Andy Miller shows us the joy, and the danger, of reading those books you have always longed to.
Andy Miller had a job he enjoyed and a family he loved. But, horrifyingly, there was no time for reading. Despite his busy life, he still wanted to find the time read, especially all the books he had longed to dive into. They could be big names in literature, from the classics to modern greats, or the more obscure or difficult books. He even wanted to read the novels that he'd said
he had read to friends and family. So on his long commute to London, he begins to explore the books he has selected for his 'List of Betterment', the titles he wanted to tick off in a year. What follows is Andy's reading adventure that takes us from The Da Vinci Code
all the way to Middlemarch
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
My life is nothing special. It is every bit as dreary as yours.
This is the drill. Every weekday morning, the alarm wakes us at 5.45am, unless our son wakes us earlier, which he sometimes – usually – does. He is three. When we moved into this house a year ago, we bought a Goodman programmable radio and CD player for the bedroom. The CD player, being cheap, is temperamental about what it will and will not play. When it works, which it sometimes – usually – doesn’t, the day begins with ‘I Start Counting’, the first track on Fuzzy-Felt Folk, an arch selection of children’s folk tunes on Trunk Records. (For a few weeks after we got the CD player, we experimented with alternative wake-up calls, from Sinatra, to the Stooges, to Father Abraham and The Smurfs, but the fun of choosing a different disc every night quickly turned into another chore, one more obstacle between us and our hearts’ desire – falling asleep.) ‘I Start Counting’ is a lilting and gentle song, a scenic shuttle-bus ride back to Morningtown, and the capricious CD player seems to like it. So we have settled for ‘I Start Counting’. ‘This year, next year, sometime, never . . .’
But on those mornings when the CD won’t take, the radio kicks in instead. These are the days that begin at 5.45am not with a soft dawn chorus of ‘I Start Counting’, but with the brutal twin reveille of Farming Today at ear- splitting volume and the impatient yelling of our only son, who has invariably been awake for some time. ‘Is it morning yet?’ he enquires, over and over again at the top of his lungs. We lie there, shattered. Someone somewhere is milking a cow.
I stumble downstairs and make a cup of tea. In the time it takes for the kettle to boil, I put some brioche in a bowl for my son – his favourite – and swallow a couple of vitamin supplements, cod liver oil for dry skin, and high-strength calcium (plus vitamin D) for bones. The calcium tablets are a hangover from a low-fat diet I put myself on four years ago, wanting to get in shape before Alex was born, one of the side effects of which, other than dramatic weight loss, was to make my shins ache from a real or phantom calcium deficiency. The pains soon went but the tablets have become another habit. At that time, my job was making me miserable. For too long I compensated by eating and drinking too much, wine at lunchtime and beer in the pub after work, with the result that for the first time, in my early thirties, I had become a fat man with a big, fat face. I shed three stone and have successfully kept the weight off, so that now, combined with the effects of sustained sleep deprivation, my face is undeniably gaunt. Acquaintances who haven’t seen me for a while look concerned and wonder whether I’m ok. ‘Have you been ill?’ they ask. I love it when they do this.
The kettle boils. I pour the hot water onto the Twinings organic teabag nestled in the blue cat mug which came from Camden market in the early 1990s, soon after my wife, Tina, and I first started going out, and which for reasons both of sentimentality and size remains her preference for the first cup of tea of the day (While the mug is blue, the cat itself is ginger). Sometimes I put out the mug and bag in readiness the night before, sometimes I don’t. I stir the teabag, pressing it against the side of the mug and squashing it on the bottom. Then I throw it in the bin, pour in the organic semi-skimmed milk, give the tea another stir and put the spoon to one side so I can use it again in an hour’s time to eat half a grapefruit – another surviving component of the low-fat diet. Actually, to all intents and purposes, I am still on the low-fat diet. I don’t drink beer any more and I rarely eat cakes, chocolate, biscuits, etc.
If reading about this is sapping your spirit, you should try living it.
I take my wife her tea in bed. On a good morning, she will be waiting to take the hot cat mug from me, but some- times, when I arrive in the bedroom, hot tea in hand, she has gone back to sleep and so I have to wake her up and cajole her into a sitting position. This does irritate me. I have been performing this small, uxorious duty for the last thirteen years; surely I am entitled to a measure of disgruntlement that she, luxuriating in precious minutes of sweet sleep I have already forgone on her behalf, cannot even be bothered to sit up? By now, three-year-old Alex has climbed into bed, though, so all slumber soon ceases. We lie in bed together, our whole family, complete. The best minutes of the day.
