Reading in bed with Michael Romer

November 19, 2010

The best books to read in bed are those that you can put down quickly when your eyelids refuse to stay open. I can only read Denise Mina or Andrew Greig on holiday because it is alwaysso hard to stop. Episodic works are safer. Armchair travelling has its attractions but bedtime travelling is even better.

Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson has given me enormous pleasure, particularly since their horseback travels from August to November in 1773 take place in such atrocious weather. Boswell brightened my adolescence when I discovered the outrageous passages in his 1762-1763 London Journal, a copy of which appeared so innocently in a family bookcase. Boswell is the ideal tour manager to arrange Johnson’s gigs. It is fascinating to see how the intrepid pair take Highland chiefs to task for abandoning old clan customs.

Fictional discomfort works as well. I have been reading Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Catriona in which the London government of 1751 has no such admiration for Highland ways. Ian Nimmo’s Walking with Murder chronicles his lifetime’s expeditions to walk out the details of David Balfour and Alan Breck’s breathless flight through Scotland. It is wonderful to read in bed how Nimmo does not take a tent on his first expedition but sleeps in the open under stars or rain.

Malcolm Lowry’s collected poems are by my bedside. He has fine lines like: ‘The lighthouse invites the storm and lights it.’ But these are diamonds in the mire. The good images in his poems do much better when they end up in his wonderful prose. I have been rereading his interlinked story collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. The last of these stories brought me to love Lowry after undergraduate irritation with the protagonist of ‘Under the Volcano’ wasting himself on tequila when the world is full of untasted wines. ‘The Forest Path to the Spring’ is a lyrical celebration of the years spent with his second wife in a shack on the shore on the north side of the Vancouver in let. I saw the site of the shack in July during the conference to mark the centenary of Lowry’s birth. My conference contribution was to describe his influence on two films of Orcadian Margaret Tait. Her three beautifully produced volumes of poems are very special to me and I always keep one of them in the leaning tower beside my bed. She is sometimes witty and jaunty, sometimes emotionally intense. I have never been able to read aloud the last few lines of her lament for Allison, a sister-in-law who died young and unexpectedly. I wish she had written more.

Lovely Michael Romer is the owner of wine merchants Peter Green & Co of Marchmont, suppliers of alcoholic beverages to many Scottish Poetry Library events. This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader, issue 6.

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