From you have I been absent in the spring.
Not only the spring, most of the summer too – we are now past the solstice, the days shorten, the hours gather pace and run away from us – Busy old fool, unruly sun. But if I have been quiet, it has not been for lack of thinking about The Books That Built Me. The truth is that the year has been a difficult one and I’ve been unable to read with the kind of Stakhanovite vigour that The Books That Built Me requires. The first reason for this is rather prosaic; simply a lack of time. I started a new job in February as the CEO of Walpole, which is the trade body that looks after the British Luxury sector, and the learning curve has been immense. A little like learning a foreign language, the effort of concentration required was so intense that, for the first three months of the job, I came home and went straight to bed, and so my discretionary reading time was sucked up by endless swotting of The Economist, government green papers on New Industrial Strategy and the like, and a very serious tome Mr Trefusis gave me about by a Harvard Business School guru called Michael Porter which made me feel very relieved I had never taken it into my head to get an MBA. The second reason for going AWOL was that my father died. As one might imagine, it’s impossible to sail through that particular one unscathed. I found I couldn’t read any fiction at all. Sidling off for a little holiday in someone else’s imagination seemed too much like I was colluding with the voice inside my head that kept telling me his death was an invention. I knew all about the Kubler-Ross grief cycle, I couldn’t afford to get stuck in denial; by standing firm and staring down the cataclysm, by facing the facts unflinchingly, perhaps I could fast track myself to acceptance. But grief is not so cooperative. Over the top you go when the whistle blows, and you find your stoicism about as much use as service revolver when faced with the heavy, repetitive fire of sadness. That I haven’t found myself strung out on the wire in some no man’s land of melancholy is due in no small part to Cathy Rentzenbrink’s A Manual For Heartache. It does exactly what it promises – it offers a survival guide for hard times and it is, as she writes in the introduction, “ a loving message in a bottle – tossed into the sea to wash up at the feet of someone in need”. It washed up at the right time for me, and brought me slowly out of my tunnel to “see the chink of light into a dark day, remembering others have walked this path before me”.
Towards the end of the book, she offers a reading list – books that “have held my hand in dark times, sometimes teaching me a helpful lesson, sometimes just sitting with me as we wait for the wind to change.” Her list includes I Capture the Castle, The Pursuit of Love and “almost everything by P.G Wodehouse and Georgette Heyer”, and in the gentle care of Heyer’s Frederica I started to feel a little better. Since historical fiction felt like a safer place to start (perhaps a psychologist might be able to explain why), I’ve since re-read Forever Amber and the entire Uhtred oeuvre of Bernard Cornwall, and Eureka!, Anthony Quinn’s exhilarating follow up to Freya, set in heady late sixties London of Antonioni’s Blow-Up.
The promised wind-change has begun.