…and an art-gallery too.
No, I do not live in the kind of building which is usually designated in this way. I live in a one-bedroom flat on the fifth floor of a council-owned tower-block.
But on the other hand, I have somehow managed to find space for some thousands of books – I’m not sure how many: two? three? – and a quantity of pictures and other ornaments of which I have no count.
I call my books a library and not a collection, because it resembles what is usually called a library in one crucial fashion. On the plethora of shelving in my living room, bedroom and kitchen, and in many other spaces where there is no room on the shelves, there is some representation of just about every kind of literature there is.
Lining a vast tract of the available wallspace and tucked under much of the furniture on the floor, you will find a whole world of words from across the ages: from the great mythologies which appeared at the birth of human society and human language to the fantastic folk-tales and ballads which filled the memories and imaginations of those whose struggle to live meant that they had little time for reading; from Apuleius and the Oddessey all the way to P.G. Wodehouse and J.R.R. Tolkein; from Cervantes to Dickens, from Sappho and Ovid up to T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas; from Aeschylus and Aristophenes all the way to George Bernard Shaw and and Bertolt Brecht; from Aristotle to Bernard Russell; from Lucretius to Stephen Hawking; from Socrates to Karl Marx.
I also possess the great religious writings of the world: the Bible of course, which includes the Torah; also the Kabalah; the Koran; the Bhagavad Ghita and the Upanishads; the Egyptian Book of the Dead; the ancient precursors to the Bible such as Gilgamesh Tao Te Ching and many others. I am not an never have been a religious man; but I do have something which might simplistically be called a spiritual life, though that is not a sufficient phrase to describe either its nature or its significance. So, althought I do not share a belief in any of the faiths these volumes represent, all of them have in some way given me an insight into my own contact with a universal force which is knowable and unknowable simultaneously; and their moral teachings have made me thoughtful of myself and the worth of my actions as no other writings have
You will find in my library many images too – and how much is covered by those simple words! What a fantastic variety of themes and styles line my shelves, ranging from such as the Lascaux cave paintings from thousands of years ago all the way through to the dadaism of the last century!
Modern publishing allows me to have so many these wonderful works, albeit in reproduced form, in my possession, and so gives me the opportunity to enjoy and to contemplate on the great anonymous artists of the ancient worlds of Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, Japan, and of the wonderful civilisations and tribal societies of Africa, of the Americas, or of Australia or the South Sea Islands as examples.I can explore the complexities of the early and mediaval illuminated manuscripts epitomised by the Books of Lindisfarne and of Kells; I can attempt to comprehend the elaboration of the baroque and the rococo; I can wander round the visit the streets and homes of the Dutch school of painters; I can join in the dramas and drolleries of Hogarth and Gillray; I can try to understand what goes in the heads of the surrealists like Ernst or Dali; I can puzzle over Piccasso’s contorted view of the world; or I can just escape into the many and varied worlds of the artists with whom I most closely associate myself: Constable, Turner, Munch, Van Gogh, Monet.
And these are not all the artists, or writers, who share my home with me. There are – I do not exaggerate – thousands: great names, lesser names, names barely remembered.
I suppose to many of the people reading this, many if not all of these I have mentioned here are just names which in themselves can give no clue as to their significance either to the world or to me. But if I tell you that the work done by these men and the men and women of so many historical eras, so many peoples and nations, addressing all the issues of science, faith and spirituality, describing the many and wonderfully varied worlds that they live in that go to make up our world, sharing all their ideas and imaginings, whether in writing or through one of the other arts, whether simply or intricately expressed, whether humorous or serious, exciting or restful, is a gift that has been given to me by history which allows me to do something glorious that I could not otherwise do.
That is because to me these are not just names: they are real human beings, who have taken their own cares and concerns and who speak to me of those through their writings and their art. They are my neghbours, my housemates, my friends and loving companions, who are there for me whenever I need them; and they do not let me wallow in my own self-regard: they are all travellers, and where they go, I may go too. They are sometimes my enemy, too, with whom I have fought, and whom, in my imagination, I have always defeated.
I have listened to the chatter of slaves and the oratory of senators in Rome; debated with wordy philosophers in Athens; stood in the crowd when a certain preacher standing on a patch of high ground spoke simple words of peace that have rung round the world ever since; wandered across plains and through rainforests with a young scientist whose discoveries changed the way humankind understood itself; stood by the elbow of a stargazer as he saw through his telescope a universe nobody had suspected was there; sat by poets as they sat in their small rooms or marched behind their ploughs working out verses which are now known by heart by millions; fought on deck alongside a mighty commander who died at the moment of his greatest victory; fought at the barricades with hungry revolutionaries in Paris or in Moscow, in the trenches or on sandblown battlefields with the British Tommy; flown alongside the Wright Brothers at Kittyhawk, Lindbergh across the Atlantic, Douglas Bader in the war-torn skies over England; lived the careless floating life in Kyoto; rolled the dice with the hoods of New York; survived the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon, the fire which burnt down San Francisco, the mighty plagues and the bombardments which murdered London, the city, my city, in which, through my books, I have lived for two thousand years.
I have travelled, too, to the bottom of the oceans, home to the strangest forms of life that can be imagined; and likewise to the outer reaches of the universe, taking in all the great marvels that fill the infinities of space between here and the endless reaches of time.
So many wonderful adventures have I had, so many wonderful sights have I seen, so many lives I have lived (what I have described here is but a fraction of what I have witnessed in the boundless reaches of my imagination) all by the simple act of every day sitting down with a book, and maybe a cup of tea, and turning the pages.
But there is a new circumstance in my life which has made such journeying very difficult now: my eyesight is failing. A combination of cataract and floaters have limited my sight to one eye, and that eye full of shapeless things that move like dark creatures swimming in a pool, always distracting me from the words on the page.
There is no remedy for this; so now my reading is severely limited to a few minutes at a time before I must stop reading, and rest till I am ready to read again. What used to be a fascination that went beyond mere pleasure has now become a pain. This grieves me especially because I am getting old, and there is still so much of my library I have not yet explored, and now maybe never will explore.
However, reading is still just about possible, and writing is still relatively easy, despite the annoyance of having these strange objects like fish in a bowl always drawing my thoughts away from where I would want them to be. So while I can continue with my voyages into the deeper and farther reaches of my own mind, it will have to be in a different way. I will have to give time to recalling as much as I can of what I have learned, and use these memories to create new and magical adventures of my own.
It will be the last major journey I make in my life (my physical health is against me venturing too far into the real world as I was once able to do), so I intend to make the best of it that I can, and see how far I can get before, the nature of life being what it is, I can go no further.
…and an art-gallery too.