I spotted him last week, mincing his way through the corridor towards the cafeteria, holding Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum close to his bosom, as if cradling an infant.
I followed him, marvelling the wide sway of his broad hips, and wondering: what anatomical freakishness allowed him to swing his hips in such a womanly manner despite taking very short steps (with exaggerated primness, as though he were walking down-town Baghdad, taking care not to step on bombs; or was it just the fat wobbling beneath his trousers that snugly enveloped his haunches), and why was he holding a book in his hand (did the man have a claim to possessing an intellectual life?) and whether he was gay.
Look at the evidence: the man is always nattily dressed; he walks in the manner described above; he has a controlled, precise way of talking and uses words like ideographic and maquette, which you would be hard pressed to find anywhere outside of a Nabokov novel; and reads novels; ergo he must be gay. This is the theory of another colleague of mine who is gay and who admitted to fancying the fat book-reader for a few months before deciding that he (the fat book-reader) was not his type (he goes for the muscular type, the gay guy, not for blokes who waddle about, fundaments jigging (as a Nabokov character might say) and guts flopping over their waist-belts (I say)).
I stood behind the book-reader (although, strictly speaking, he was a book-holder; I could not be absolutely sure that he was a book-reader.) As he turned back, balancing a mountain of beans and salad on his plate (how did he get to this size?) I said, ‘Are you enjoying the book?’
‘It’s a bit heavy going,’ the fat bloke replied. ‘But I have got to finish it. We have our book-group meeting tonight.’ (Jesus! He finds Behind the Scenes at the Museum heavy going! What could be a lighter reading than it? Case Histories?)
‘Oh! You belong to a book group, do you?’ I asked.
The fat man looked around conspiratorially. Then said (in an exaggerated whisper), ‘I promise you officer. It’s a clean group. We are just a bunch of friends who gather to discuss a book over a pizza. Hope I am not breaking any law.’ (A funny guy; I was speaking to a guy who thought he was funny.)
‘Ha! Ha! That's very funny. Anyway, enjoy your book-group meeting. Hope you finish the book before it. You can always cheat by reading the summery on WikiPedia.’
The fat man looked stern. ‘That would be cheating.’
‘Yeah! That's what I said: you could cheat.'
‘Why would I want to do that?’ The man looked at me as if I had offered to inject his mother with HIV virus.
‘In case you can’t finish the book. Which you may not. Seeing as you are finding it heavy going.’ I drew quotation marks in air with my fingers.
The man gave a deep sigh, managing to pack in that long exhalation his frustration at having to deal, on a daily basis, with morons like me. Then he said, ‘Thanks for your advice, not that I remember asking for it. I will consider it. Can I have my lunch now? Is that permitted?’
‘Of course you can,’ I said. ‘But are you sure (giving a long look at his fat gut and the plate of salad) that would be enough? Don’t forget you are reading a heavy book (quotation marks in the air again, in the hope that it would annoy the fat man further). Kate Atkinson is not an easy author to read. You should read her only on a full stomach. And this’—another long look at the plate—‘would fill at most a corner.’ I walked away quickly, thinking that it was a rather lame riposte, as ripostes go; but I am not good at thinking on my feet. I think of a witty, stinging riposte half an hour after I have been insulted (or think I have been insulted).
The fat man sat near one of the bay windows in the room and, holding Behind the Scenes at the Museum in one hand, began shovelling large spoonfuls of salad down his throat. (So he was a book-reader as well as a book holder).
The encounter (that’s what it felt like) with the fat man got me thinking (I do that sometimes). Should I join a reading group? I have never given the matter a serious thought. The idea does not immediately appeal to me, for several reasons. Firstly, I do not feel comfortable in groups, especially when they include people whom I have never met before. OK, you might say, the apprehension might get less with time, as you get to know your group members. But what if it doesn’t? What, if, after a few meetings you realise that you in fact can’t stand some or more (or all) of them, and the loathing is only going to increase exponentially with future contacts?
Years ago Channel 4 aired a sitcom titled The Book-Group (I think that was the title). It was about, well, a book-group situated in a city in Scotland. The sitcom ran, if I remember correctly, for two series before it was taken off, presumably because of dwindling viewership. It was a surreal sitcom, swarming with oddball characters that seem to have everything on their minds except discussing books. I would have been put off the idea of joining a book-group after watching that sitcom, if I had been seriously considering it, which I hadn't been.
In the usual book-groups,where the ostensible purpose is to discuss the merits of books, books are chosen, and, later, discussed. How do the group-members decide which book to read and discuss? This is important. It is not something that can be taken lightly. Do they decide to discuss, say, a work of fiction one month, and non-fiction the next, and poetry the month after? Within each category, how is the short-listing carried out? May be every member nominates a book of his choice every month. That sounds fair: everyone in the group gets the chance to nominate a book every few months. But, would that be ideal? Let’s not pussyfoot around this. The world is full of dunderheads. That’s OK; it is not a crime to be a dunderhead (I understand—it is an unfortunate handicap). But it would be fair to assume that some or more of these dunderheads consider themselves avid readers, and it is not inconceivable that the dunderheads may want to belong to a book-reading community, and may stealthily find their way into book-groups. And once they become members of book-groups which operate in a laissez faire fashion, they will be called upon to nominate books; and they will exert their right to make daft choices. It will be like exporting democracy to a country where the majority are illiterate; it would have the right to vote and elect daft candidates. And you can do nothing about it. Which means, depending on the number of dunderheads in your book-group, you will end up reading crap books once every two or three months. That would be disastrous to the peace of your mind. I shall not read, even on pain of death, painstakingly researched accounts of the Nazi space programme in the Second World War. In addition, I am incapable of understanding, therefore appreciating, poetry (unless it is a haiku). Combine a poetry-loving eccentric with a few dunderheads, and I will be ready to launch an agitation to make euthanasia legal.
