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From a Bedside Table Long Ago



I want to share this picture with you.

I know it doesn’t inspire.  A dog-eared, thumbed-to-bits volume with its spine all but destroyed, its covers stained with use.  In resale terms it would be lucky to get a bid at an auction, or even a second glance.

Kipling’s ‘Animal Stories’ sits among the other volumes on my bookshelf.  In a day I might pass it by many times, reluctant, almost, to disturb it in its age; because once it was never given time to rest – never closed, never far from my pillow.  It taught me to read when, at maybe three or four years old I learned the first magic: it sang me to sleep when my mother read from it, it showed me pictures of other lands, other worlds for my imagination to ride upon. 

Through his pen, the writer taught me love and respect for the wild creatures around me.  He gave nobility to the elephant, cunning to the tiger, valour to the mongoose, loyalty to the wolf.  Those  creatures are as real to me now as the first evening when ‘The White Seal’ swam into my mind, or when Rikki-Tikki-Tavi first faced a cobra on the veranda of my dreams.  The simple morality they taught has lasted with me.

Upon the flyleaf of this tattered book there is a pencilled note.  It says, simply:  ‘To Joan, from Uncle,  Xmas 1935’.  Joan was my mother.

So there it sits amidst the company of its fellow volumes – some as old, some much younger than itself, evoking memories of someone passed who must, in her time, have valued it as much as I.  And it has travelled with me through my life as once it guided her through hers; and when my life closes?  Who knows what then?

The tablet of my current ‘reads’ glimmers back at me:  ‘Dombey and Son’, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.  The pages are easily wiped across the screen, the words are any size I want, my vast library of titles has no need of shelves.  This is progress.   But they will last, these current thousand, for how long?  Their flyleaves bear no treasured mark, there is no familiar paper smell and when my tablet has run its course a year or so hence they will leave as swiftly as they came.

When we lament the passing of the printed word, you see, I believe we make a basic error – a mistake.  We revile the computer for stabbing our paper fantasies in the back when really the paper fantasies themselves sealed their doom.  The blame truly lies with the throw-away, the paperback.

In pushing up the hardback price beyond the common reader’s means publishers let paperbacks in, but more than that, they changed the role of the book in the home, in a reader’s life.  Few unbound books will survive as ‘Animal Stories’ has, or support such enticing insights into family history.   Few will live on bookshelves or decorate our homes because they simply do not look nice; they will circulate a few times, in charity shops or care homes maybe, then be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The writer’s art has become as impermanent as the actor’s.  So if you are riffling through the titles of today seeking the classics of tomorrow seek no more.  The onward march of software will leave each one behind.  There will be no survivors.



I hereby state, in the clearest possible terms, that I am not, by nature, nostalgic:  but I remember a time when I was……

Is this the least acknowledged  of those tell-tale signs of aging?  Why do we feel compelled to regale our youthful listeners with tales of our colorful past?

“I remember the Easter of sixty-two.   Robert, that’s Michael’s dad – you won’t know him – and I were stuck in Hong Kong.  Of course, the flights weren’t as reliable in those days….”

Our eyes, with our minds, float away to distant times in far-away lands.   Our young audience’s eyes, meanwhile, are glazing over.  Do we listen to the shuffling of impatient bottoms or heed the sudden needs to be somewhere else?  Sadly….    ImageAs long as one bottom is still shuffling, as long as one ear is still bent, we plunge on and deeper until at last we are merely talking to ourselves.  Those of us who suffer with the severer cases of pernicious nostalgia walk about within a youth-free zone; entirely untroubled by children except, maybe, those who shout things at us from a distance.

You see, we will never tell the tales youth wants to hear – the stories against ourselves.  We won’t recall the day grandma sitting on the window-sill over there got drunk and fell out of that very window, or the dinner party with the in-laws when, anxious to impress, we whipped a family photo from our wallet and, along with it, a condom which landed in the gravy-boat.   We don’t revive memories we ourselves would prefer to forget.  We preserve our stature at the expense of being boring.

Nostalgia is a disease a little like Malaria, that will attack from time to time, revisit us without warning.  It is no respecter of occasion.   Elderly ladies, for example, seem particularly prone to episodes in the doorways of stores or the aisles of supermarkets, and there is nothing to test the efficacy of a narrative quite like a gathering in front of the sugar, or before the prescriptions counter at the chemist.  Who has not been ‘caught’ in a shop by a line which begins:  ‘Do you remember when you used to get these for half that price?  I seem to recall this place was a Woolworths then…’   Or seated in a speeding car approaching traffic lights when the driver beside them suddenly gets that far-off glaze:   “Of course, these engines aren’t a patch on the ’95 model.  I had a green one, you know; the T$4 it was….”

In its most acute form, nostalgia can become severely debilitating and at times terminal.  It is essential to avoid these cases.  They have the power to utterly demoralize you and they use it mercilessly.  Sufferers live determinedly in a vanished world where bus fares were rarely more than a shilling and beer was one-and-eight-pence a pint, and they never baulk at arguing with anyone who tries to charge them more.   You can recognize them by their warning bugle calls:

“Service was service in my day.”

“Where’s the b****y porter?  Get me a porter!”

“I’m not paying that!”

Such poor souls, lost though they regrettably are, are best left well alone.  Even, insensitive as it may be to suggest, when they insist on crossing the road at this specific spot because: “It wasn’t a motorway when I was younger!”


Correction of a House

For those who missed it, Shepton Mallet prison closed last week.  

As a child of Somerset, I have distant memories of Shepton Mallet, and the prison (no, I wasn’t an inmate) is among those vague recollections, squatting in the midst of civilised town buildings like a somnolent slug.

High perimeter walls – 75ft is high – grey stone, tiny peeping windows with those tell-tale bars: I’d like to think that someone with vision would re-open it as a themed hotel, but I’m told they’re going to pull it down.

There won’t be many arguments, I imagine, in favour of its preservation.  No outraged ImageNational Trust junkies will barricade the doors or lie down in front of the bulldozers – no, this is the less desirable face of history; a side of society we would prefer to forget.

Built in 1610, it’s certainly a candidate for preservation. It offered accommodation to many famous ‘lifers’ not least among which were the brothers Kray.  And I believe the ghosts (I’m told there are several) would like to see their nameless memories preserved.  So many of them, victims of the almost continuous ravages of smallpox and the brutality that reigned within its walls, lie buried there; their graves unmarked by any stone.

How many were hanged at HMP Shepton Mallet? No-one really knows – in early years no records were kept.  In World War Two, however, it was a military prison. Sixteen American soldiers were hanged and two shot for crimes including rape and murder.

So no tears but those which the men, women and children who suffered the continuous torture of years within those cramped cells have shed, and still perhaps run bleeding among the stones.  And maybe in the other silences  the creak of the treadmill that once turned there might still be heard, when Shepton Mallet needs reminding of those darker hours.