An article in the London Times asking their writers to name their guilty pleasures prompts me to consider my own. I like to think that over time I have become entirely immune to passing trends and fashionability (which explains my T-shirts). It means that such pleasures are no longer even ‘guilty’ but pleasures, period. These are the things I can proudly come out and proclaim;
It was compulsory in our school and at the time seemed unutterably boring, being obsessed with ‘the ramparts of the enemy’. But as the years passed I came to appreciate just how wonderful it was as a writing tool. For a start, it empowers you to understand, enjoy and even make up new words. My old schoolmate Simon still occasionally writes to me in Latin, and now it feels like a secret code because I’m not sure many schools still include it on the curriculum. Mine is still rubbish, but that doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate it.
Very Old Books
I recently bid successfully on eBay for a copy of the Illustrated London News half-yearly annual for 1867. It cost less than a London theatre ticket and is a wonderful source of information. It is also the size of a table. I have a special cupboard for volumes like ‘British Folk Tales’ (1845) and ‘Great Highwaymen’ (1892), plus I own a dictionary from 1787 ( the letter ‘e’ is missing and all the ‘s’s are ‘f’s). These windows into past lives are still the cheapest antiques you can buy, and more fun.
Sixties British Movies
The good ones are wonderful and even the bad ones are okay. They’re peppered with surreal dream sequences, fantastical moments, wild soundtracks and peculiar performances. Best of all they lacked irony, the curse of many a movie made since then. I even like some of the early films of Michael Winner, like ‘Hannibal Brooks’ and ‘I’ll Never Forget What’s-Is-Name’. I recently rewatched ‘The Killing of Sister George’ just for Beryl Read’s performance as some kind of lesbian Terminator. And the Joe Orton films, ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’ and ‘Loot’ are much better than I’d remembered.
It’s not flaneuring, we don’t have proper dressed-up-to-the-nines flaneurs in London. It’s certainly not shopping either. But we do mooch, drifting from park to bookshop to cafe to library. It’s something I’ve always done, and you can’t do it in every city. It’s quite hard to relax in Tokyo or New York unless you’re near one of the few parks, and if you can’t you never find a quiet space for your head. I imagine it would be easier to do in the middle of America somewhere. Mooching is time to think and process. London seems lately to have learned an appreciation of liminal spaces, and is providing more of them. The cold and the rain are not deterrents, and often help. Do the young sit alone with their thoughts? I hope so; it’s where books come from.
Don’t get me started. I have dozens of them, lined, squared, hand-made, cheap, all half-filled. I take them everywhere, make diligent notes and then forget I’ve made the notes, only rediscovering them ages after they’ve lost their use. And pens. I have pens like other people have jumper fluff. For years I always had a pencil behind my right ear, which explains why my ears are like a taxi with its doors open. I was the Russell Tovey of my time.
I love sharp wit but good slapstick is impossible to beat. From Buster Keaton to Black Books, a well-timed act of violence could always make me laugh. I liked Norman Wisdom because his roots were in the class war. In ‘One Good Turn’ he made straight for the First Class train carriage for no other reason than to disturb its occupants. He destroyed posh buildings, wrecked institutions, smashed up expensive cars and gleefully encouraged others to be drawn into fights in a schoolboy’s anarchist manifesto, a reaction against the restrictions of Post-war England that consistently attacked authority figures including mayors, executives, government officials, police sergeants and politicians, and only caused destruction to status symbols – Rolls Royces, country mansions, gala dinners and state visits.
I think a book must have fallen on my head as a baby. I’ve never been able to pass a bookshop without going in. Books will get you through times of no money better than money can get you through times of no books. The worst thing you can do is go to a bookshop with someone who doesn’t read. They instantly become a picture of impatient, bored agony. ‘Are you going to be much longer?’ they ask, as you think ‘I’ve only just started on the first aisle. This could take several hours.’ I’ll still lie on my stomach on the floor reading as if I was five. Assuming any five year-olds can read now.