Travels through a small island

William Cobbett, as I recall, said you should make sure you know your own country intimately before you start trying to learn about anyone else’s. I’ve never got to grips with any other countries, so maybe it’s not quite as bad that I know so little of England. Last week I spent several hours on a train pressing steadily south through counties I couldn’t name without a map in front of me. It was amazing just how different it was; thatched cottages really do exist outside of jigsaw puzzles. Ploughed fields looked like wildflower meadows from their vibrant pinkish-red soil, a far cry from the rich dark brown I’m used to. And the weather was like being abroad.

As well as a hundred and eighty photos, a sunburnt nose and some scrappy notes that I’ll probably never follow up on, I came back with these questions:

  1. Is there really a wider variety of flora and fauna in Cornwall, or do I just not look closely enough at home?
  2. Why do small English towns, even in tourist areas, close down on Bank Holidays when so many people want to go out and do things (assuming they haven’t fallen foul of the Sunday-service buses)?
  3. Why are the buses on Sunday service on Bank Holidays when people want to go out and do things?
  4. Why am I always so rubbish at judging the right number of books for a train journey, either weighing myself down unnecessarily or leaving myself with three boring hours of watching the gradually darkening industrial landscape on the way home, unable to write because of the jolting?
  5. Why can’t I rent a picturesque rural cottage to write in for six months, as seemed to be so fashionable, and apparently so easy, in the past?

Answers on a postcard…

How to read books and be influenced by people

I’m what you might call an avid reader. Or maybe you’d say I spend too much time reading about other people’s lives and it’s about time I got one of my own. Either way, the general gist is that I read a lot of books. Many of them, metaphorically speaking, go in one ear and out the other, but a few stay with me and exert a subtle (or not so subtle) influence on my life.

I confess to being inordinately fond of The Lord of the Rings (yawn! Yes, I know), but it’s never made me set out on an epic quest, and I still refuse to go camping. As it happens, I do work about 150 yards from where Tolkien once worked, but that’s not why I took the job. On the other hand, reading a lot of Dostoyevsky and a bit of Tolstoy as a teenager made me desperate to go to St Petersburg, and I still vaguely intend to someday. My two favourite places to go on holiday (by which I mean a long weekend at very long and irregular intervals) are Paris and the Lake District; Paris is a beautiful and fascinating city in itself but undoubtedly the fact that Remembrance of Things Past (possibly my favourite book) romanticises it in detail helps, and the same book still makes me want to go to Venice, even though I wouldn’t be spending months there in an apartment in an old palace, so could never experience it in the same way. I’d like to be able to say that Wordsworth contributed to my love of the Lakes (Why? Because I’m an intellectual snob) but it’s actually all down to childhood holidays in waterproofs and walking boots; I did read some Wordsworth once, but we pulled apart some poem about gathering nuts for GCSE English (I’ll get back to my dislike of English Literature as a subject later) and I can’t disentangle him from that memory.

Raymond Chandler, who I esteem far more than Dashiell Hammett, and whose sparse style I would love to be able to match, evokes a magical, if dark, 1930s California. It doesn’t make me want to visit LA because Chandler’s world no longer exists, but it did make me want to buy a 1930s travel guide to California, illustrated with copious black and white photos, that I once saw in an Oxfam bookshop. When I went back for it, it was gone, probably snapped up by someone with similar ideas. If only I’d read more books that persuaded me to seize opportunities.