Another potential trouble with book-groups, I suspect, is that they attract people who fancy themselves as writers or poets, and use these groups to torture their victims with their literary offerings. It is not beyond the realms of imagination that some or more of these unpublished (and unpublishable) writers (and poets) will start a book-group with the cunning plan of springing the latest chapter of their memoirs (which they have been writing for fifteen years) on their ‘captive’ audience. These men are usually called Gladwyne; they have straggly beards which have entangled in the hair food morsels from ancient times. Their standards of personal hygiene are not high, and their dental hygiene is worse. They fancy themselves as intellectuals and have been keeping a journal, which they tell you, with significant pauses, is modelled on the journals of Jules Renard; and are terribly put out when you burst out laughing. In addition, there is always an octogenarian or a nonagenarian, usually a female named Doris or May, who is disconcertingly alert for her age. She writes poems, usually on a cat called Bo, which she had as a pet when she was growing up in Norfolk. The poems are atrocious with silly rhyming such as ‘park’ and ‘dark’, and ‘bike’ and ‘dike’ (Doris is a spinster). However no one has the heart to tell her this in deference to her great age. (It is funny how we are expected to be deferential to those who have achieved little except that they have not died in time.) The group (frequently) has another woman (fifty, blonde (peroxide), divorced) with exaggerated self-presence, enhanced by imposing and what you take to be (surprisingly) firm breasts for her age. She has forceful opinions ('Hemingway? Uh! Can't stand him!' 'Faulkner? Grossly overrated. 'Bellow? The last good book he wrote was The Adventures of Augie March; the rest is unreadable'; 'I can't read more than three pages of Philip Roth without wanting to set it on fire') which she airs in a forceful voice with a vaguely menacing look, as if challenging anyone with a different point of view to a fist-fight. Finally, to make your misery complete, there is a bloke—usually called Bernard (‘Call me Bern’)— who has the knack of using any conversational piece as a pretext to launch into an interminable personal anecdote which no one except him thinks is funny.
Attending such groups would be more torturous than attending Parish County meetings in North Wales. You would be compelled to think of an excuse to cry off, and of course, you can’t tell the truth because you do not want to be rude. Also, past experience has taught you that on the whole it is not a good policy to piss people off, unless you absolutely have to. So you have to think of a lie that will not ruffle feathers. I guess the easiest one would be to spin a yarn about how you are finding it increasingly difficult to find time to prepare yourself for the meeting on which you put a high premium—you would not want to give anything less than your best, as you are only too aware of the efforts put in by the other members—because of increasing pressure on your time, having to put in extra hours at work and so on and so forth. But what if you do not have a job? What if you do not work? What are you going to tell them, then? ‘I am sorry, but I park my bum all day in front of the box watching old episodes of Seinfeld. Watching Seinfeld has become an all-consuming passion, and I simply do not have time to read books and come prepared for the intellectually invigorating discussions that take place in Gladwyne’s front room?’ I do not think that would be very convincing. Anyway, I am not very good at telling lies. I have never got away with them in my memory. Indeed, I am not believed even when I am telling the truth. The other option is to default. Simply stop going to the book-group meetings. But that would be a cop out. Also, people might ring you if you do not attend (although you could get round that by screening your calls and not answer if it is Gladwyne or Doris who is calling you). There is also the risk that you might bump into them and it would be awkward, although in my case it is not very likely to happen. Another way is to phone at the last minute and express your inability to attend. You would have to cook up an excuse, but in theory it should be easier to tell a lie on phone than to face. After a few such excuses, just stop going, and hope that Gladwyne has taken the hint. This strategy, while it has the advantage of being easier and effective, does not solve the problem of how to react were you to meet Gladwyne in a supermarket (or Doris if you frequent bingo halls). You would then have to appear as if you have not seen him (not always possible, and what if he corners you?), or, invent a lie on the spot should he comment on your continuing absence from the meetings of the group, and informs you that you missed out on a lively discussion on the Desert Campaign of General Montgomery in the Second World War. You could always prepare in advance and keep a mental list of lies ready for such unexpected encounters; however, if you had the confidence of telling such lies without breaking into a fountain of sweat or wearing the ingratiating smile of a shop-lifter, who is viewing the approach of the shop-security with increasing dread, you would not avoid the groups in the first place.
The more I think about this the more I feel pleased that I have made the wise decision of not joining a book-group. Better to stay with the solitude you are accustomed to than flirt with fellowship that may be inimical to the peace of your mind.
(Declaration: I have joined a book-group).