I don’t have an excuse for the latest addition to the Clare Brown Institute but it confirmed a few wacky ideas I’ve been having recently. Picture this.
It’s that mid-afternoon lull, where you have that head fug, poised within a post-tea, pre-coffee vacuum. I’m sat at my desk, struggling with a conference paper. The phone rings and it’s one of my favourite lawyers. As ever he is very enthusiastic. He started by thanking me for my help and then got distracted by things he’d read at the weekend. The first was a story about a young talented writer who died recently. The second was a book that he had picked up randomly.
He said it was the smartest, sweetest and most charming short story he’d read in a very long time, and apparently he rarely reads book, so he says. After we’d ended the call, I was intrigued and off I popped to the internet to look it up. There it was, freely available on Project Gutenberg. As soon as I could I read it, and completely forgot about everything but the story unfolding before me; a reliable sign of a good book.
Miss Helen McGill, the heroine of the story, is a lady of a certain age, highly practical, unromantic, and housekeeper to her successful writer brother. Life is regular, humdrum and predictable, where the highlights are brown gravy and apple sauce. Then a travelling book seller, Roger Miflin and his Travelling Parnassus - complete with a horse named Pegasus, arrives by chance and changes her life. On a whim, she buys this going concern and goes off with the ‘Professor’ to learn how to pedal books. Except that the mysterious chap isn’t your usual salesman, but a man on a mission,
“Lord!” he said, “when you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night – there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book, I mean…And here I go loaded with everlasting salvation – yes ma’am, salvation for their little, stunted minds … That’s what this country needs – more books!”
Agreed and yes and yes again! He is pithy about publishers,
“…They write me letters about price-maintenance – and I write back about merit maintenance. Publish a good book and I’ll get a good price for it, say I! Sometimes I think the publishers know less about books than anyone else!”Everywhere she goes, people eulogise this travelling bibliophile, and she is inspired to cast off her previous life and, in effect, write her own story. I’m not going to spoil the ending, needless to say, her brother doesn’t take her desertion lying down and there are adventures along the way. Accompanied by Wilkie Collins, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Walt Whitman and the veritable treasure trove of cheap classics, her journey of discovery is neither lonely nor predictable.
It's one of those books that you keep reading, long after you've finished it. But for a while now, I've felt the faint forgotten longings of childhood to write something stir within. Never having the confidence to strike out with something fictional and personal, I’ve clung to the academic impersonal style. After all, unless a teacher says you can write when you're at school, why would you think you're any good? Do I take heed of the Professor, who says,
"I have always suffered from the feeling that it is better to read a good book than to write a poor one; and I’ve done so much mixed reading in my time that my mind is full of echoes and voices of better men. But this book I’m worrying about now really deserves to be written I think, for it has a message of its own.”So if Parnassus has wandered in to my life, do I take this as a sign of words to come? To make that plunge will require planning and savings but, whatever happens, my talismanic 1917 copy of Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels will be travelling with me. Even the flysheet suggests that it was always my book to find - a label has my initials 'CB' on it. In the meantime, I will make do with writing conference papers, dissertations and the odd piece of whimsy.