A couple of Saturdays ago, I was stood in the middle of Brockwell Park for an appointment with Gary From Leeds and photographer Susannah Ireland. It had been mild all week and not bad earlier that morning, but now the weather, in respect for a Yorkshireman in a municipal park facility, had pulled out the freezing cold and driving rain.
Gary was there, enjoying the bleak weather, in tune, as it was, with his general outlook on life. Susannah was there, a woman used to being sent out to all manner of grim and unpromising destinations for her day job as news photographer for the Times. So it was just me amongst us who wondered whether doing a photo shoot in these conditions was a good idea.
I wanted to suggest a postponement, when Gary pulled out a 35-metre length of yellow rope from his bag. “I thought we’d tie ourselves up in this,” he said with an enthusiasm he usually only shows when talking about David Batty.
Susannah, who as a brilliant photographer has a taste for the diabolical and downright weird, then wrapped the rope around Gary and I, saying, “If you want it to look good, it’ll have to be tight.”
When the two of us looked like characters Samuel Beckett might have created if he was being particularly unkind, Susannah began snapping. For the next hour, with the weather worsening, she trooped us about the park until we are both the very definition of dishevelled.
We were there because Gary and I are planning a spoken word show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and needed some publicity shots. It is called ‘The Long and the Short of it’ and will essentially be a poetical journey covering key topics such as food, fonts, ring-roads and death. It will have facts, lists and statistics and perhaps the odd limerick.
And if this photo shoot is anything to go by, it will be a bit of a struggle to create, but the end result should be pretty good.
I was recently in the British Heart Foundation shop in Brixton with my friends Shonagh and Alex. They were buying a sofa bed, and were spending an age getting it measured, looking at the price, wondering whether it was too much, and generally procrastinating in fine Sunday shopping style.
After a while I became tired of this charming scene, and wandered off to the records and the books. Flicking through the vinyl, I picked up some absolute crackers: a 12-inch single of ‘Let the Music Play’ by Shannon, and a Boney M album.
Holding an armful of vinyl, I ambled over to the bookshelves and saw a nice volume, entitled Modern Short Stories, on Faber. This had a few old favourites in it: Dylan Thomas, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other worthies whom I’d never read. It was a pound, so I bought it before rejoining my friends at the sofa bed.
When I got home, I read the F Scott Fitzgerald like a greedy child eats ice cream. Having sated my Fitzgerald craving, I settled into a more relaxed perusal of the contents. On the inside cover I noticed a name and year written: Gordon Smith, 1987-88. There was also a stuck down sheet, torn so it only said, ‘The Edinburgh…’ So, this was a school book. Perhaps something to be read at ‘O’ level, as it would have been then.
Flicking through, on p41 young Gordon had written ‘I want to die!’ My heart went out to him, all teenage and Scottish back in the late ‘80s. What could have caused him to despair so?
It may have had something to do with the story on which this plaintive statement was written: ‘My First Ball’ by Katherine Mansfield. It appeared that Mansfield’s prose style was not appealing to Gordon. I imagined him there, sitting at his desk in an austere Edinburgh classroom. All he wanted to do was get out and listen to the Proclaimers on his Walkman, but instead he was forced to read about some girl going to her first ball.
I turned the page and found that Gordon’s spirits had returned somewhat. He had defiantly drawn a dick and balls. This took me back to my own school days. I remembered a period of about a year, at the age of twelve or thirteen, when the first pubes are growing (or perhaps not quite) and all a boy can draw is the dick and balls. However, Gordon had gone further. No doubt feeling insulted to have been made to read Katherine Mansfield’s girly nonsense, he drew a shower of piss coming out of the dick.
Yes, that’s right, Katherine Mansfield! Gordon Smith is pissing on your prose. Pissing all over your silly story. Gordon Smith doesn’t care about Leila or her first ball! Doesn’t give a damn about it! He’s got a great shower of urine cascading over your turn-of-the-century vignette!
On the following page (I had almost totally lost interest in the actual story by that stage) Gordon returned to his artistic theme. But this time he had drawn just a dick, arising mischievously from the bottom of the page. He’d arguably done a better job here, with detail to suggest the foreskin, and a more mature shower of piss.
Gordon made no further artistic additions to Modern Short Stories, clearly feeling his work had been done. He had survived the Mansfield ordeal, and was possibly stronger for the experience.
What path that book took from the Edinburgh classroom to the Brixton charity shop we will never know. What I do know is that I felt a gentle thrill from having held the book that provoked such despair and defiance from a Scottish schoolboy.
It also made me realise why I will never get a Kindle. Books are more than words on a page. They are things to be loved and hated and, if necessary, drawn upon. This was an experience I could never have had with a Kindle. Books develop a character over the years whereas a digital file will always remain useful, convenient, but ultimately impersonal.
Thank you to Gordon Smith, and indeed Katherine Mansfield, for reminding me that books, quaint though they might be, remain things to be treasured.