Old friends are always welcome round here at Tooting Towers, but so are new ones – especially when they come bearing gifts. Quite what might have been said about me in advance to our guest the other night, whom I hadn’t really met before, I dare not speculate. But she arrived with a shiny silver snuff-box clearly labelled “President” – not, as it turned out, engraved especially for me – but the brand-name of a variety manufactured by Poschl and described as a traditional English snuff, an excellent everyday snuff, and even a “refreshing pinch discreetly balanced with flavoursome, eucalyptus oils … this snuff leaves a lingering freshness in the nose”.
Although old-fashioned in many ways – not to mention a repository of most of the bad habits known to mankind – I’d never really thought of myself as a snuff-taking sort of chap. But a first attempt (it’s what that little hollow between your thumb and forefinger is for) shot a blast of menthol and nicotine straight through the nervous system to the brain and gave a moment of truly unparalleled clarity to whatever it was I was trying to say at the time. Agog with surprise, as regrettably they tend to follow the First Lady’s example in not always hanging on my every word, the ladies – I should say at this point that we are currently blessed with two entirely beautiful and exotically-named house guests, Adélè and Freya – followed suite in turn. Voted a success all round – how much cheaper, more acceptable (and presumably legal) than smoking. Perhaps its hour has come. I can’t wait to produce the snuff-box at a suitably dramatic point at the next ABA Council meeting, where clarity of thought, even momentary, is an elusive chimera much to be desired.
But that was not all. It was the second gift that really impressed me. A set of three CDs from the British Library called The Spoken Word : British Writers (2008) – old BBC recordings, clipped of pronunciation, crystal of enunciation, of some of our finest writers talking or being interviewed about their life and work. Such intelligence, such high purpose, such seriousness, such wonder from the old Home Service of the BBC. Radio 4 it is not.
The rich Scottish burr (no more) and exquisite diction of Arthur Conan Doyle talking about the origins of Sherlock Holmes. The booming depth of Arthur Machen talking about Chesterton, Dickens and Thackeray. Chesterton himself. The dulcet debutante of Baroness Orczy. Kipling on our having nothing but our words to tell the present how the past was. Somerset Maugham on the consolations of old age – “I no longer mind what people think of me”. The bonhomie of P. G. Wodehouse and the genesis of Jeeves. The fascinating and very lovely (if slightly disembodied) voice of Virginia Woolf. The oddly down-to-earth Tolkien. Rebecca West with the thought that neither the avant-garde nor modern furniture had actually changed a whit in her entire lifetime. Evelyn Waugh. Graham Greene with immense modesty on the obstinate failure to come alive of certain characters in his books. The glorious giggle of Nancy Mitford. And on and on it goes, Daphne du Maurier, bluff Ian (“I’m not in the Shakespeare Stakes”) Fleming, William Golding, and many more.
This is wonderful – how has it taken me so long to know about it? Go out (or stay in) and buy it right now. Play it to your customers. Listen. Enjoy. Perfect. Jackie – you can certainly come again.