The card that I send to friends with new babies is a drawing by Paris Bottman of a maternal hare holding a pair of baby socks. The message reads: ‘Lucky you! Now you have a reason to buy those wonderful little booties and little undershirts, and little gowns, and little hats.’ There is something hard wired in the female brain that loves buying little undershirts, little wellies, and little sweaters, and it’s a sad moment when little is over. I’m hanging on to the little wellie museum that lines the front porch, a tender souvenir of temps perdus that has survived every clear your clutter campaign.
The little feet that once fitted into the frog wellies, the ‘ellie’ wellies and the cowboy boots are now a size 12 and prefer shoes from Shipton and Heneage.
So I have to meet my maternal urges in other ways. A sequel to the card could read: ‘Lucky you! Now you have a reason to reread all those books you loved as you embark on AS Level English by proxy’. All week long I’ve been rereading A Passage to India in sync with Sam’s required reading and Samuel West’s reading it on Book at Bedtime. This total immersion has been far more compelling that my first go round 35 years ago. I am astonished by how much I missed. Was I so ignorant? Was I reading against the deadline of the essay? I remember the plot, but I missed the subtlety, the poetry, the radical conclusions.
The winter term AS reading list took me on a return journey to Brideshead Revisited. Perhaps I’m less in awe of the aristocratic glamour than I was when I first read it, and I find all the Catholic bits the Big Themetedious and suspect (I’m blessed with Catholic friends who are not tormented by their faith), but I no longer believe in the story. Waugh wrote it during the war while recovering from a parachuting accident, and I first read the 1945 edition. My rereading is the 1959 edition which Waugh cut substantially and made a few additions to. In the preface, he confesses to infusing the book with a ‘kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which, now with a full stomach I find distasteful.’ Still, the alcoholism, the snobbery, the adultery even the yearning for a vanished world give the book an unexpected timelessness.
There is something spooky about rereading books you have loved. I reckon it is a little like friendsreunited.com: it might be exciting to get back in touch with the football player, but it might also be excruciating. I know that Jane Austen never disappoints, but Colette does. Rereading Angus Wilson works for me; rereading Martin Amis does not. Trollope: yes, Thackeray: no. So much depends on who you were during the first rapturous reading. We swoon less with time.
Every few years, I reread F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack Up, the writer’s melancholy account of his nervous breakdown. He begins with a general observation ‘the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.’ That description is my spiritual Su Doku, my daily IQ test. For example: this Government is content to see the countryside vanish, to be transformed into housing estates and storage warehouses, and yet I spend my days trying to keep a farm and a landscape intact. In order not to crack up, I spend my evenings rereading the books of my vanished youth.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on February 2, 2006.