On turning 60

Hi all. The 15th of November 2019 sees me hitting the big 60….whatever that means. Personally I find it quite odd how birthdays with a zero after them acquire more significance than any other birthday…or indeed any other day, period.

I was at my brothers house for dinner today….I’m writing this on 19th Oct…so several weeks earlier. And, like me, my brother doesn’t see anything significant to be celebrated at 60 that couldn’t equally be celebrated at 59 or 58 or 61 for that matter. As Paul McCartney said in his 1970 hit…It’s just “another day”.

BUT my wife and my sister-in-law insist that it should be celebrated. Have a party, have friends round, do something exciting. What would you like to do….Hmmm…?

It’s really not that easy.

I don’t want to insult or upset anyone’s good intentions. I honestly don’t. I was born in November 1959 in England. I was brought up in a small village, to the north of the city of Sheffield, called Grenoside. The kids I went to school with at the age of 5 or 6….THEY are my friends. The are the ones I hold most dear…as sad and pathetic as that may sound. Some of whom I kept in touch with, some who have already died….so relatively young for these days… and others who I’ve unfortunately lost contact with over the passing years, BUT I still think of all of them as good friends.

At the age of almost 30 my family emigrated to New Zealand and life thereafter tended to revolve around my kids (as it does)…..their school activities, sports etc. The people I associated with here in NZ were to do with school or football (I coached football/soccer at kids and adults level for around 15 years)….or from work. Once each phase ended, the kids grew up, moved out, injury stopped me from playing and coaching football….most of the “friends” I had made just drifted off. Sure I’d keep in touch on Facebook or say “hi” if we bumped into one another at the supermarket and we’d say to each other “Hey must catch up for a beer sometime” and we never do….but otherwise, pretty much nothing. Likewise with work mates. Once they changed jobs, or I moved on, either to another job or to the semi-retired state I find myself in today….no real contact (and yes I do realize that it’s a two way street and I could have made more of an effort than I have).

So, the years pass and something seemingly as simple as inviting my friends round to celebrate my birthday isn’t actually simple at all. As a human being….I am a bit sad and pathetic really…I admit it. My kids have moved on, got their own lives, got married…moved away from home, one’s even moved out of the country. My parents are both dead – for almost 5 years – and I miss speaking with them so much. It still feels strange not being able to call in to see them and spend some time. Other than my school friends back home in England, and my brother with whom I’ll enjoy an occasional beer, my best friends are my wife and my cat….and that’s the fact of it.

What do I want to do for my 60th? Do I want to have a BBQ, a party, go to the pub, have a weekend away at Lake Taupo? Not really no.

What I’d like to do firstly, is to walk in the woods where I used to play as a child, and where the ashes of my parents and my dad’s parents are scattered (so I can stand by a tree – apparently talking to myself – and blubber…probably) and then, to have a hand pulled pint of beer in the Old Red Lion pub back in my home village of Grenoside….and invite all the kids, who I started school with 55 years ago, to have a pint with me and reminisce. The next day suitably hung over, I’d hop on a train and go under the channel tunnel to Paris, attend a reading at Shakespeare & Company book shop on the banks of the Seine…and buy a book (preferably a signed first edition by a favourite author). The next day I’d spend outside a typical Parisian café, under trees, in dappled sunshine (not likely in November but hey it’s my birthday, my fantasy), drinking good coffee, or sipping a full bodied French wine and reading my book. Then later perhaps, go on a literary walk around Paris guided by, Australian born writer and Francophile, John Baxter. The cat would sadly have to stay at home, but my wife is most welcome to come….

My Top 10 – Travel Books.

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I mentioned in an earlier post that I am a big fan of travel books. Travel guides, travelogues and books relating to TV travel shows.

This is my Top 10 list of travelogues currently on my bookshelves. All have been read and some are starting to get pretty old, but remain favourites.

My absolute favourite of all time…..and I’m going to cheat a little on this one. Is Bill Bryson’s “The Complete Notes” – It’s actually two books in one, comprising Notes from a Small Island (about travel in the UK) and Notes from a Big Country (about re-visiting the land of his birth – the USA, after 17 years of living in the UK). I simply love Bryson’s style of writing. He’ll give a half a dozen rather dry facts about a place and then pitch in a one-liner that reduces me to fits of giggles. He’s the sort of person who can get lost anywhere and wears the mantle of the “confused traveler” extremely well.  His travel books are always informative….and humorous ( amusing, funny, entertaining, comic, comical, chucklesome, witty, jocular, light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, wry, waggish, whimsical, playful – and other such synonyms). If you’ve never read Bryson – give him a go – you don’t know what you’re missing. BUT – word to the wise – stick with his travelogues, some of his other books, I feel, can be a little lacking.

