Nothing Pure

Robin Ince's Bibliomaniac Tour Diary

I am always shocked when I arrive at Great Malvern that so few of its inhabitants know of Penda’s Fen – the classic TV play about coming of age in a mystically tinged, 1970s England, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clark.

It is a story packed with so many ideas’ manifesto that is inhabited by ghosts, a portrait of England that is as relevant today as it was then. The National Front may have brushed their hair, put on a nicer suit and entered Westminster, but the battle between an England shrivelled by bigotry versus one whose arms are wide open to all manner of possibilities is still being fought. (You can listen to our episode of An Uncanny Hour on Penda’s Fen here).

Walking out of Great Malvern and seeing the town and the hill rises out of it always fills me with joy, a near transcendent delight. I can think of few other places that cast such a spell on me.

I feel as if I am walking into a quiet fiction filled with near mystic possibilities. 

I walk up the silent streets, on my way to pay my respects to Annie Darwin’s grave. 

I pop into the Oxfam and find a biography of James Baldwin, Painter of Signs (which I think I have at home but will pass on if so) , The Secret History of Sex, the great film critic Dilys Powell’s book on Greece (not Grease) and Young Mungo.

I fear Young Mungo. I was a great admirer of Shuggie Bain, but I am told that there is greater sadness in Young Mungo and I am not always ready to have my heart broken by art. 

The Secret History of Sex deals with sex in the first half of the twentieth century based on many interviews. It is also a frequently heartbreaking tale of women placed in insane asylums for having children out of wedlock and orgasm free married lives. 

The man behind the counter is proud and friendly in his Radio Caroline sweatshirt. He also works at the tourist information centre so is able to remind me where Annie Darwin’s grave is. 

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The grave is simple, beyond her name and the dates of her live, it says only “ A dear and good child”. One of the most influential books I have read is Annie’s Box by Randal Keynes, a descendent of Charles Darwin. It was inspired by his discovery of the box that Darwin kept containing memories of his beloved daughter. It is great primer to Darwin generally and where I first stumbled on the phrase of his I repeat frequently. While dwelling on the nature that confronted and surrounded him in a rainforest, he said that his mind experienced “a chaos of delight”. It also contains many beautiful letters from Charles to his wife Emma. While he attended to Annie as she received the water cure of Malvern, in the hope it might prolong her life, Emma remained in Kent, looking after the other children. The letters are sweet and tender and heartbreaking. Love pours from the pages.

After paying my respects, I continue up the hill, but glance downwards and spot a “Books” sign in a side street. It is a Books for Amnesty and I cannot resist. I still have one arm free for carrying anything necessary and, of course, there are necessary things.

The seal is broken in the “interesting” section. There is a 1958 Maudsley Monograph on Attempted Suicide – Its Social Significance and Effects. Suicide may be playing a small part in the book I am working on. Near-by was the Thinker’s Library edition of The Origin of Species. I have a few editions, but I love Thinker’s Library, Thinker’s Library was a series of books designed to make great works easily accessible for everyone, a memory of workers’ libraries and a reminder of the autodidact drive. A little further along the shelf was God Remained Outside, Genevieve de Gaulle Anthonioz’s recollections of incarceration in Ravensbruck. I will read it on Holocaust Memorial Day. I have read Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, but can’t remember if I have a hard copy, so I add it to my hand, knowing that I will happily pass it on to someone else. I finished my browse, or so I thought, with one book from the 50 pence section The World The Flesh Myself – “The true, intimate, brutally frank confessions of a many sided character”.

I stand alone at the counter for long enough to glance into the window and realise that I need Foucault’s The Care of the Self and a book about consumerism and globalisation.

Now it is done.

No, it is not.

As the books are totted up, I spy a book of a Hayward Gallery exhibition, Panamarenko.

“One of the most original and visionary artists of the post war period, Panamarenko is little known in this country; so it is with very great pleasure and a keen sense of anticipation that we bring to our public the first major British showing of his work.”

His work explores flight, energy and the force of gravity.

Now, I am truly done.

I walk the final few steps to the Book Co-Op to receive my instructions, then walk back down the hill to Caffe Nero, all the independent tea rooms closed.

I start reading my newly purchased James Baldwin book. I am pleased that the author who came to know Baldwin in later years speaks so very fondly of their first meeting. Baldwin comes across just as I hoped, While I smile at the thought of him, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is propelled from the speaker above me.

It is another moment approaching transcendence.

I purchase oatcakes and tomatoes for my post show, hotel meal, then walk the one and half miles to St Peter’s Church, tonight’s venue. Heavily ladened, this is why Brian Cox needs to belong to a gym and I merely need to love my life to complete those exercise circles.

I stride around the church, hurling out half stories before my mind makes another hasty connection and I find myself racing around another tangent.

There are plenty of questions, including one asking me to enlighten a reader on an incident involving Dostoevsky and the Bishop of Leeds.

Back at the Premier Inn, I sit in the foyer with a large glass of wine and ponder a half drunk commentary on Question Time, but decide reading more about James Baldwin is time better spent.

Robin Ince is a multi-award winning comedian, writer and broadcaster.  As well as spending decades as one the UK’s most respected stand-ups, Robin is perhaps best known for co-hosting The Infinite Monkey Cage radio show with Prof Brian Cox.  For his work on projects like Cosmic Shambles he was made an Honorary Doctor of Science by Royal Holloway, University of London. His latest books are The Importance of Being Interested and Bibliomaniac.

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