Friday, 23 July 2010

Desert Island Dreams

PROSPERO: By Providence divine.
Some food we had and some fresh water that
A noble Neapolitan, Gonzalo,
Out of his charity, being then appointed
Master of this design, did give us, with
Rich garments, linens, stuffs and necessaries,
Which since have steaded much; so, of his gentleness,
Knowing I loved my books, he furnish’d me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.

William Shakespeare (The Tempest. Act I, Scene II)

I HAVE PLAYED DESERT ISLAND DISCS often enough. One shares with friends one’s taste in music, particular music, for examples. And the game grows: What few books would one want in one’s exile? What artwork? What dwelling? What scenic view? What brief visitor? What long-time companion? What weather? What clothing? What foodstuffs?

The desert island must be far away. My front room can be ever so far away when I set my mind to it. I’m not sure how the term ‘desert island’ came about. Is it, perhaps, that island within a desert, an oasis, a place where one might survive? The spot where fresh water bubbles to the surface and a few trees give shade to a lush and green lawn. The spot where Asian food might be delivered in silence and secret, to be discovered newly arrived just when one has a craving for crispy king prawns in a Hong Kong style sweet and sour sauce. The spot where one could wear corduroys and tweeds and sturdy shoes, and a long scarf: Desert islands need not be on the Equator, need not be hot and humid outposts, they might be in the Orkneys (and mine might be).

If I was permitted my iPod, and could only have music by four or five artists, I believe I would take along Joni Mitchell as my first choice. Followed by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, in both cases just their music from the 1960s. I would also enjoy easy access to the Mozart "Requiem". I like just about any kind of music, though I’m wary of show tunes in case I should earn a reputation; I might request a recording of Tchaikovsky’s "Eugene Onegin".

I’d hang pictures on my island, given the walls. Anything by Vincent van Gogh. Really, that could be all and I’d be happy as a Sandboy. I love the landscapes with golden wheat fields, and that’s the outlook I’d choose if I was permitted a distant view from my oasis.

I’m not sure who I’d most like to have stop by to visit me. I suppose the other person I’m playing Desert Island Discs with would be polite and prudent. And, to be honest, anyone I was intimate enough to play the game with would be welcome.

A long-time companion: This would have to be a dog. Cailean. My little dog sleeps on his back, stretched across my chest (he’s very small) when I’m reclining while reading a book, and there’s nothing more one could want except having a dog pounce on one first thing in the morning and stab one’s eye socket with his cold, wet nose. Cailean fits the bill. The nose. We’d live, in our oasis, in a small shelter that is more bookcases than walls and windows.

It’s the books that would be most important in my hideaway. I’m truly hard-pressed to think what, say, ten books I’d settle for, if no others could magically appear on the desert island in boxes from Amazon.

I’ve been almost a compulsive reader all my life. I was nine years old when we got our first television set. The cinematic films I did see usually were represented on my bookshelves. When I was about eleven our English mistress, Mrs Lorna Harriott, bless her, did not attempt to bore our classes with the rules of grammar and punctuation. We did not have to write essays. We did not have spelling lists to learn. We did not have set books to read. Rather, Mrs Harriott read to us. Every day we’d have an English class lasting about 40 minutes, and, in her pleasant Canadian accent, Mrs Harriott read us everything from the poems of Robert Frost to novellas by John Steinbeck. We had “Jane Eyre” and “Lorna Doone”. Mrs Harriott created the atmosphere of Sherlock Holmes’s case of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” on Dartmoor, and the visitors from “Out of the Silent Planet” on the planet Malacandra, by CS Lewis. We had Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and “King Solomon’s Mines” by Rider Haggard. Looking back, Mrs Harriott had the good sense to be reading us adventure stories with murder and madness mixed in with the love stories. I liked best, at the time, HG Wells’s “The Time Machine” and John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps”, and still like the films made in the years we were listening to Mrs Harriott; I think the books sent me off to those two movies.

Our next English master read us quite a few plays by George Bernard Shaw which I enjoyed at the time. I’ve tried to revisit them and find them awfully dated and not at all funny or interesting. We read poetry with this master, Frank “Buck” Rogers, and I liked only Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (it’s hard not to). Our set book for GCE “O” Level was CS Forester’s “The Gun” which I hated. (I still dislike CS Forester, who was one of my father’s favourite writers with the Hornblower novels. My father had, in his bookcase, EM Forster’s “Abinger Harvest” which is a collection of essays. I cannot imagine my father liking Forster, and have wondered if he got the book thinking it was by Forester.) Our Shakespeare play was “Henry V” which I rather enjoyed, having covered that period in history classes.

What books from my schooldays would I conjure up for my desert island? Shakespeare: as much as I might be permitted, a complete works would be super. I’d like, too, the writings of William Blake (we sang his words to “Jerusalem” often enough at grammar school). I would request the collected letters of Virginia Woolf, and also of Lytton Strachey, for my fix of “Bloomsbury”. DH Lawrence’s “Women in Love” is my favourite book of fiction of all time.

Most recent books (should I call them “modern”?) don’t draw me back, no matter how much I enjoy reading them the one time. I’m presently reading a cracking biography of TE Lawrence (“The Golden Warrior” by Lawrence James) which makes the film I liked a great deal 45 years ago pale by comparison. Much as I’m enjoying this read, I’d not want to tackle it again. However, I’ve got TE Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” ready to read, and we did read (censored, I’d imagine) excerpts of Seven Pillars in school.

I have done in, happily, Bill Bryson’s “At Home” this summer. What a fun book, and educational too, I think. I count on Bryson to produce another, new, brilliant read every year or so. I would reread Bryson on language and grammar and Shakespeare.

One living British writer who I do revisit is Alan Bennett. Bennett writes wonderful plays and short stories, and funny essays. His screenplays are terrific. I enjoy Bennett’s diaries and potted memories, and he’s at his best when delivering eulogies. I’d like to have Alan Bennett’s “Writing Home” and “Untold Stories” which are, together, his autobiography up until a few years ago sent to my oasis. I could dip in those from time to time.

Some desert islanders would take along a Holy Bible. I’d hope the Gideon Society had left one under a stone for an emergency, and that it would be the original KJV. None of this jive talk I hear preached nowadays. It’s jive talk that would drive me to a life far, far away.

1 comment:

Leslie said...

Women in Love, one of my favorite works of fiction as well Ross! Hoorah! I imagine your desert island is not unlike a snapshot of one portion of a favorite shelf of one of your bookcases, peppered here and there with King prawns and sweet and sour sauce? A bit untidy, but there you have it. I've forwarded on your blog to a friend originally from Bristol who I work with. I hope he finds your writings as amusing as I do. Love- Leslie