I’m a huge fan of Michael Palin (former member of the Monty Python team) for his many TV travel series and accompanying travel books. Starting with “Around the World in 80 Days” – where he set off on a quest to replicate Phileas Fogg’s journey to travel right around the globe in only 80 days….not using planes. After that he went “Pole to Pole”  and “Full Circle”, before starting to specialize more in specific areas such as “Himalaya” and “Sahara”. The books of the series have all been worthy of space on my “Travel Bookcase”. Again, like Bryson, Palin delivers facts accompanied by wit. He writes well and is a really nice guy….coming from Sheffield (my place of birth) gains him extra points. The books are also well illustrated with beautiful photos – mostly taken by photographer Basil Pao. Actually Basil’s own book “Inside Sahara” is also well worth a look and has extra photos from Palin’s Sahara trip which were deemed worthy of their own book.

Next is a book given to me in 1986 when I backpacked coast to coast across the USA…and back again. Tina Winn who gave us a roof over our heads at Newport Beach, California, was the lady in question and she gave a book to me and a different one to my travel companion Chris. Mine was “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat-Moon, about a journey by van along the blue highways (back roads) that link up all the little towns and settlements across the USA. It was his curiousity to see “the Real America” that took him on the trip of a lifetime….where he meets and mostly brings out the best in people along the way. I don’t have the original copy given to me by Tina (I had to buy a new one) because I swapped it with Chris so I could read his book…..which comes in as my fourth pick.

John Steinbeck – “Travels with Charley” – subtitled “In Search of America”. At the age of sixty, John Steinbeck and his French Poodle “Charley” climbed in to a camper van and took off on a coast to coast and back again adventure. I have read some of Steinbecks novels, but this true story of his travels – giving not only details of the trip and what they saw and did, but also wry observations about what it is to be an American – I think is his best work. And having gone coast to coast and back myself I could relate to much of what’s in the book.

A purchase from a second hand book shop….Pete McCarthy’s hilarious “The Road To McCarthy” – should probably be higher on my list if I’m honest about it. This man is a very funny guy – or i should say WAS, as he died in 2004 after a struggle against cancer. The book takes Pete and us around the world in search of McCarthy – or to be more exact in search of quirky places around the world with odd links to Ireland, the Irish and the McCarthy name. It’s a follow up book to his highly successful “McCarthy’s Bar” – in which Pete McCarthy makes a simple rule – never pass a bar with your name on it. He was an incredibly talented writer and humorist and having only recently discovered his books I was devastated to learn that he’d died. Such a waste of talent – a sad loss……but great books.

Kevin McCloud’s “Grand Tour of Europe” – another book of a TV series (this one on the UK’s Channel 4). The Grand Tour was a rite of passage for the Nobles, minor nobility and upper class wealthy young men which began in the 17th and 18th century. These hedonists cut a swathe across europe, visiting all the fashionable great cities, ruins and architectural marvels…..and partaking in the delights offered by bath houses, bars and brothels along the way. It was an oportunity for these wealthy young men to educate themselves in the world of european art and literature…..and if they didn’t take precautions – to also contract syphilis. McCloud takes us along for the ride and shares snippets of knowledge with us – the audience and readership….some of it carnal – as we visit the culture and history of Europe.

Paul Theroux – “The GreatRailway Bazaar” is my next choice. Unfortunately I only have the Penguin paperback edition, I believe that there is also a large format hard cover book complete with accompanying photos…..quite magnificent photos I hasten to add…by Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. Having said that, Theroux’s text is extremely entertaining, amusing (in places) and informative. He takes us on a four month journey, on a series of trains from London, across Europe, the middle east and Asia, eloquently describing the people and places along the journey. It’s a well crafted book which as well as being a travelogue also discusses subjects such as poverty, ignorance, colonialism and (being an American writer) American Imperialism. It certainly inspires this reader to hop on board and “slow travel” across the continents.

Rolf Potts book “Vagabonding” is a book that I wished I had discovered years ago rather than more recently. It’s a “how to” guide to the art of long-term world travel. Most people, for some reason, see the idea of long-term travel to exotic out of the way lands as being either the thing of dreams, or as requiring oodles of money squirreled away in the bank. Potts shows us that neither of these are true. With common sense advice he walks us through the steps we need to take to make living the dream a reality. And it’s not rocket science!

