Tuesday, 8 May 2012


I recently collected a load of books from my parents' attic.  There was an odd collection of my things left up there.  I thought I'd already cleared out all my school and college notes but I unearthed yet more, which demonstrated that once I could, up to a point, understand chemical equations of blast furnaces and translate Latin poetry, all of which has since become mysterious again.  The best thing I found was a short story neatly written in sparse French, which was the kind of thing designed to demonstrate the competent use of several tenses, but pleasingly included a wandering chicken, an unlikely coincidence and a moral at the end.

I also found my English Lit A Level books, heavily marked with cryptic notes and, on 'Wuthering Heights', bat drawings.  One of the books I wrote my coursework on, half my life ago, was 'City of the Mind' by Penelope Lively.  This is where I learned the word 'palimpsest'.  I fished it out of the bookshelf on Sunday, after the search for where Miss Silvester's house used to be.   

Matthew Halland, an architect in London, takes his daughter on weekend expeditions, visits building sites of office blocks and half-renovated Georgian terraces, reflects on the death of one relationship and the tentative beginnings of another, his past and the long turbulent past of the city.  Other stories appear, in snippets, of other people at other times in the same places.

"He is alone, and at the same time less alone.  He sees that time is what we live in, but that it is also what we carry within us.  Time is then, but it is also our own perpetual now.  We bear it in our heads and on our backs; it is our freight, our baggage, our Old Man of the Sea.  It grinds us down and buoys us up.  We cannot shuffle it off; we would be adrift without it.  We both take it with us and leave ourselves behind within it - flies in amber, fossilized admonitions and exemplars."  Penelope Lively, 'City of the Mind'   
I lost the essay long ago, I think, unless it is under another layer of old magazines, posters, notes and letters.  Are they worth keeping because they are worth keeping, or only because they have been kept for so long now?  Some of the books I gave away, One particularly destroyed book went into the recycling box.  Mostly I kept them, to read again in other places, later.

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