Light Reading

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When my old friend the artist John Nash died I inherited his books. I imagined him reading them by lamplight, just as I read when I was a boy, the twin wicks faintly waving inside the Swan glass chimney. There they all were, those handsome runs of pocket-size volumes which preceded the 1930s Penguins and the subsequent paperbacks. Some were small-pack books and had gone to the Western Front. Some were hiking books and had gone up mountains. Some were still a bit painty, having gone on landscape expeditions. All showed signs of having had a life far from that in the studio bookcase. All spoke of belonging to a man who, when young, had been a convert to the Open Road.

The creed of the Open Road had been written by George Borrow:

There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?
(Lavengro, Chapter 25)

Jack Kerouac would say something similar. As Passchendaele approached, John Nash returned his beloved Everyman edition of Borrow to his sweetheart, along with the letters she had sent him, believing that he would not see her or them again.

So here they were, the very same volumes he’d carried with him. I read in their curly endpapers the great promise which good books make. ‘Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side.’ When last read, their owner thought that he would never see his native Buckinghamshire again, either. But a gypsy boy who had been called up from the same county comforted him. They would both find life sweet once more in the Chilterns.

When I knew John Nash in his middle age he walked nowhere, but the wind from the heath would whip into his little car and blow the cigarette smoke about, and the easel would rattle in the boot, and life was indeed very sweet. Green-back Penguins breathing murder slid about under the seat. Now in what had been his studio I began to put his Everymans in order.

In 1904 Joseph Dent and his son Hugh decided on nothing less than publishing a library of one thousand of the best authors at a price the ordinary reader could afford – a

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About the contributor

Ronald Blythe is a novelist, essayist and historian whose works include The Age of Illusion, Akenfield, The View in Winter, The Assassin and The Wormingford Trilogy. He delights in the physical nature of books, their paper, their odour, their signs of having travelled, been handled, treasured, possessed.

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