The Lockdown Diaries 5: Alphabetical Order
Our post-hospital pastry run has now taken on epic proportions. We have to pass through the scruffy North London neighbourhood of Tufnell Park, which has a run-down little high street inexplicably filled with good independent shops. We return loaded with fresh cinnamon buns, lemon ‘volcanos’ and buttery mini bread puddings, the kind of cakes Alma Sorrowbridge makes. The plan is for me to pile on weight prior to losing it in my war on rogue cells.
The idea of me putting on weight is hilarious. My father used to feed my brother and I Guinness to fatten us up. I’m supposed to be injecting myself into subcutaneous fat but have to stick the needle at an angle to find any, then bruise myself.
We deliver baked goods to our neighbours. I take a plate of carrot cake and cardamon buns to my downstairs neighbour, who opens the door in a tiger skin catsuit looking as if she’s been up since Tuesday.
She casts a bleary eye at the cakes. ‘What?’
‘I thought you’d like these. They’re freshly baked.’
‘Can’t you see I have a fucking hangover.’ She takes the cakes and shuts the door. It’s how we roll in this building. She’s lovely.
Armed with another plate of pastries any dieter would die for, I make my way over to my library – well, bookcases, although there are eight of them and they’re very curated. Having read about the library deep-cleaner who spent the lockdown rearranging all the books according to size, I have tried to understand how I’ve arranged mine. Size (because some shelves are odd heights), themes like film & theatre, history, linguistics, London, noir crime, non-fiction, general fiction, humour, books by friends, weird old comics and my favourite category, books I simply love because no-one else possibly could.
What AP Herbert is doing between Gore Vidal and Ray Bradbury God only knows. I have the complete works of Harlan Ellison with a note from him warning me that he’s watching my career – anyone who knows Harlan does not take that threat lightly, next to a Dennis Wheatley whodunnit full of fag ends, the works of Michael Bywater, possibly the funniest man in Britain, the strange novels of Magnus Mills, the complete works of Margaret Millar and the perpetual wonder that is Joyce Carol Oates. If you’ve never read her shorter fiction you really should.
After talking with my other neighbour, who tells me she’s discovered her inner homebody and may never go out again as she doesn’t really enjoy it, I read that research shows the British don’t really want to go out at all, and am not surprised. We grew up on Mike Leigh films, where everything interesting that happens is ‘indoors’.
I wonder if I’ll ever go to a shop again – and with a jolt I realise I could easily do without 95% of them. Clothes shops are aimed at colourblind 20 year-olds or at taupe-and-black millennials, although I’ll go just to Shazam the music. Only bookshops remain irresistible. Londoners are astonishingly flexible about reinvention, but only the independent stores have proven so in the pandemic; the chains have all failed to cope, and many have signed their death warrants because of it.
With so much forced downtime I’m turning my attention to books bought and not read. I’ve developed the habit of blindly grabbing a book from the shelves and taking it to the sofa without checking the cover. Then I read a page. Today I find myself reading; ‘One Two Three Four’ by Craig Brown, a history of the Beatles that manages to breathe fresh, hilarious life into an oft-told tale by breaking a traditional biography down into linked articles on different aspects of the Beatles, still chronologically arranged.
It’s a brilliant mosaic, especially when the Apple enterprise starts to go off the rails and the ghastly hangers-on surrounding the Fab Four reveal their true colours, from the clueless Greek electrician whose expensive fantasy inventions never work to the arch-charlatan Yoko Ono, revealed here as a talentless rich girl homing in on Lennon like a guided missile to give some veracity to her endlessly reinvented past and delusional ‘talent’. She reminds me of the litigious, destructive Georgina Wheldon, a self-obsessed Victorian nightmare so splendidly resurrected in Brian Thompson’s biography.
The result of this hunt-and-peck reading is that the library is now even more disordered than before. And that suits me just fine.