Many, many years ago I worked on a commercial freighter for a couple of months as a supernumerary deckhand. Which is to say I was a useless pair of hands that tried not to put my head in the way of a swinging derrick.
One of the real Able Seamen was a weather-worn Scot from the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. The sort of guy who had salt water rather than blood in his veins. When he was in port he was permanently drunk and disorderly, but once we put to sea he was sober and serious. He loved and feared the sea in equal measure.
His sole recreation when at sea was to read, and re-read, and re-read again a single book: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
There are a few books that I re-read, because the re-reading rewards with new insights and appreciation.
And there is one book that I return to constantly: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. But I only allow myself the pleasure once a year, and that time is now.
Waugh was by all accounts, including his own and those of his children, a not very nice person in person. His world view was crankily reactionary, even for his own time. But the man can write. From biting satire to eruptive humour to crunching sadness and terror, his devotion to his writing overwhelms the facade of certainty. And he created some of the greatest comic devices I have had the pleasure to trip over, from the thunder box in the Sword of Honour trilogy, to Ned Ryder in Brideshead. I am in awe of Waugh.
I find that, as the LittleDavys grow to independence, I turn to the book more and more for inspiration in my parenting style. Such as here, when a young Charles Ryder has returned home after his first year at university, having spent all his allowance and facing a dull summer without funds in the company of his father Ned:
‘One of the problems of the vacation is money, father.’
‘Oh, I shouldn’t worry about a thing like that at your age.’
‘You see, I’ve run rather short.’
‘Yes?’ said my father without any sound of interest.
‘In fact I don’t quite know how I’m going to get through the next two months.’
‘Well, I’m the worst person to come to for advice. I’ve never been “short” as you so painfully call it. And yet what else could you say? Hard up? Penurious? Distressed? Embarrassed? Stony-broke?’ (snuffle). ‘On the rocks? In Queer Street? Let us say you are in Queer Street and leave it at that.’
‘Then what do you suggest my doing?’
‘Your cousin Melchior was imprudent with his investments and got into a very queer street. He went to Australia.’
I had not seen my father so gleeful since he found two pages of second-century papyrus between the leaves of a Lombardic breviary.