Pandemic page-turners

You have to be careful with book recommendations. I remember, when I was in the book world, we asked Frank Muir for a list of recommended books. He gave us his selection of ‘books to be left on the bedside cabinet of guests who have stayed too long’. I cannot remember all his choices but they included ‘Great Railway Disasters’ and ‘Hindustani by the Simple Method’.

Here are my own suggestions for the time of Covid. They are books for comfort reading; books which remind us of how life was. They are not, as we used to say in the trade, ‘bodice rippers’ but are full of humanity. You will not be able to boast about your great intellectual acumen when they appear in the background of your zoom meeting but I think you might enjoy them nevertheless.

Firstly, almost anything by Neville Shute. He was the most popular novelist of the 1950s but now is virtually forgotten. His main themes are aero engineering (his background), Australia, the consequences of war for the common man or woman and, on occasion, the supernatural. I have just loaned a friend in the village copies of Trustee from the Tool Room and The Far Country. She said she enjoyed them immensely. Another good candidate would be No Highway.

Secondly, almost anything from P G Wodehouse but particularly the Jeeves or Blandings series. You could start with Right Ho Jeeves for example or for a taste of the adventures of the Earl of Emsworth, Summer Lightning.

Finally Goodbye Mr Chipsby James Hilton. The life of a shy and traditional teacher in a public school at the end of the 19th Century until after the First World War. I bought a second hand copy once and, when I got to the end, there was a comment written in very straggly and faint pencil by an earlier reader – “Oh wonderful!” If you do not have the time to read the book, then do watch the 1939 film with Robert Donat (not the later versions). You will end up with tears in your eyes.

Just to emphasise how careful you need to be when directing people towards books, I once had the experience of showing Helene Hanff (who wrote 84 Charing Cross Road – another good comfort book) around our warehouse. She was a small and very short-sighted lady. She set off down the nearest valley of bookshelves and picked one at random – ‘The Joy of Sex’. “Is this the kind of book you guys stock?” she asked. I assured her we stocked mostly erudite and classic titles. She continued along the stacks and picked up another book which she held close to her face – ‘Sex and the British’. “Are you sure?” I reassured her and she continued her walk not realising that she had turned the corner and returned to her starting point. By chance she picked up “The Joy of Sex” again. There was no point in explaining further. She was convinced she had stumbled into some pornographic emporium.

Alan Vickers

April-May 2021