At this point, a fork appears in the road, depending on which of us has to go to London today. Tina and I both have jobs that permit us to work selected days from home. I look after Alex on a Thursday and his mother spends the day with him on Monday. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, he is in nursery from 7.30am until 5.30pm. My mother-in- law helps with the pick-ups and drop-offs, as well as the washing and ironing. We pay her a small monthly retainer for these chores, which discreetly bumps up her pension and helps keep her grandson in chocolate buttons. However, by placing this arrangement on a financial footing, my mother- in-law is understandably reluctant to perform any grandmotherly tasks which fall outside her remit. We rarely arrive home after a long day at the office to discover, to our surprise and delight, someone has baked a cake or hidden a thimble.
So one of us goes to work in London, sometimes two of us. If it’s me I make sure I have enough time to eat breakfast, which is the same breakfast I eat every day except Sunday – half a grapefruit, a glass of orange juice from a carton, a slice of wholemeal toast and Marmite, and a mug of strong black coffee, brewed in a one-person cafétière. On Sundays I have black coffee, warm croissants and good strawberry jam. After six days of abstinence, the sudden Sunday combination of sugar, caffeine and pleasure propels me to a state of near-euphoria. This is usually the most alive I feel all week. For about half an hour, things seem possible. (In the interests of full, Patrick Bateman-like disclosure, here are the brands which make up this breakfast. Grapefruit: Jaffa, pink, organic. Orange juice: Grove Fresh Pure, organic. Bread: Kingsmill, wholemeal, medium-sliced. Low-fat spread: Flora Light. Marmite: n/a. Coffee: Percol Americano filter coffee, fairtrade, organic, strength: 4. Sundays – All-butter croissants: Sainsbury’s, ‘Taste the Difference’. Jam: Bonne Maman Conserve, strawberry. I drink the orange juice from a type of Ikea glass called Svepa which, through a process of trial and error, I have determined is the perfect size for consuming a carton of orange juice in equal measures over four successive mornings. Then I go out and disembowel a dog.)
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is said to have remarked that he didn’t mind what he ate, as long as it was always the same thing, although I imagine Wittgenstein rarely, if ever, bagged up his own packed lunch. If I am working in London, I always take the following with me: a ham sandwich, a tomato, a bag of baked crisps and an apple, which I eat at my desk. (‘I sometimes feel like Nietzsche in Ecce Homo, feeling it appropriate to give an account of his dietary habits, like his taste for “thick oil-free cocoa”, convinced that nothing that concerns him could be entirely without interest.’ Michel Houellebecq, Public Enemies.) If I am having lunch in a restaurant with a colleague or a client, I still make and pack this exact combination of items and eat it twelve hours later on the train on the way home, where it tastes absolutely desperate. Why do I always do this? Because I don’t have the energy to be bothered to think about doing something different, even though the thing I am doing will, I know, stick in the throat.
(FYI Mrs Miller skips breakfast – tut – and makes her own sandwiches only infrequently – tsk – although she does put a banana in her handbag and keeps a box of Oat So Simple instant porridge in her desk drawer.)
One or both of us leaves home at about 6.30am, certainly no later than 6.35am. We both prefer the 6.44am train, run by Southeastern Trains. There is very little chat on the 6.44; many of the other passengers are asleep. (The 7.03 lands you at Victoria at the height of the rush-hour crush, while the 7.22 usually fills up by Chatham, and its human traffic, having had an extra hour in which to wake up, make-up and caffeinate, is significantly rowdier.) But the 6.44am train has its drawbacks, too. We both travel in fear of sitting next to the woman who boards the train at Sittingbourne and without fail performs the same daily manicure: finger- nails with emery board till Rainham, application of hand cream at Gillingham, greasy massage to Rochester. Once treatment is complete, the hands’ owner takes a power nap, mouth agape, to Bromley South, where she leaves the train. We refer to the woman as ‘Mrs Atrixo’. If she sits down next to one of us, we text the other: ‘Eek! Atrixo!’
Our train arrives in town. Then follows the bus or Tube ride. Then work. Work lasts all day, sometimes longer.