Hap Cameron’s – “Hap Working the World” – is a book that show’s us just how far a simple thought can take us. In 2003 New Zealander Hap Cameron had an idea that he’d like to live and work on every continent before he turned thirty. Eight years later with all seven continents ticked off, he’s experienced more than most of us will in a lifetime  -including being locked in a jail cell in the USA and almost killed by gangsters in Africa. Of course it’s a “coming of age book” – a book that not only takes us on Hap’s journey of discovery of the seven continents, but also his journey of self discovery and of meeting the girl of his dreams. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and by the end I really did care what happened to Hap. It’s fun and it’s an adventure.

For my final choice – it’s more of a choice of writer rather than of a specific book. I’ve read a few of Christina Dodwell‘s books….starting with “An Explorer’s Handbook”. She is one impressive woman. I first came to know of her on a TV series called River Journeys where she tackled the white water of Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River….and allowed tribesmen to cut the diamond shaped pattern of the skin of the crocodile into her arm – to bring her good luck and protection. She puts the intrepid into Intrepid Explorer. She spent 3 years, traveling twenty thousand miles in Africa – by any means including horse, elephant and camel plus 7 weeks in a dug out canoe on the Congo river. Any of her books are a thrill to read. Maybe her first book “Travels with Fortune” about that African adventure would be the one to start with.

That complete’s my Top Ten. It was a difficult choice and I’ve tried to pick a cross section of the books that I hold dear. There were a few others that could easily have replaced others listed above…..like I said, it was a hard choice.

Just as a P.S. and because I feel bad about missing him off my list…..If you’re a Francophile, I recommend any of John Baxter’s books about Paris. Look him up on line.

You never know what you’ll find…

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Second hand shops (not second hand Book Shops) can be a treasure trove of old books. Second hand Book Store owners tend to know their stuff and price their books accordingly, where as general second hand shop keepers are not always as well versed in the value of old books that pass through their hands.

I have amassed books, as opposed to “collected” books in the past. I select books that I like the look of the cover or the review or subject matter or author and I tend to rarely throw any of them away…..even the bad ones.

That was until I read a book called “A Pound of Paper” – (subtitled Confessions of a Book Addict) by Australian author John Baxter. It chronicles his book entwined life. How he became a writer – in his teens…as a protest to poorly written Sci-Fi stories in a magazine – and how, via working in the book trade he became a collector of books…..initially by Graham Greene. His collection is now a vast library of first editions and author signed books – probably worth thousands of dollars.

His work took him from Australia to the UK and the USA, but he now lives with his French wife, in Paris, on Rue de l’Odeon – in the same building once occupied by Sylvia Beach – owner of the original Shakespeare & Company book store. The building is steeped in literary history, having been visited by Gloria Steine, Ernest Hemingway and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to name but a few of the famous literary figures to have graced its halls.

John has written biographies about famous movie stars and directors including Woody Allen and Robert de Niro, but these days tends to write books about the love of his life….the City of Paris and it’s literary history. Indeed John also conducts walking tours of his favourite literary haunts in Paris – the tours ending at his apartment building where guests are invited upstairs for lunch and can view his vast collection of books.

To get an idea of Johns depth of knowledge about Paris and the famous writers who have lived and worked there I suggest reading either of his books “The most beautiful walk in the World” or “Five Nights in Paris” – a book about Paris after dark. These are just two of John’s books about Paris…there are many more.

It’s only a few months ago that I read my first John Baxter book – “A pound of paper” – which I thought was a very well written, knowledgeable book about books, the book trade and book collecting. He’s very easy to read and his writing flows in such a way that before you know it you’ve finished the book….and are looking for his next one. I’ve since read three others and am eager for more. He’s a treat to read.

It is his passion for collecting books that made me look more carefully at the books that I buy…..and to look for bargain investments in second hand shops. Just this month I acquired – a 3 volume set of Finden’s Illustrations of Lord Byron’s Life & Works. Vol 1 and 2 printed in 1833 and vol 3 in 1834 – for the princely sum of NZ$15. On checking on AbeBooks.com the same books are currently selling for between US$250 and US$500. Although it is tempting, I won’t be selling the books, but will take my time in reading them and then who knows…they may be the first books in my “serious” book collection.

As I said, you never know what you’ll find in second hand shops. Happy hunting!