A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
As an Occasional Fox, I only enter the Vulpes Libris den long enough for a quick sniff around before I’m off again foraging in bins and making screeching noises, so a proper natter with Moira was in order, and I took the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her reading habits, her eating habits, and her miracle metatarsals . . .
E: Moira, first of all I need to know: do you ever fold down a corner of the page you’re on, as a bookmark, or bend back the spine of a paperback to make it sit better?
M: I’m guilty of the latter (and don’t you just HATE the cracking sound that tells you you’ve overdone it?) . . . but page corners are sacrosanct.
E: I agree, and use all manner of things as bookmarks instead (I once used a thin strip of banana skin and highly don’t recommend that). Speaking of bananas, what are your favourite reading snacks?
M: A thin strip of BANANA skin? And you thought that was a good idea? . . . I don’t tend to snack when I’m reading. This is not because I have iron self control. This is because I’m a terribly messy eater and can’t feed and read at the same time. My mother tells me that cramming food in my mouth with both hands is neither attractive nor efficient, but it works for me.
E: As I’ve spent a few precious minutes of my day picking up small pieces of spaghetti from the floor beneath my child’s highchair, I’m going to have to side with your mother here. But may I highly recommend the Gimble and a packet of Hobnobs? If you haven’t discovered one yet, the Gimble is a device that holds your book open, leaving your hands free. My favourite invention of recent years – what’s yours? Say, in the last 100 years?
M: Let me see – since 1907? Hmmm . . . I think I’d have to say the Internet . . . and specifically hyperlinks – the means by which you can hop from one website to another anywhere on the planet with just a mouse click. They were invented by Tim Berners-Lee, who just gave them to the world and never made a penny from them – or indeed tried to. I used to work with his brother who is (or was . . . I haven’t seen him in years now) an outdoor pursuits instructor. He sometimes used to come into my office and try to shock me. He once told me the derivation of the term “nitty gritty” in the hope of making me blush. I countered by telling him what he was actually saying when he called someone a berk. He fled. Poor boy. He was very sweet.
The Luddite in me (and it runs strongly through my veins) rather resents the all-conquering World Wide Web – but it’s a powerful tool for good as well as evil – and, let’s face it, without it Vulpes Libris would not exist.
E: Speaking of which, when you’re not nose-to-the-grindstone in the foxes den, you manage The Centre for Complementary Care, and I’ve always wanted to ask – have you ever been healed?
M: Yes I have, as a matter of fact. Got time for a story?
E: Always . . .
M: I injured my foot about three years ago, just before I was due to go on a walking holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. I thought I’d only sprained it badly, but I knew I wasn’t going walking the following week, so I cancelled the holiday and rebooked it for six weeks later, thinking I’d be in good enough shape by then. I also claimed on my holiday insurance (which I’d taken out that year for the first time ever . . . how spooky is THAT?) for the cancelled week. The insurance company, of course, wanted a medical certificate, so two weeks after the accident I drove myself to the doctor’s surgery and presented my foot for inspection. My GP took one look at it and said mildly, “Is your OTHER foot that shape?”
An x-ray revealed a Jones fracture of the 5th metatarsal. I was standing behind the Casualty doctor, peering at the x-ray over his shoulder (that makes them very nervous, you know …) and he looked back at me in disbelief and said, “You shouldn’t even be able to STAND, let alone walk . . .” You could see daylight between the two ends of the break. If you Google it, you’ll find that it’s a nasty fracture and very difficult to heal. It frequently has to be pinned. I was warned that – even in the best case scenario – it would be 2 to 3 months before I was mobile again, and 6 or more before I was anywhere near back to normal. They plastered it and (under some pressure) agreed to take another look at it in 3 weeks, by which time they would be able to tell if it was going to knit without further intervention.
