Books help lift virtual fog

20:03, Jul 29 2012

My trusty laptop, a Mac OS X, finally gave up the ghost the other day after eight years of loyal service. Apparently in this disposable age that is quite an impressive record. And suddenly I was presented with - with what? Silence followed by incipient panic. I suddenly realised one comes to depend upon such machines for services we take for granted. Communication. 'Tis a wondrous thing indeed! I am not the most computer-savvy guy on the planet but I turn it on (the computer) and expect it to work. The same with my car. Ignition. Go. What happens under the bonnet is largely a mystery to me.

The death of my computer. It was a heart-stopping event. "Backup" loomed in bold large letters in my cerebral cortex. Do I have backup? Fortunately, I did for those files I considered important. But all the emails went walkabout. Lost. My computer was sadly out of date and beyond updating. Slowly, the fug of computer hypnosis began to lift. Colours returned to my visual horizon. Clouds, sky, air currents (a breeze), yes, I recognised these things as if they were retrieved from ancient memory. My legs. I could finally move them. And what was that up against the wall - my God! A library stacked with books, literature, worlds within worlds. To be able to turn a page physically! What a sensation. And that faint, musty odour, redolent of secondhand bookshops. And suddenly, I was transported.

It was as if I had journeyed back 40 years or so to Smith's Bookshop in Manners St, Wellington. When Wellington's public library (now the Wellington City Gallery) was the sanctuary to old oaken file cabinets and the city's winos found sanctuary there during the winter months by the old water heaters. A Mr Reynolds, if I recall correctly, owned and ran Smith's Bookshop. He sat at a lectern in the back of the shop, positioned in the middle of a large, book-lined, open room with three large bins running the length of the shop separated by aisles. He looked balefully over his spectacles at each likely customer who entered his shop. A small bell tinkled when the door opened.

This was the age of the hardback. There were paperbacks, of course, the old Penguin editions of classics, as I recall. But mostly, revered hardbacks with dust jackets intact. Smith's Bookshop was a happy hunting ground for anyone who cared to explore the world and his or her mind through the world's great literature. And so it was for me. I still have a few of those books on my shelves bought all those years ago.

Or at least, I did. But when one moves about books are cumbersome things to take with you. So many got discarded or lost along the way, in other people's basements. People tend to move house over time and often these troves of books might be left behind, relegated to an uncertain fate under a house, left in cartons for the mice to nibble on. That happened to a few of my books. Mice do not discriminate between good or bad literature. A study of the reading habits of mice would be instructive.

I bought three volumes in hardback (of course) of the South African poet Roy Campbell's works. Now there was an adventurer, a rough and tumble man who wrote in traditional metre of his exploits on the veld; breaking horses and hunting and latterly, in Spain, bullfighting. There is a story that he had a run-in with Hemingway in that country.


Campbell relates in one of his biographies about his wife who had a liaison with one of the ladies of the Bloomsbury set, who hated Campbell, and being the masculine sort of guy he was, he hung her out the window of a three-story building by her ankles by way of showing his disapproval. She never again was tempted to stray.

Harsh, but fair. She was, in fact, an English beauty and a dedicated wife. Campbell was given over to a good deal of bluster and boasting about his prowess with women and his heroic deeds with a horse, a gun and the occasional fisticuffs episode. Yet there was much truth to it - and he did a good deal to save the lives of priests in Toledo where he lived for a time during the Spanish Civil War.

Campbell will be best remembered for his exultant translations into English of the great Spanish mystic and poet Saint John of The Cross. He in many ways, by temperament and style, was born to that task.

Mr Reynolds was no mere bookseller. Of just about any highly-regarded poet or novelist you might choose he would have a tale about that author to go with it. Such polyglots don't exist these days, in an age of book franchises. The fact that small independent bookshops today are imperiled is a topic for a future column.

Many years later, I discovered a similar bookshop in Hawthorn, Melbourne. The elderly gentleman who ran the shop would also regale you with an anecdote about the author or the book you had bought. He did not have a cash register. Not even an ancient one! Just a drawer from which he extracted your change. Such individuals are a blessing to the planet. Their existence speaks of patience and courtesy in an impatient and discourteous age.

A secondhand bookseller once said to me, "We like poets." He meant that given poetry books hardly sell in great numbers, such books will inevitably help stock the shelves of secondhand bookshops where other poets might purchase them for a song. .

Now, about that computer . . .

Stephen Oliver is the author of 16 volumes of poetry. He lived in Australia for 20 years and now resides in the King Country, and is a freelance writer and voice artist.