Wednesday, March 18, 2015

From The Books That Almost Killed Me To The Books That Built Me

Yesterday was a day of contrasts that began in mud, squalor and a brush with death, but ended in the opulent surroundings of the Cafe Royal.

The brush with death came when a tonne of books nearly fell off the back of a lorry, on top of me. The lorry driver glowered: "It's the tailgate that's making 'em wobble. They still 'aven't repaired it. What's in these boxes anyway?"

I made sure that I moved well back and watched as the pallet of boxes slowly descended, then inserted my trolley wheels underneath the wooden slats of the pallet and began pulling (oh, the glamour of bookselling!). If you've ever pulled a tonne of books along potholed, muddy ground, you'll know that it does odd things to the internal organs.

At one point my pallet got stuck in the mud and I had a momentary existential crisis, reflecting on the chain of events that had led me to this point in time, but my reverie was rudely interrupted by the sound of one of my bookshelves collapsing:

I've had better days.

Fortunately, a kindly angel had invited Mrs Steerforth and I to a literary event that evening, so the day ended on a high.

'The Books That Built Me' is the brainchild of Helen Brocklebank, a former director at Harper's Bazaar (also known to many as the blogger Mrs Trefusis) who now hosts a literary salon at the Cafe Royal, inviting writers to discuss the books that influenced them when they were young. It is a much more interesting approach than simply asking authors about their favourite books, as there is far more scope for self-revelation.

Last night's writer, Andrew O'Hagan, was the perfect guest, blessed with a mercurial intellect and quick wit that never flagged. I particularly enjoyed his anecdotes about being a bookish cuckoo in the nest of a working-class Glasgow family. After what felt like half an hour, I was surprised to see that he'd been talking for an hour and 20 minutes.

But the success of the evening was also thanks to Helen Brocklebank's skill as a host, unobtrusively moving the conversation forward, making intelligent, perceptive comments that clearly pleased Andrew O'Hagan. Helen had obviously done her research for the evening, but seemed equally at home when the conversation went completely off topic.

The quality of the discussion was far better than a certain book programme that will remain nameless and it is surely only a matter of time before an enlightened broadcaster realises the potential of The Books That Built Me.

In the meantime, if you can get to London for an evening, I would strongly recommend booking a ticket. I'll see you there.


Katharine A said...

I'm not a literary person. But think I should be. Glad you survived. Not time to stop blogging yet.

Val said...

Well I'm glad the day ended on a high note. An unobtrusive skilled host can be so valuable just as a bad one is so frustrating ...I'm thinking of radio shows that provoked agonized squeals from me at the speaker ..."No don't interrupt them ...encourage that by way ...I want to know where it leads"

I enjoyed Parkinson on TV as he didn't seem to want to take center stage.

Glad the pallet didn't get you!

Canadian Chickadee said...

Sounds like a perfect ending to a less-than-stellar day. Glad you survived the book/box toppling and the shelf collapse. I agree with Katharine - definitely not time for you to stop blogging yet. We need you!

Coline said...

Books have never tried to crush me but they have certainly put a few cracks in my home!

Steerforth said...

Katharine - Your blog suggests that you are already a literary person - your ruminations on objects in museums are very insightful and thought-provoking, like a good novel.

Val - Since Andrew Marr had his stroke, I've been interested in the different presenting styles of the people who are filling in for him. Anne McElvoy has great brio, but is a bit like a ringmaster cracking the whip. Tom Sutcliffe is more like Helen Brocklebank, getting the most out of his guests, gently prodding them when necessary, but never hogging centre stage.

I agree that Parkinson was very good, apart from his odd moments with people like Helen Mirren.

Carol - It's odd how things balance out. The one good thing about getting older is that I've become far more philosophical about setbacks.

Coline - I remember reading about a composer who was killed by a falling bookcase. Books are far more dangerous than we realise!

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Alkan - crushed by a bookcase? Or a harmonium? Or an umbrella stand? (Isn't the internet wonderful?) Just don't stab yourself in the foot with a walking stick (Lully). Also watch out for your ex-wife's backstabbing family (Leclair). And always keep an eye out for birds carelessly dropping tortoises (Aeschylus).

Steerforth said...

I suppose being killed by books would be the best way to go, but not yet please.

nilly said...

Could have been nasty, though not a literary first! I immediately thought of Leonard Bast in Forster's Howards Way. A working class man, eager for self-improvement only to be finished off by a falling bookcase.

Steerforth said...

I am that man.

zmkc said...

Your son's question - do you have to be very rich to go here- brought tears to my eyes. The idea that someone still young has already absorbed the idea that money is the only route to being in a beautiful and wonderful university is v sad. Then I cheered up, remembering that, as they are such rich institutions, Oxford and Cambridge actually offer better opportunities in the form of bursaries for those not well off than other universities - at least I know Cambridge does.