Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections – Andy Childs

Andy Childs | 29th December 2013

In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments:

My year, in semi-reclusion in the west country, has really more than anything else been a year of books. It’s become, I admit, an addiction. I buy more books than I can possibly read, I find it impossible to walk past a book shop without even a cursory browse, I read Literary Review, Slightly Foxed, Book Forum, the Guardian Saturday Review and very occasionaly the TLS, the London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books, I trawl the pages of Amazon looking for second-hand book bargains, and when I’m not working, listening to music and trying to be a dutiful husband/father/son I’m reading. I can’t imagine undertaking a journey of longer than half an hour without a book and in my office/study I’m surrounded by them. All kinds of books. I have a four foot pile of novels that I must read soon even though I will be lucky if any of them live up to the two best works of fiction I have read this year – John Williams’ rightly-acclaimed Stoner and Donna Tartt’s massive, Dickensian-in-scope study of art, life, and loss – The Goldfinch. I also really enjoyed Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, Light Years by James Salter and So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell.

One of the side-effects of book addiction is the irrational compulsion to keep re-arranging them in some sort of order that makes sense, and having just sorted my non-fiction book mountain by subject I find that I have a very respectable library of books on the First World War. It’s been a period of history that has always held a fascination for me and with the impending centenary of its outbreak there have been a number of books published this year that have attempted to explain how this savage and still-shocking conflict came to be fought. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan are as good as books could hope to be in analysing, for a non-expert like me, the complexities of the military/political situation in Europe at the time and the tangled webs of diplomacy and subterfuge that ulimately failed to prevent a catastrophe. They also prove that, far from being an immutable subject, history, in the right hands, is often revealingly being re-written in ways that challenges our understanding of key events. This notion was further reinforced as a result of my other historical obsession this year – the life and work of the great traveller and naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace. Thanks to the efforts of David Attenborough, the great Redmond O’Hanlon and, surprisingly but very effectively, comedian Bill Bailey, Wallace is now widely being given credit for his pioneering work in the development of the theory of evolution – work that certainly had a profound effect on Darwin. There is a bookful (Darwin’s Ghosts by Rebecca Stott) of other scientists who also merit a significant place in the formulation of what has for far too long been accepted by most people as exclusively Darwin’s theory, but Wallace is a proper hero. A true scholar and gentleman. There are three books I’d unreservedly recommend to anyone who thinks they might be interested – Wallace’s own The Malay Archipelago, Alfred Russel Wallace : Letters from the Malay Archipelago and Darwin’s Moon : A Biography of Alfred Russel Wallace by Amabel Williams-Ellis (wife of Clough Williams-Ellis, creator of Portmeirion).

The music-related books that I have attempted to make sense of in the service of my occasional Music Book Reader Bulletin postings have been a mixed bunch really and need a separate essay to summarise but amidst the heavyweight mainstream biogs and memoirs that hog the limelight I’m increasingly drawn towards the tributaries of music history and their unrecognised and largely unrewarded heroes – people like Dave Van Ronk (The Mayor of MacDougall Street) and the influential writer Paul Williams. And I hope that next year I won’t have to read an ‘autobiography’ as self-aggrandizing as Graham Nash’s Wild Tales.

Another consequence of bibliomania is an increasing tendancy to be found lurking, wants list in hand, head cocked to one side, shuffling along in front of the shelves in promising-looking independent book shops. Independent book shops everywhere are suffering the same fate that befell indie record shops and they need supporting. On one of my infrequent trips to London I found myself in Judd Books near the British Museum and picked up a copy of My Bookstore : Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read and Shop. It’s basically a series of essays by mainly well-known U.S. writers eulogising the bookstores that mean so much to them and the community that these stores serve. Having had only limited experience of U.S. bookstores I have only visited five of the eighty-two establishments written about but such is the passion and admiration that shines from these pieces that, given the opportunity, I would spend as much time as it takes to visit all of the others. My idea of heaven. Perhaps a similar tome describing the virtues of our literary bastions of independence here wouldn’t go amiss? Or perhaps one has already been written? Mmm. Must be here somewhere.