Sunday, 20 November 2011
Books in the Lavvy
As you know, I spent much of the last few weeks redecorating my flat, which is up in the eaves of a late medieval building right in the centre of Oxford. The loo was particular dismal: nasty pink glittery lino, budgie-yellow walls. Now, however, it is done in Farrow & Ball's 'All White', a crisply chalky shade, and the floor is in smart black and white tiles which were a bugger to lay around all them wonky surfaces.
(If you ever want to really rile me, tell me that as a supposed intellectual I'm not practical. I am in fact very practical, good at digging, decorating, and making something that I've imagined into a real object in the outer world.)
Adorning the walls is Tom Phillip's much loved , semi-allegorical portrait of Iris Murdoch, glancing sidelong in front of Rubens' The Flaying of Marsyas and next to a sprig of the ancient and unchanged gingko. Over the cistern is a startled yet compelling Romanesque face from Parma Baptistry.
After several hours painting the snot-coloured room white (it took three coats), I felt disinclined to spend any longer in there. Bodily needs must, however, and so I decided to leave a selection of the most interesting, quirky books I own in there for visitors---why did I nearly say 'customers' there?---to peruse.
Perfumes: The Guide, Tania Sanchez and Luca Turin
Simply splendid, dippable, addictive account of 400 great and not-so-great fragrances, all written up in synaesthetic, critically astute, often hilarious prose. If you like the sound of one, you may well find it in the wicker basket by the sink.
The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton
One of the English Renaissance's strangest books and a brilliant illustration of Saturnian humour, monumentalism, and creativity. 400 pages of relentlessly learned, highly rhetorical prose on what we would now call depression: its causes, its manifestations, and attempts at its cure. Disenchantment and the longing for death emerges forcibly as an arch-metaphor for life, rough-textured and richly-lived.
There's an unsettling story about Burton. Whenever his melancholy affliction got too much for him, he used to go down to the river and watch the boatmen coming and going, all the while laughing hysterically. One speculates as to why.
Towards Emotional Literacy, Susie Orbach
Little two page extracts from Uber-therapist Orbach's Guardian columns, ideal for learning to make soothing, leftist, on-message noises about say, smacking, or adolescence, or failure. I do this in much the same way that other people might learn Balinese.
The English Ghost, Peter Ackroyd
A small, knocked-off book of true ghost stories by a large clapped-out queen, clearly dashed off to pay an unexpected bar bill. Good on the English uncanny; I was particularly unnerved by the unheimlich implications of the story of a three year old child in the late 19th century, who, when asked to describe the old man who had appeared to him, said: 'He’s like Father Christmas. Only he’s wearing burnt paper.'
Ackroyd once tried pulling a Harold Bloom and Naomi Wolf number on me when I was a student (the heavy paw creeping up the thigh, the sherry breath coming in wheezes); I laughed almost as hard as Burton.
How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran
Britain's best journo stylist takes on the legacy of feminism; hilarious, lovable, verbally pyrotechnic yet unpretentious. Especially marvellous on words for the female genitals ('Minge': hmm, sounds like a slightly put-upon cat'), she handles puberty, love, music, eating disorders, pregnancy, childbirth, beauty and abortion from a barstool. I was aiming to ask her to a feast at Porterhouse---even though I feared she might be, in her own words, 'as out of place as a seagull in a beehive'---partly because I think she's a national trezh, and partly because I would then have trolled someone into college in whose lap Lady Gaga has laid her head.