Meanwhile, at his nursery, my son enjoys a day of struc- tured and unstructured activity in the company of a mixture of children and young women – few of whom are older than eighteen and none of whom are older than twenty-five. He might play with the Duplo™. He might pretend to be Doctor Who for a while. He might tell one of the girls what he got up to on his last ‘Mummy day’. We don’t know for sure because we’re not there. He usually has his breakfast and his lunch and his tea sitting at a little table with some of his friends. Of course, they are only his friends by virtue of being the children with whom he is obliged to pass much of his time (three days in every seven). They are more like colleagues than friends. At the end of the day, they all sit around the television, children and helpers, and watch a video until someone, a parent or grandparent, comes to collect them.
Sandwich, bath, a little more television, bed, stories, sleep. Also a telephone call from the parent – or parents – who may or may not get home in time to say goodnight.
The parental evening routine follows a very similar pattern, with half a bottle of wine and maybe some cooked food, sometimes even cooked from scratch. Sleep follows swiftly at 10pm, unless some detail of the day sticks in mind, some professional slight, some office skirmish to come.
That’s how the week goes. Weekends and family days are less restricted but still have their structures and patterns and duties – paperwork, haircuts, the weekly shop, visits from friends with children, long car journeys to close family. There is some fun but there is little in the way of spontaneity. We do not have the time. Then Monday comes around and we start counting all over again. ‘This year, next year, sometime, never . . .’
I assume we are happy. Certainly we love each other. We have been working parents for three years. In that time I have, for pleasure, read precisely one book – The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.
It is Thursday, and Thursday is a Daddy day. So we have packed the Wet Wipes and a change of trouser and after lunch the boy and I set off for Broadstairs.
Broadstairs is half an hour up the coast from where we live. For a part-time child-minding parent, it has several attractions to recommend it. The bay encloses a sandy beach with swings and trampolines. There is a small, old-fashioned cinema. Along the promenade, overlooking the bay, lies Morelli’s famous ice-cream parlour. And the long walk downhill from the station to the seafront almost guarantees an afternoon nap for members of the party travelling by pushchair.
However, this is a Thursday in late November. The cinema is closed. The swings and trampolines are shrouded in winter tarpaulins and the sea is too boisterous and cold for paddling. The rain that greets us at the station thickens as we trudge into town, facing the wind, and we have to shelter in the doorway of a charity shop to unpack the PVC rain cover, which flaps about uncontrollably until skewered to the metal frame of the buggy by ruddy red hands – mine. No one feels much like a snooze.
In Morelli’s, we are the only people eating ice creams. We also appear to be the only customers younger than sixty. Around us, pensioners eke out their frothy coffees and try not to make eye-contact with me. It has been my experience over the last few years that people are generally more at ease with the dad and toddler combo on TV than in reality, where it seems to disconcert them. Is the mother dead? Are we witnessing an abduction? In spring and summer, this place is full of life, with holidaying families and little children boogieing in front of the jukebox. But today the view across Viking Bay has vanished behind fogged-up windows.
We leave Morelli’s and walk up the promenade to the Charles Dickens museum. Hmm, some other time. But around the corner on Albion Street is the Albion Bookshop. I yank the pushchair up the steps, holding open the heavy door with one foot, and once inside try to find a corner where we shan’t be in anyone’s way, even though the shop is empty. Down the street a little way is another Albion Bookshop, a huge, endearingly dingy secondhand place – fun for Dad, who could easily lose hours in there, but less so for three-year-old boys. So while Alex decides which Mr Men book he would like, I browse this shop’s smaller selec- tion of titles. There is a cookery section, a local interest section – Broadstairs In Old Photographs, etc. – and a Dan Brown section, with his four novels to date: The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons and the other two, and a plenteous range of spin-offs and tie-ins: Cracking the Da Vinci Code, Rosslyn and the Grail, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. (I am aware The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was published long before The Da Vinci Code. The Albion Bookshop has since closed down.) On the fiction shelves, between Maeve Binchy and The Pilgrim’s Progress, I am surprised to find Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I pick it up – small format, £3.99, good value. The grinning cat on the front cover (The book is orange, the cat is black) makes Alex laugh, so I take it to the till along with his choice, Mr Small.
It is time for us to go home. On the long climb back up the hill to Broadstairs station, the combination of sea air and ice cream finally catches up with Alex and he nods off. We find the space on the train next to the disabled toilet and, with my son still asleep and nothing to do for half an hour, I start to read.
‘Mr Small was very small. Probably the smallest person you’ve ever seen in your whole life.’
No, better wait till Alex wakes up. I turn my attention to the other book.
‘At the sunset hour of one warm spring day two men were to be seen at Patriarch’s Ponds . . .’