The Horse’s Mouth; clean as a comet

Excited though I am, I’m currently in the wild throes of pre-trip book-anxiety.

That is, as my must-pack-light head screws itself firmly on for a 7-week-ish jaunt around the southern hemisphere, I find myself eyeing up all of the books in my general vicinity and twitching at the idea of not being able to pack them (I once packed four books for a three-hour train journey, but I don’t think that sort of thing is to be repeated or expanded or extrapolated in the 7-week backpacking scheme of things).

I have deep regrets already about not having read Joseph Campbell’s Hero stuff before I leave, which I already know is important, and so have probably deliberately been putting off reading, on some level (though it gazes wisely at me from my bedroom shelf). But I have delved into plenty of other weird and wonderful things; stuff that flings itself at me by way of either intriguing topic or attractive design (you should never trust someone who doesn’t judge a book by its cover).

I know, I know, I can download books and have pages to turn virtually while I’m away… and I have already chosen one book to start me off on the flight (I have done this favour for my future self with the tenderness of tucking oneself into bed), but still…

Book anxiety is real. When I was last in Bali, I ended up book-less at one point and found myself in a little place called ‘Ganesha Books’, but had reader’s block in there, circling its shelves, and nothing hit me as needing to be read, though I think the problem was really that I didn’t know what I wanted. So I slumped out of there (with just a postcard of a dancer, of which I somehow gathered a few over the weeks) and ended up contacting the owner of the brilliant independent bookshop in Oxford, The Albion Beatnik, all in a fluster.

Everyone should have a bookshop guru just a facebook message away. Luckily, at his recommendation I then downloaded (and then later bought physically; well, the cover is very pretty) The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Arnim, which was brilliant – very English and light, though set in Italy and so removed one geographical step further from my then incense-jangling locale of Indonesia (this sort of placey-displacement is perfect; I always like a contrast between the world I’m in and the world I’m reading about; something about escapism, perhaps, or just that it makes each world more distinct), and now I’ve finally finished ripping through the pages of The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary (the fourth book mentioned on his emergency recommendation list) in a fit of deadline-induced pressure much as if my trip were an impending exam.

I shoulda-woulda-coulda read Joseph Cambell though (‘Joseph Campbell’, here, also represents an enormous pile of other books I’ve recently added to my to-read pile). I wish I could imbibe the contents of a book simply with a rapid-motion thumb-flick through its pages (like those moving image books my brother used to draw; the stories and ideas fly at you in 2.5 seconds, job done!); I think I saw that in the terminator once (but I don’t know if this actually happened in the film; I might have dreamt it) and it’s my preferred special power. (Then I could enjoy and savour the contents at my own leisure on the 13 hr flight [I am also REALLY hoping they have Suffragette as a film option on the flight; I know I made the final cut of that as I spotted myself in the trailer, and want to see it anyway].)

But The Horse’s Mouth (like all books, really) is well worth an intense period of attention (it is v funny), which I hadn’t given until now only because of being distracted by the ten thousand other books I’d been reading at the same time (I need to lose this habit; it’s a rubbish habit).

Anyway, waffle waffle waffle, basically books are great, and here are some of my favourite snippets of insight from Joyce Cary’s main character, the impoverished painter Gulley Jimson (who is as much a self-proclaimed genius as he is morally unpredictable and perpetually cold and damp):

‘But what you get on the inside, I said to myself, is the works – it’s SOMETHING THAT GOES ON GOING ON. Hold on to that, old boy, I said, for it’s the facts of life. It’s the ginger in the gingerbread. It’s the apple in the dumpling. It’s the jump in the OLD MOSQUTO. It’s the kick in the old horse. It’s the creation. And that’s where it’s leading me. Right up to that blasted picture of mine.’

‘I was probably altering something or taking something out […] No, you want to start clear, with a clean canvas, and a bright new shining idea or vision or whatever you call the thing. A sort of coloured music in the mind.’

‘Certainly an artist has no right to complain of his fate. For he has great pleasures. To start new pictures.’

‘”There’s a man following us,” said Nosy. “He looks like a detective.”
“Very likely he is,” I said. “Let him follow. Following is the government job. Ours is to lead the way.”

‘Yes, I thought, fixing my eye on a superior pub. The angels must always be surprised when some man dives head-first into dirt, and then just by a twist of his imagination comes out again as clean as a comet with two wings bigger than the biggest in all heaven.’


2 thoughts on “The Horse’s Mouth; clean as a comet

  1. I just downloaded “The Enchanted April”.

    May I recommend to you “Mr Weston’s Good Wine” (written in 1927)?

    Mr Weston, a wise wine seller and his young assistant (Michael) visit a village in darkest Dorset. Time stops for one evening (Mr Weston is a thinly disguised God) and the village inhabitants discover many truths and insights. It’s a gentle but profound fantasy, riffing on the many and varied personal joys, tragedies, hope and fears, of the characters.

    Disclosure: Like Michael, I rather fancied Tamar, the rector’s daughter.


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