Fired Up

“Johannes is a deep and thoughtful man; eccentric, yes, but hardly wild. That year, however, the irresponsible teenager in him emerged. And yet it was irresponsibility fueled by what seemed, to me at least, to be genuine passion. He was gloriously excitable, almost deliriously so. He was boiling over with ideas, each more impractical than the last. Like I said, I tried to discourage him, but it was never easy. For the first time, we properly argued. I refused to help him set one up of his experiments. It was great to see him so fired up, if you’ll excuse the phrase, but it was also a concern. I was something of a coward, you see. Too cowardly to be involved for a start; more importantly, though, I was too cowardly to stop him once he’d started..”

Chapter Seven comes to a fiery conclusion.

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A Couple of Regular St. Jeromes

‘One day we climbed up a mountain in search of a tarn, just so Johannes could say he’d read in a tarn. Only it turns out that this tarn wasn’t the tarn he was looking for. So we went up another mountain, books stuffed under our arms, in search of another. Once we reached that, he did his reading, whilst I paddled about in the reeds. Then back down the mountain we went. He was never satisfied. Always on the move in those days; always looking for the next opportunity. Did you ever see one of those paintings of St. Jerome in the desert, sitting in a cave, surrounded by books? Yes? Well, we were a couple of regular St. Jeromes, wandering about the wilderness with a portable library…’

Conversations with Speyer, Chapter Seven, Part Three

I Was (Putting Up A) Blind, And Now I See

When I invest, I invest in books. A book is always there for you in times of need. One forms a relationship with a book which is deep, rich and rewarding; a relationship which evolves over the years, in ever-unexpected directions.

You cannot say the same for a power drill. A perfectly useful item, in its way, but with rather – shall we say – limited attributes. A power drill will not entertain, educate or enlarge your mind. It will not transport you to another world. Put it this way: I would rather be trapped on a desert island with a book than with a power drill.

This may explain why I have never invested in a power drill.  When the occasion to utilize such an object arises, I fall back on more primitive methods. My tools are my hands. Indeed, I do not at present even own a hammer, all of which ensures that the process of screwing in a bracket is a slow, sometimes painful one. It is an adventure, no less; one which can last several days, creating as it does a fine collection of bruises and blisters.

There are, however, upsides. Weak old scholar that I am, I find I cannot stick to such tasks for very long. Screwing in a bracket to put up a blind – as I was doing this weekend – takes a lot of energy out of me, for which reason I tend to do it in fits and starts. I ascend the ladder, turn the screw a few times, take a deep breath, turn the screw a few more times, and then back down the ladder I go. Not to take a rest, I hasten to add, or to get myself a cup of tea. No, no, no. At the foot of the ladder I have placed a book of poems. To recover from the business of turning the screw, I turn to a poem. When tired of the poem, I return to the screw. The two activities feed each other: reading the poem prepares me for turning the screw, and vice versa.

The point of all of this is, of course, to serve as a reminder that reading works very well in conjunction with other activities. One might even argue that reading works best in conjunction with other activities (so Johannes Speyer would say). I’m not sure I would go this far. What I would say, though, is that short bursts of reading, taken in the gaps left by another project, are not to be under-estimated. I can quite honestly say that I got more out of my poems in this moment than I would have done had I been, for example, sitting peacefully in an armchair. Reading and life, it seems, are best taken together.

Of the Seasonal Sort

It is perhaps inevitable that, having agreed to transcribe the remaining pages of my adventurous memoir Conversations with Speyer, my old friend Jean-Pierre Sertin has (in his words), ‘succumbed to an illness of the seasonal sort’. In light of this, I ask my readers to be patient in their wait for the next part in the series.

I could, of course, fill up the space with witty and perceptive anecdotes relating to my new life here in America. Unfortunately, in the face of such institutions as sweet potato chips cooked in maple syrup, words fail me.

Too Long in the Sun

There’s something about the way Americans clutch their morning coffees like dying soldiers clinging onto life. It reminds me of a novelist I once knew; a fellow called Raymond Bower. He used to say that his aim as a writer was to use words the way that coffee uses caffeine. I never quite understood what he meant by this. I can only presume that he wanted to write prose that animated his readers; texts that they would cling to in times of stress; stories that they would turn to first thing in the morning.

The reality, unsurprisingly, is that Raymond Bower’s books were insipid things. They tasted like orange juice that had been left too long in the sun. One did not consume them thirstily, but sipped them anxiously, wondering whether they were worth pursuing to the end. Mid-way through one invariably decided that enough was enough, and tossed them aside.

The Fire of Experiment

As might be expected of such ambitions, pursued as they were under difficult economic circumstances, by two somewhat over-idealistic young men, things ran as smoothly as a broken lawnmower. Speyer nearly drowned, not once, but four times – and no less than two hundred books were deemed to have been rendered ‘unreadable’. This last detail has always struck me as particularly ironic: the main point of the project, after all, was to make books ‘more readable’; to prise open the damp shell of their secrets, rather than send them to a watery grave. Speyer, though, was never scared of making sacrifices. If anything, he was a little too fond of throwing himself, and his books, on the fire of experiment.

Conversations with Speyer: Chapter Seven, Part Two