I let Gretchen – the Centre Director – loose on it. We actually had a bet on that she couldn’t get me back on my feet in time to take that rebooked holiday – which was just 4 weeks away by then. £50 was at stake. She treated me intensively for the next three 3 weeks.
When the plaster came off, the Consultant poked it and prodded it and twiddled it around a bit and eventually said there was no need to take another x-ray or replaster it because it had plainly healed.
I coughed up the £50 to Gretchen and went on that holiday.
Now, you could say that I obviously have a high pain threshold (which I do) and I’m equally obviously very healthy and heal very quickly – which is also true . . . but even the Fracture Clinic staff were clearly stunned by the speed of my recovery.
As to what healing feels like . . . for me, it didn’t really feel like anything much. Some warmth in the affected area and a slight twitching as if the muscles in my foot were responding to something – but nothing earth shattering. The experience is different for everyone though.
I don’t think there’s anything remotely magical or mystical about what Gretchen does – and neither does she. The effectiveness of what she does has been subjected to quite close scrutiny by a major research project, with the results published in peer-reviewed scientific journals – so we’re not talking hocus-pocus here. There’s a good, scientific explanation for it … we just don’t know what it is yet.
Sorry . . . that has absolutely nothing to do with books – but you DID ask . . .
E: I did, and your answer was so compelling that I’m busy making a list of what I need healed (does she do stretch marks?). But now back to books. Tell me, who has been the greatest influence on your reading life?
M: I think I’d have to say it was a man – a teacher – called Jack Foard. He was Deputy Head at John Mason High School in Abingdon, Oxfordshire and if he’s still with us, which I very much hope he is, he’d be extremely surprised to hear that he was such a influence on me. He was laid-back, funny, iconoclastic, irreverent and very, very smart. (Smart enough not to want to be a headmaster at any rate . . .). I remember writing an essay on some novel or other and getting a bit carried away, as teenagers do, with the tub-thumping. I thought I’d said something momentous and earth-shattering and profound. When I got it back from him, he’d written one word in the margin:
He was the polar opposite of a literary snob . . . everything was grist to his mill. The more diverse your reading and the more open your mind, the better.
It was also from him I learned that humour with a light touch is one of the most powerful weapons in a writer’s armoury. If people enjoy reading what you’ve written and don’t feel they’re being preached at . . . what you’re saying will get through.
E: Yes, I had a teacher like that. I was mesmerised by her, and vividly remember the first time she helped me to ‘get’ poetry as a thing to actually enjoy instead of some awful school penance. Quite an achievement! And so to my next question – can you name three things you’re happy to have achieved, and three things you still hope to achieve in your life?
Firstly, I’m happy to have reached my second half-century in reasonably good health – more people should be grateful for just being alive and healthy.
Secondly, I conquered stage fright. I used to thoroughly enjoy showing off as a youngster – I was particularly good at poetry readings, even if I DO say so myself – but one day, during a reading, I was just stricken . . . my head emptied, I broke out in a cold sweat, my mouth went dry and my throat closed up. It was horrible. The mere thought of standing up in front of a live audience – or being interviewed for radio or TV (which I sometimes have to do in my job) – absolutely crippled me for years. I turned the corner when I impulsive volunteered to read Robert Frost’s “The Road not Taken” at the close of a music and words event at Muncaster Castle to celebrate the Centre’s 10th anniversary. I did it the hard way, from memory. It’s only a short poem . . . but it seemed like “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” at the time. People very kindly applauded quite enthusiastically (from surprise, as much as anything else, I suspect) and I think an actor friend in the audience was on his feet in true theatrical fashion . . . but that could just be my fevered imagination, because my eyes weren’t exactly focussing at the time. Ever since then, however, I’ve been much better. When I occasionally have to do a quick live plug for some Centre event or whatever on Radio Cumbria I don’t immediately rush to the loo and throw up. I do, however, generally try to arrange for Gretchen to do it (the live plug, not the throwing up).
