Bear with me. It will get easier.
There is an exquisitely complex theory about ecosystems, of the sort that I suspect I only read up on as it made me look a bit smarter, called the Competitive Exclusion Principle. It was arrived at by some Russian bloke about 100 years ago, and the gist of it is that no two species competing for the same resources can exist in equilibrium for long, and that one must always die or adapt. Pausing briefly to point out that he was writing about paramecia at the time, it kind of applies to us in that nothing in nature survives prolonged contact with us if we don’t find a profitable use for it.
Recently, this has happened to my book collection, which is growing at the alarming rate of around 100 a year, every year, and is not so gradually taking over my office like the green slime in that Dr Seuss book. I woke this morning to the shattering realisation that I was going to get rid of 200 of them to the various charity shops in Midhurst, today and no exceptions. Attention Deficit does that to a man: we may be unbelievably annoying to live with but, blimey, we get on with stuff when we have a mind to.
In the past, I have given away about 30 books a year, which has allowed me to avoid making any of those genuinely hard decisions, like giving away signed copies or whole collections. That went out the window this morning, from the start point that I would keep only a) books on natural history, b) books on travel, c) Tintin and Asterix, and d) books written by friends or of huge emotional impact (eg Winnie the Pooh). This meant the wholesale disposal of a collection of political books that had taken 30 years to bring together, aside from a little Penguin Communist Manifesto which I bought whilst at Eton to create the illusion of being right on and left wing, which I kept. It entailed binning most of the poetry books, (on the not unreasonable basis that I hadn’t read a poem in a decade), other than the magnificently old and offensive Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes that my granny gave me, possibly to annoy my parents. Then it meant chucking out all the food books that I have amassed, aside from Michael Pollan’s Food Rules (which is that good) and AA Gill’s collection of restaurant reviews (which is that rude).
The rule I set myself was that the bookshelves in my office had to end the session containing only books sitting upright on the shelves in the prescribed fashion; none of this loafing around horizontally, or stuffed down the back of the shelf. The problem I kept hitting was that I would start to read the particular book I was taking to the boxes in the hall and would keep finding something to love in it: Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (so I ended up keeping the entire set), Christopher Hitchens’ unbelievably disagreeable Hitch 22, and Bernard Levin’s The Pendulum Years which single handedly persuaded me to do A’ Level politics back in 1975. On it went. Gradually the 200 became 190, became 150 became 120. Which, amazingly, is where it stayed.
Just before I left, I found a couple of spare copies of the first book I ever got published (Not out First Ball), which I had written with my friend Richard Perkins on the subject of our tragic cricket team . I happen to coping with the demand of this particular volume of brilliance, so i decided to take that along to the shops as well.
‘I’ve brought you some books,’ I said cheerfully, as I manhandled a huge and overflowing box of them into the first of the Midhurst charity shops.
‘Over there, please’ said the lady.
‘Oh look!’ I said, trying to look genuinely surprised. ‘I’ve even brought one that I wrote myself. Isn’t that nice.
Her reaction indicated that she didn’t agree.
‘You did that, did you?’ she asked. I explained that great writers didn’t ‘do’ books so much as ‘write’ them, but yes I did.
But she was miles ahead of me. She saw through it immediately for the shameless bit of faux-modest self-promotion that it really was, and she was having none of it. ‘It’s not going to sit in my window advertising his career,’ she said to herself silently, and then handed it back to me.
‘We don’t really sell many sports books,’ she said. ‘You might as well keep it.’
And that was that. 120 books disposed of, and the one that I had most wanted someone to love, back in my bookcase lying on its side above Laurens van der Post.
PS Don’t get excited. The picture is from somewhere else, not me