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Talking about yourself is a bad habit, but... | by Fray Bentos
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Talking about yourself is a bad habit, but...

Crank, social inadequate, misfit and flat-earther Fray Bentos photographed a year or two ago in the library of his secret bunker somewhere in the West Country.

An acquaintance of Mrs Bentos called on a visit a little while ago. She is a charming and likeable woman but without literary or artistic interests. She didn't understand about books. She permitted herself the liberty to speak most frankly on matters of décor. The place would look a lot better, she averred, if I got rid of all the books. After all, if I'd read them once I'd no need to read them again. And another thing, there were far too many pictures for the wall space.

Both these statements were true, but I don't care. My books stay. On these shelves are written the history of my interests and internal development. My books are my friends and, to tell the truth, I prefer their company to that of most people. Given a choice between an evening at the pub listening to people talking about car insurance groups or an evening reading an account by a clever writer of a time before I lived, or a place I can never visit, I know which I'd choose.

Now, let me talk you through (those who are not interested may skip the rest). The bottom shelf is all paperback, largely Penguins. Somewhere down there are the four volumes of "The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell" which I bought in the early 70s. They became a great formative influence. Hungry ever since for more of the same, I am now slowly buying the twenty volumes of Orwell's Complete Works.

Next up, at shoulder level, are mainly Pocket Editions. I love these little books. Just over my right shoulder (the row of green books) are some Oxford World's Classics. In the early years of the last century most publishers produced small well-made uniform editions of the classics. Probably the most famous were the Dent "Everyman's Library" ...although these are the ones I like least.

On the next shelf, at eye level, we have a bit of everything. There's a foot or two of linguistic reference books ...Brewer, Fowler, Partridge, and the Oxford Companion to English Literature (ed. Drabble). I'm a sucker for diaries. The book with the photo at the top of the spine is one of the most famous of published diaries, that of "Chips" Channon. Moving right are nine volumes of the diaries of James Lees-Milne, then the three volumes of Harold Nicolson's Diaries and Letters. Back down on the bottom shelf are two of the most celebrated diaries of recent times, those of Alan Clark and Kenneth Williams.

Up another shelf and we have Routledge's amusing "Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English" and Faber's "Companion to 20th Century Popular Music". Then comes lots of journalistic stuff. "The Seventies" was a collection of journalistic pieces by Christopher Booker. Next to that (green and black spine) is another book that was a great formative influence ...the same author's "The Neophiliacs". This, a celebrated book in its time, sought to explain the 1950s and 60s in terms of sub-Jungian psychology, demonstrating how events are brought about by recurring cycles of collective fantasy. I have always thought that history is best understood psychologically. This copy of the book was bought to replace a worn-out, many times re-read original. Then comes a collection of the writings of another of my household gods, Malcolm Muggeridge. While my contemporaries foolishly hero-worshiped figures like Marx, Lenin, Che Guevara, or such pale modern imitations as Danny Cohn-Bendit and Abby Hoffman, I, at the age of 17 or 18, hung upon the words of the wizened, crack-jawed, Sage of Robertsbridge, who urged a rejection of the world and all its vanities and saw the contemporary scene as a kind of gruesome harlequinade. Somewhere on one of these shelves is a book which once belonged to him, with his bookplate inside the cover.

Moving right are some works of another powerful bad influence, the newspaper columnist Michael Wharton ..."Peter Simple" of the Daily Telegraph... who died earlier this year at the age of 93. All formative influences must be discovered at the right age. I came upon most of mine between 18 and 21. Wharton is under-represented on my shelves simply because his genius was poured into a daily newspaper column. I adopted the policy of snipping out favourite items and pasting them into a scrap book. Slightly left of centre above my head are the two volumes of his autobiography ...the greatest of the 20th century... "The Missing Will" and "A Dubious Codicil". The title of the first book had two meanings of course, and after falling under the influence of writers like Wharton and Muggeridge it is quite impossible to live the life of a useful, productive member of society, or to believe in any of the ludicrous phantasmagoria which make up the modern world. In the 1930s Wharton wrote a novel, "Sheldrake". In 1958 it was published. Years later its author wrote that the only copy he knew of was in Pontypridd Public Library. Well, here is another ...just above the photo of Chips Channon. I have my sources. Next to it is a Pan paperback edition of W. B. Thomas's "Dare To Be Free", a true wartime adventure story which Wharton "ghosted" as a struggling writer moving from bedsit to bedsit around Chelsea in the 1950s, usually just ahead of bailiffs and creditors. It has recently been re-issued.

There are lots of journalistic collections further along the shelf. I also love the sleazier kind of memoir written by journalists, and wish there were more of them. I love yarns about fabricated stories, outrageous dirty tricks to steal scoops from rival papers, days spent parked at the kerb outside some stricken household in South Shields ...all that stuff.

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Uploaded on October 4, 2006