From Tolstoy to Twitter

Edinburgh is just the place for thrifty, book-loving odd-balls.

Many areas, like Bruntsfield, Marchmont and Waverly sound like settings that Jane Austen has fabricated.

There is even a Bingham Park and, while I’ve yet to come across a Darcy Drive or a Wickham Way, it’s only a matter of time before mindful town planners restore the literary balance.

I suspect the city was designed by a brilliant, absent-minded professor of literature, who approached the task like the writing of an essay.

There are examples of sublime beauty, like the Balmoral hotel, the Walter Scott monument and of course Edinburgh castle, but they are clumsily linked by several hills, which pepper the city indiscriminately. The effect is similar to the reward felt by a reader who huffs and puffs their way through stodgy prose, wondering where it is all going, only to stumble suddenly on something quite profound.



On Thursday, I stumbled across the St John’s charity bookshop in Stockbridge. A poster in the window said “Clearance! Everything 50 pence” and I was inside as fast as my little legs could carry me.

It was cluttered and reassuringly musty. Bookish types sporting oversized anoraks and tufty hair browsed stealthily, building discerning piles of poetry, murder mysteries and natural history.

While I prowled the store, several dismayed customers asked the elderly couple behind the counter why everything must go.

“We haven’t got enough volunteers to keep it going,” said the man.

“Now where am I going to go for my books?” asked one lady and sighed. “If only I’d known, I would’ve given up a few hours,” said an English man, who blinked a lot and bought the collected works of Oscar Wilde.

“Well, get stocking up,” said the old lady. “Anything that isn’t sold will go into recycling.”

I didn’t need to be told twice. Some of the titles I had been perusing were so promising that the thought of them condemned to shredding alongside household bills and letters from the bank sent a shiver coursing down my spine.

I was tragically limited by the confines (56 x 45 x 25cm including wheels) of my hand baggage allowance. Nevertheless, I managed to add six books to my collection. It only set me back £3, which is about the cost of a glossy magazine offering to make me beautiful and thin.

I am now the proud owner of: The Personality of Animals by the appropriately named H Munro Fox, The Childhood of Animals by Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell, Know Your Own IQ by H.J. Eyesenck, The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf, The Hill of Devi by E.M. Forster and most promisingly of all: The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism Volume 2 by Bernard Shaw.

I opened the most humble-sounding of them, Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader on the plane earlier. I kept it open on the bus and then on the underground and even brought it to bed with me.

Roger Fry's painting of Virginia Woolf Image source:

Roger Fry’s painting of Virginia Woolf Image source:

We travelled well together. Ms Woolf seemed to understand the dilemmas of contemporary blogging as early as 1925.

In her chapter “Modern Fiction,” she asks what about and why and how we should be writing. Baffling questions that the amateur blogger faces every day.

Sometimes I steal snatches of conversations I’ve had and slap them onto the blogosphere. Other times I talk about love or meat or peeing audibly.

Occasionally I think about weighty things like politics or God and think I should write about these things too, yet I can find nothing more to say.

And then there are the times I dream of invention. I wonder whether my paltry life experience could ever be transformed and trapped within the dusty covers of a big fat book.

It’s worth remembering that unless you’re an academic, Woolf’s chapter title doesn’t age well. “Modern fiction” is by nature a relative term. But what she says about the dilemmas of writing may apply to anything from Tolstoy to Twitter. She asks us to:

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

Sometimes I get stuck inside the semi-transparent envelope. I know I’m there when words fail me, or I lose the desire to write. It takes a hilly city, with rough cobble-stoned streets, place names that make me feel like I am Elizabeth Bennet and charitable book-sellers to break the seal.

Frau Bienkowski and the Irish Convent

Frau Bienkowski was sitting by an open window, soaking in the sunlight. She gave me a faint smile. It was not her usual welcome. She was in pain.

“Every limb hurts,” she said.

We had been planning to venture outside the moment we got some sun. I asked Frau Bienkowski whether she thought she could manage.

Ten minutes later she was pushing her stroller around the grounds, naming flowers and telling me about the people she knew living in the neighbouring buildings.

Every so often she stopped and sat on the ledge of her stroller.

“Am I slower than you thought?” she asked.

“Not at all,” I said. “I’ve only ever seen you in your armchair.”

We passed two caretakers smoking at a back entrance to the canteen. Frau Bienkowski called over to them. “I was faster last year!” They nodded sympathetically and one of them, a young woman with a scraped-back pony tail and jet black hair said, “oh, the curse of biology.”

Frau Bienkowski told me she remembered what flowers were blooming when the Russians came. “You don’t forget a time like that,” she said.

After our walk we went for coffee. I ordered a latte. “What’s that?” she asked.

I told her it was a mixture of espresso and steamed milk. She said she’d try it next time.

We chatted about parents disapproving of mixed marriages. She said it happened lots after the war and I said that in Ireland in the past, a Catholic-Protestant marriage could divide a family forever.

“You know, you’re only supposed to stay an hour,” Frau Bienkowski said after two.

“Do you have something you need to do?” I asked.

“I don’t want you to feel obliged, that’s all,” she said.

“Frau Bienkowski, we have discussed this before. This is a pleasure.”

“Oh, very well.”

Back upstairs, Frau Bienkowski asked me to read from “Die Pforte zum Himelreich,” the book by Irish writer Una Troy which I brought her last week.

“I started it,” she said. “And it is very good. But my eyes became swimmy and I couldn’t read on.”

The scene I read was a dialogue between an eager 23 year-old upstart journalist and a 100 year-old woman in a convent. She was Ireland’s oldest person and he was vying for the scoop on how she’d managed to live so long. She gave smart-ass, wry responses.

I put on my best crotchety voice for the old woman and an effeminate whine for the young man. Frau Bienkowski laughed out loud three times.

“You should be a professional reader!” she said. “I can completely imagine that nun!”

When I left, Frau Bienkowski said, “You bring me such joy.” This time her smile was real. It made my day.