of the imaginary Cathedral city which is my destination. A pause to drop my bags at the unmodernized hotel with its creaking wooden floors, open fires and kindly staff, before going out into the maze of streets which have somehow been spared from motor traffic and fast food joints. Their windows are bright but not too bright, displaying shiny new green bicycles in one, toy trains in another, bottles of Claret and large cheeses in a third. They all curve and twist towards the mighty church where I shall attend choral evensong in a couple of hours, but just for now, look! There is the second-hand bookshop. It is very tall, perhaps five floors, with the stairs themselves piled high with books. It is not too easy. Nobody has organized it. You will never find what you actually want when you are actually looking for it (it will almost fall into your hand only later when you have entirely given up the search). The prices, penciled on the fly-leaf, are designed for the reader, not the collector. There are lots of those glorious old dark red guidebooks to Edwardian England which—being totally unselfconscious—are the best introduction to life in those times as it was lived and felt. There are 1950s and 1960s softcover books still bearing printed prices in shillings, as they did in the years when I first became a book buyer. Here is the missing volume from my grandfather’s pre-1914 set of encyclopedias. Here is the actual history textbook I used as a child. Look! That is the actual Tiger Tim's Annual from 1937 with whose crudely colored pictures and short captions my mother taught me to read in a Devon attic nearly seventy years ago.  And there—can it be? Yes, it can—is the green and gold volume of stories about a family of dragons which was always on the bedroom shelf when I was small but disappeared forever during one of our many moves. And, as I read it, I can remember almost every word and every picture too.

How much more satisfying this is than any shop selling largely tedious and over-rated new books which will never live this long. The owner has a great deal of white hair. Though obviously tall, he is folded up like a collapsed giraffe in his decrepit chair. And he is himself absorbed in a book of verse. He has no idea where anything is and does not run a bookshop because he enjoys conversation. Nor does he behave as if he suspects me of planning to steal his stock. He will politely rouse himself when I go to him to pay, but otherwise leaves me to get on with it. I could stay here for hours, but already my pile of trophies has grown so large that I had better exercise some self-control. Here under the slates you can just see the Cathedral tower through a narrow window, and hear the giant boom of its bell striking four o’clock, making the whole peaceful city tremble. In a few minutes, lost amid the misericords and the shadowed arches, I shall once again listen with amazement to the revolutionary tract which is the Magnificat, still wondering who first devised the words "He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts." And later I shall walk out into the freezing moonlit air, buttoning up my coat and cramming on my gloves, and look up at the great west front, wondering if I shall ever have the time and concentration to read the enormous messages intricately carved on it, or to understand what they really mean.

And then the whining engine of a pizza delivery motorbike sounds, a drumbeat begins to thump in a nearby bar, the whole scene is swept by the painfully bright headlights of a tourist bus. The stench of onions from a hot dog stand, mingled with the perfume of marijuana, reminds my nostrils that you cannot stop the horrors of progress. The whole illusion dissolves into garish lights, building sites, parking lots, and shouting. The sweet especial scene sinks back into banal normality, as if all the color had suddenly drained out of a stained glass window, revealing the dreary street outside, and all that is in it.

It was only an indulgent fancy. Long train journeys, if you can find them, grow less adventurous and picturesque by the day, as the trains run faster and faster on duller and duller routes, made to look and feel as much like aircraft as possible. The stations they arrive at are stripped and dreary. The creaky old hotels and their kindly staff have closed, fallen into sad decay or are severely modernized, with "tea and coffee making facilities" and T.V. sets in every room, but no heart and not the slightest chance of a steak and kidney pie and a bottle of Beaune at a sane price, for supper. The old second-hand bookshops of Britain, undercut by highly professional charity shops which pay no property taxes, fold and vanish. The sensible man stays at home and hunts for his treasures on a computer screen. But I am not sensible, and I shall still keep searching for my pleasures until they have been utterly erased.