At some point, Rick mentioned that he had enjoyed a particular blog of mine, which concerned a restaurant which we had both frequented many years ago. And digging it up from the archives on the train home, I noted that I had announced my plan to blog about Rick's last book, Lost, Stolen or Shredded, as soon as I had given it due consideration. By which I meant as soon as I had read it again, because one reads Rick firstly for entertainment and secondly for education and elucidation. Or I do.
The sub-title of Lost, Stolen or Shredded is Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature. This is not, I suspect, merely to attract the attention of internet search engines, but because each chapter is, in fact, a great story told by a great story-teller, with a wonderful turn of phrase.
Consider the opening sentences of the foreword: “He collected absences. For him they were more intense, vibrant and real than the presences that they shadowed.” I remember reading this to Jill on the train back from the launch party, and remarking that it was worthy of the subject, who is, of course, Franz Kafka, and the story concerns his visit to the Louvre to gaze not upon the Mona Lisa, but at the space that the painting had occupied before being stolen.
“He collected absences.” There is no way one is not going to read on after that. And so one does, learning about the stolen Mona Lisa, the destroyed Churchill portrait by Sutherland, the burned manuscripts of Byron and Larkin's diaries and Joyce's juvenilia, Et Tu, Healey, and the bejewelled copy of the Rubaiyat which went down on the Titanic. All are written as he talks - with eloquence and fluency and wry humour.
I doubt whether the transformation from Radio 4 talks to book required too much editing. In both forms, he tells stories, each of which addresses the general (the art or literature and its place in the world) and the particular (Rick's individual relationship with it).
Absence, caused by loss, theft, shredding or sinking, is the theme. Does the absence of a poem, a diary, a painting leave the world a worse place? Rick mentions his inability to look at the work of Eric Gill without "a shudder of remembrance" of Gill's activities with children. I share that revulsion. I also care little about the destruction of Larkin's diaries, for example, and think that everything else the man wrote is diminished by the fact that those diaries were once written and did exist, that they were part of the 'complete works' of Larkin and that one's response to a Larkin poem now is informed by the knowledge of those diaries and their contents.
Today of course those diaries could probably have been erased not by the ceremony of ritual burning, but by the simple click of the delete button. And Rick's current preoccupations include the life and death of the book itself. Like me, he reads primarily on the Kindle, buying the real thing only for writers and volumes of particular importance. (I bought an actual copy of the reissue of Keywords by Raymond Williams this morning, the first such purchase for some months, probably since Lost, Stolen or Shredded, come to think of it.)
But for Rick, as a publisher of beautiful books and a dealer in rare ones, the convenience of the Kindle medium must be also a source of regret. We do not own an iBook or a Kindle book; we merely have the right to read it. (Nor do we own an iTune: Bruce Willis is currently engaged in a law suit to enable him to leave his iTunes music to his children.)
This is what we have lost, or had stolen from us. Our sense of direct, proprietary involvement with our books and our music. Our ownership, on a personal level, with both the artefact and the intellectual content.
I know this is not on the same scale as the loss of the library in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, another of Rick's stories.
But is for me. As well as my missing first edition of Keywords, inscribed to me by Raymond Williams, I discovered yesterday that my cassettes of Dylan and the Dead rehearsing in San Rafael in 1987 are also gone, baby, gone.
To paraphrase Stalin, which I do seldom, the loss of thousands of scrolls in Herculaneum is a statistic. The loss of that book, and those tapes, is a tragedy.
Today from the everysmith vaults: Miles Davis, opening for the Dead at Fillmore West in April 1970. Here's Phil Lesh in his autobiography, Searching for the Sound, “As I listened, leaning over the amps with my jaw hanging agape, trying to comprehend the forces that Miles was unleashing on stage, I was thinking, 'What's the use. How can we possibly play after this? We should just go home and try to digest this unbelievable shit.”