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.
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.