A right hotch-potch, this: a former Spice Girl, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a titled historian, an academic, an experimental novelist and an Irish poet and playwright looking back on his time in Borstal. These are the people behind the books that have helped me through troubling times. I offer this list up to you in the spirit of a mixtape, in the hope that if you pass over one item, another may catch your eye and provide some much-needed distraction or solace when you are suffering from insomnia, anxiety or helpless waiting.
Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan I single this out for the catchy motto: ‘**** the begrudgers’. I find this sentiment helpful.
The Faber Book of Reportage, edited by John Carey This is one of my most treasured books. It’s a collection of eyewitness accounts of different moments in history. Chiefly, what comes across is how very uncomfortable it is being there when history is made… ‘May you live in uninteresting times…’ Reading it is a very good exercise in perspective. When I’ve been in a fix, or thought I was, I’ve sometimes found it helpful to be reminded how very much worse things could be.
The Assassin’s Cloak, a collection of diary extracts put together by Alan Taylor and Irene Taylor, is fascinating and restorative in the same way.
Demon Barber and Mostly Men by Lynn Barber You’ll go a long way to find better character studies than these volumes of Lynn Barber’s interviews. Excellent for late-night dipping.
The Weaker Vessel: Woman’s Lot in Seventeenth-Century England by Antonia Fraser I read this when I was in the late stages of pregnancy with my second child, sleeping badly and not much looking forward to giving birth. Worked in the same sort of way as The Faber Book of Reportage, in that it made me think, well – at least I’m here and now, rather than back then. Oh – and you know it’s sometimes implied that women back then, at a time of high infant mortality, were used to the idea of babies or children dying, and somehow became less attached to them, or were more hardened to the idea of losing them than we might be, or less distressed? Not so, according to this book. (Of course not. Why would they have been so different? We’re always closer to the past than we think.)
Remainder by Tom McCarthy I read this when I was staying in hospital with my son, who was three at the time, and suffering from a mysterious and virulent infection (turned out to be a ruptured appendix). It is a strange and strangely compelling book, and helped me to keep from going out of my mind with worry.
Learning to Fly by Victoria Beckham I read this alone in the waiting-room, late in the evening, while my son was having his appendix removed. His was the last surgery of the day and it took a long time. Posh Spice kept the time passing until I was told the operation was all done and had gone well, and I could go in and see him. Sometimes, when the dark is really closing in, you don’t feel like reading at all, and all you want is comfort. That’s when it’s time to watch old episodes of Friends…
Anyway, so there it is, a bit of an odd list! I’d love to know what other people like to read when they’re anxious and in need of distraction.