I have books all over the place. They are in piles by and under the bed, in boxes all over the house, on the shelves in the living room, in Anne’s wee office and the dining room where I have my workspace. They are also all over the dining room table, in piles as high as your head. The ones I am reading just now have bookmarks in them of various kinds.
Last spring I was in Paris for the marathon. I bought a couple of books in St Pancras on the way to the train. One was a book on the the Mongol Empire. I read it over the course of my trip and it now has a Paris Metro ticket slipped into its final pages. It’s one of those 10-trip carnets you can buy for about sixteen euros and I used each of the trips over the four days I was away. I used all of them and more, in fact. There’s another book somewhere in the house with another Metro ticket in it but I can’t remember which was the second book I bought while I was away so I have no idea where that ticket is.
Italy is good for train tickets. The trains aren’t very expensive and the tickets make for good bookmarks. They’re longer than most paperbacks and pole out the top and bottom like a tall man in a short bed. The first one you buy ends up tattered and battered after a few days’ service. You have to remember to validate the tickets in the machines by the platforms or you could face a fine if you come across an inspector. The one time I did encounter an inspector I had of course forgotten to validate my ticket. I was saved from a fine by his unpleasant racism because he was much more interested in putting the black men further down the carriage off the train for travelling while black. So then, Italy: magnificent, inexpensive trains as long as you’re not a black man.
One last wee story, better than the one above. I have a waistcoat which belonged to my grandfather. He was a fine man, a trades unionist and artist. I am very fortunate indeed to have original art hanging on my walls because of him. My grandmother gave me one of his landscapes and it hangs on the wall above the piano here in my living room. There are other paintings, drawing and etchings hanging here done by my mother and my wife. Ours is a decorated home.
My grandfather died when I was about six or seven years old so while I have some memories of him, they are vague. I remember a slightly grumpy old man who was still happy to see us visit him in his shed at the bottom of his garden where he did his painting. He was very good at still lives and I never really understood the process whereby fruit went from bowl to canvas. He said that he used a knife. I thought he sliced it very thinly with his palette knives and smeared the flesh onto the surface of the canvas. The flesh of peaches and apples shines in two dimensions more than ever it does in three.
He taught me to draw. Well, he tried. He showed me how he could draw a profile and create the impression of an eye with only two or three brief strokes of a pencil. I was young and inept. I might have improved with practice and tutelage but we never had enough time. Fast forward a few years and my grandmother gives me a waistcoat which he had owned. It’s that mid-1960s old man’s yellow checked pattern, has mustard yellow buttons up and down the front and four pockets, two with little flaps over them and two without. One day I was having a rummage in one of these pockets for a coin I’d slipped in there to pay my bus fare and I pulled out a piece of thin paper, as thick as you might once have used for rolling a cigarette, rolled up tightly. It was a payslip from 1968 or 69. It’s about a quarter of an inch wide and sixteen or seventeen inches long and records his pay for one week in tiny, faint, near illegible handwriting. I can’t read it at all now, any more than I can remember his face. All that’s left is a handful of hazy memories of a man who gave me slices of peach in a shed, paintings on my wall and this long, strange strip of paper.