A friend for life
Yesterday on a day trip from Sheffield to Oxford the train speed through Solihull. I can never see the sign go flashing past without being profoundly thankful that I am no longer working for the Inland Revenue. It’s many years since I caught the train from Birmingham to Solihull every day to my job at the tax office there. I had to force myself to get off there and not let myself be carried along to Leamington Spa. This was in my early twenties and it was so long ago that smoking was still allowed in the office – though only just. I had been struggling to write my MA thesis and had decided that perhaps I wasn’t cut out for academic life. Time to get a proper job. I took a civil service exam and, despite having only scraping a pass in ‘O’ Level Maths, I was sent to the Tax Office. I lasted four months before deciding that returning to academia and finishing that damn thesis would be preferable. And that is what I did. I should add that for the right person, it could have been an excellent job, but I was not that person. I was the absolute definition of a square peg in a round hole.
It was a difficult time, and reading kept me going. I worked my way through all Trollope’s Palliser novels. They had recently been reprinted as a result of their serialisation on TV with Susan Hampshire as Lady Glencora. I bought them one by one from a Solihull bookshop. I lived a parallel life in the world he had created and I loved his authorial voice, so measured and humane. He was like a wise, older friend. Another book that I lived in for a while was Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. I was a great fan of hers then and for years afterwards. And yet, what very different writers they are. I have just taken my copy of The Sacred and Profane Love Machine off the shelf, and, reading the first few pages, I’ve realised that I don’t want to read it again. It is no longer a world in which I can lose myself. On the other hand, I know I will always be able to re-read Trollope. Some writers are companions for life, and others, it turns out, are not.