Reading and travelling

I’m in Washington this week, for the IMF annual meetings. I took

the train down here, and, as is often the way with trains, there were

lots of cancellations and delays, and I had quite a bit of time on my


Desperate to read something other than Credit Suisse First Boston’s

104-page Latin America Quarterly, it didn’t take me long to get

engrossed in a back issue of the New York Review of Books which I’d

never got around to finishing. (Where others keep reproachful piles

of New Yorkers by their bedside, I generally manage to read most of

what I’m interested in every week. My guilty consciences –

the magazines I desperately want to read but never quite get around

to doing any more than dipping into – are the New York Review and

Foreign Affairs.)

As the train shuffled laboriously down to Union Station, I recalled

an amazing issue of the magazine about a year ago, which I took on a

trip with my girlfriend to California. It was full of fascinating and

impeccably-written essays on all manner of topics, and I found myself

sneaking off to my bedroom to read a couple of pages before dinner,

rather than schmoozing in a friendly manner with Michelle’s family.

And then it occurred to me that a vastly disproportionate number of

my great experiences as a reader have been while travelling. If I think

of many of the books I enjoyed the most – The

Comfort of Strangers, Requiem

for a Dream, Foucault’s

Pendlum, Infinite

Jest – all were read on holiday. I would say of the last two

that they have to be read on holiday – it’s only in such a

situation that one ever gets the chance to read them in an amount of

time short enough to be able to remember everything that went before.

But the McEwan novel is compact enough to be read just about anywhere;

capable of being fit into the busiest of schedules. It’s not the

time-available thing, I think, it’s the guilt thing.

For the fact is that with the exception of an occasional half-hour

between going to bed and going to sleep, it’s very rare that any

of us have time over the course of the day to read a book or magazine

without feeling a little guilty – without thinking that we ought

to be doing something else.

When on holiday, however, or stuck in one of those gaps-between-meetings

on business trips, we relax a little. Reading, then, stops being a guilty

pleasure and starts being simply a pleasure.

So let me share with you now one of the best paragraphs I’ve

come across in a very long time. You won’t have any difficulty

identifying the author (Alan Bennett) – here his voice is so distinctive

it verges on the self-parodic. But he has such a wonderful ear that

he can get away with it. I don’t know if you’ll enjoy it as

much as I did down here, but I’m sure you’ll love it all the


So, then, the opening paragraph of Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet, from

his latest collection

of short stories, The Laying On of Hands:

Bit of a bomshell today. I’m pegging up my stocking when

Mr Suddaby says, ‘I’m afraid, Miss Fozzard, this is going

to have to be our last encounter.’ Apparently this latest burglary

has put the tin hat on things and what with Mrs Suddaby’s mother

finally going into a home and their TV reception always being so poor

there’s not much to keep them in Leeds so they’re making a

bolt for it and heading off to Scarborough. Added to which Tina, their

chow, has a touch of arthritis so the sands may help and the upshot

is they’ve gone in for a little semi near Peasholme Park.

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