Yesterday morning I was in Scarborough. I’d struggled over in the fog for a pre-Christmas visit to my mother and was sitting in the waiting room of one of those places where they fix your car while you wait. I had a flat tyre and a flat battery and that was just the car. I felt pretty flat myself – tail-end of a cold, backache – Xmas shopping still to do, woken up at four by my daughter. But it was OK because I had with me an Agatha Christie I didn’t remember reading (my mother is even more of a crime fiction addict than I am – scarcely reads anything else). And it was perfect – undemanding, such a fast, pacey read, and she’s funny too. I’d almost finished it by the time the tyre was fitted and I felt better, too. I did pretty much guess who’d done it, but only right at the end. So thanks, Dame Agatha.
It’s almost traditional. Today’s my birthday and my present from my husband is a book I’ve already got. Own goals in previous years have included THE BRIDGE OF THE SAN LUIS REY and THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. This year it is THE VIRAGO BOOK OF GHOST STORIES. I know exactly how this happens – he is standing there in the book shop, the minutes ticking away, and his eye lights on a book he thinks I would like. And I do like it – I like it so much that I’ve already bought it and read it and it’s on the shelf at home. Some years I forsee this and give him a list, but I’m so busy at this time of year that I usually forget. What I wanted this year was Jenny Uglow’s biography of Thomas Bewick (or a bottle of Chanel No 19). Still it’s not too late for Christmas.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a study week-end in Birmingham and drove over to Moseley, a suburb where I used to live between the ages of 22 and 30, an important time in anyone’s life. First I was a postgraduate student and then I worked at the Museum and Art Gallery as an assistant keeper. Some of the shops and restaurants were the same – the Jade Garden Chinese restaurant, the wholefood shop, but something seemed to be missing and I realised there weren’t any book shops. There used to be two – Smith’s (now an estate agent) and a independent one, that stocked more alternative stuff (now a CD shop). They were an important part of my life there – must have spent hours in the alternative one, hesitating about which book to buy, when money was tight. From the time I left home to go to university until we moved here to Derbyshire I’ve always lived within walking distance of a book shop – and that’s something I still feel the lack of. More about that another day.
Last Monday I was in London doing research for an academic article and was travelling from the British Library to the London Library on the underground. I was feeling low, a November day, and not very happy. I was coming up the first of the escalators at Piccadilly Circus when I heard someone singing. As I reached the top and rounded the corner to second escalators, I saw that it was a busker. He had a trained voice and it was just stupendous, so warm and full and virile, and beautifully controlled. He was singing something familiar in Italian – ‘quanto, quanto, quanto, quanto’ – a Neopolitan love song, I think. There were some people just standing listening. I threw some money in his hat and noticed that there were CDS there, too. As I went up the next escalator, the wonderful sound floated up around me, full of passionate yearning. He stopped singing just as I reached the top. I clapped and shouted bravo – other people were doing the same. The singer saluted us. I went on with a spring in my step. Just thinking about again makes me smile.