E: Oh, that gives me hope! The same thing happened to me when I was ten, and it’s the one autobiographical detail in my forthcoming novel . . . volunteer to read out a poem, you say? I’m doing one at my mother’s 60th party – perhaps that’ll cure me. Sorry – carry on!
M: I shall! Thirdly, I have, for years, had a habit of trying to self-destruct in various colourful ways. I finally seem to have grown out of it. Touch wood. (And ask me again in 5 years’ time – I may have dreamt up a new way by then – I’m very inventive!)
As for three things to be achieved: that’s trickier. I’d like to get the better of my claustrophobia, but it’s not something that’s ever really hampered me too much. It means I can’t fly, but then I’m not a great traveller anyway because I’m too damned lazy. My passport expired about 20 years ago – which tells you a lot.
I suppose it might be nice to get some ambition from somewhere. Is that an awful admission? That I’m not ambitious? People keep on telling me how well I write and that I ought to do it professionally . . . but I don’t feel I have a novel inside me. Hell, I don’t even feel I have a limerick inside me – and all the published writers I know personally seem to go through such torment one way and another . . . it can’t be good for them.
E: Sshh, we secretly love the torment . . . Ok, one more?
M: Die peacefully in my sleep. Can that count as one? To take life a little more seriously maybe? Nah . . . don’t want to do that. That way madness lies . . .
E: I couldn’t agree more. And now for the obligatory Vulpes Libris interview question: which five books would you take to a desert island, and why?
M: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Anyone who knows me at all well will tell you that I can anorak for England about Wuthering Heights. It’s a quite extraordinary work, firmly rooted in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Emily Bronte didn’t give a toss about the literary conventions of the day. She created a sociopathic monster in Heathcliff and then refused to give him the come-uppance that Victorian readers would have expected. It’s supremely well written, with some breathtakingly beautiful passages, and it combines the utterly realistic with the totally unbelievable to produce a novel that stands in a class all of its own. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a love story . . . because that’s the LAST thing it is. It’s a story of cruelty, obsession and revenge. Love scarcely factors into it at all.
Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier. I lived and worked in Cornwall for several years – right on the edge of Bodmin Moor. More than any other of du Maurier’s books, Jamaica Inn has a special place in my heart – partly because it captured the special atmosphere of that part of Cornwall so well. I used to drive past the inn, at Bolventor, regularly … before it was the tourist honeypot it’s sadly become today. The characters in Jamaica Inn are so vivid – Jem and Joss Merlyn, Mary Yellan … the Vicar of Altarnun . . . great stuff. (And let me recommend the 1983 Trevor Eve/Patrick McGoohan/Jane Seymour made-for-TV version recently released on DVD. It’s terrific.)
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers. I make no apologies for this one. One of the most erotic books ever written – and no-one takes a single item of clothing off. Another novel with a tremendous sense of place – in this case, Oxford. Is there a pattern developing here, do you think?
E: Interesting – I don’t think I often talk about a sense of place when I mention why I love a particular book, but since I’ve been reading lots of Australian literature I’ve been taking a lot more notice. Right, two more!
M: East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I’d rank this above The Grapes of Wrath . . . but not by much. I love Steinbeck and East of Eden just grabbed me in a way I can’t explain. I read it in two days flat because I literally couldn’t put it down. I had to know where it was going.
The Collected Poems of Ted Hughes. Ted Hughes was an extraordinary man and he absolutely fascinates me. His poems are so spare and distinctive . . . veering from wrist-slittingly depressing to heartbreakingly beautifully. This book never wanders from my bedside.
E: 3 out of 5, Moira! Sorry, that’s not your score, I just love 3 out of your 5 and got a bit excited about it. Right, before I let you go, a quickie: if you could have a signed first edition of any book in the world, what would it be?
M: That’s a no-brainer. Wuthering Heights. I wish.
(If anyone would like to put their own questions to Moira, she says she’ll do her best to answer them.)