We have just moved house. I know I said I wouldn’t, ever again, but it’s like giving birth, one says that every time while the pain is fresh and then it begins to seem that although the process is a nuisance, the end result would be such an improvement, would make the lives of all concerned so much pleasanter, that it’s just mindless conservatism to stay put. Ah well, said one of the removal guys, they say we all move house eight times, which prompted me to count and realise that one of my purposes in life is apparently to counter the couples – our new neighbours, mostly – who’ve lived in the same house since 1963. Counting all my student houses as one, I’ve moved house 17 times in my 41 years. If you count them separately, it’s 23. Can you imagine, said my husband after talking to some of those lovely and sessile neighbours, living in one place for fifty years, and we looked around at our new kitchen which is very fine indeed, especially first thing in the morning when the sun’s on the garden, and reckoned we might just about have fifty years, maybe, or at least one of us might just about have fifty years if we make the rash assumption that healthcare will still be available in Britain in the second halves of our lives. Nope, we said, let’s not. We’re already talking about the next house, about how we’ll arrange the next move, which won’t be for a while, probably not until the kids have finished school which gives us eight years here which is twice as long as I’ve lived anywhere else.
Plainly, I like moving on, don’t much want to settle. It’s partly the same reason I tend to work quite fast: life is short, the world is wide, there’s a lot to learn and see and say and do and none of us knows how much time is left. (‘Second half’? Maybe, who knows.) But I have opposing tendencies too. I don’t like e-books and I read a lot, less than I used to when I didn’t have kids and a house and a full time job but still two or three bedside novels a week, plus whatever I’m reviewing, plus whatever I’m teaching the following week, plus research for whatever I’m writing which can mean another ten books in a week, easily, if it’s not a teaching week and I’m in a research phase. I use the university library, of course, and all teaching preparation is re-reading, but nonetheless books come into this house faster than most even before you allow for the other bibliophiles who live here. I also knit, which means both that visits to bookshops sometimes result in the purchase of books about Fair Isle patterns or Japanese lace as well as the latest literary fiction, and that I buy yarn considerably faster than I knit it. We have a family mantra, aimed mostly at the well-meant advice of the generation for whom it was the other way around: stuff is cheap and space is expensive. I repeat it to myself at knitting festivals (yes, of course there are knitting festivals, and they make much more sense than music festivals: I promise no-one at a knitting festival will try to sell you mud to put on your face or a mindfulness workshop under a tree), but I still buy too much yarn. Well, frankly I’m at the point where any yarn is too much.
We failed to go through all our stuff before we moved. Term-time, my new book taking shape, the busiest phase of my husband’s working year, school runs and work trips and an on-again, off-again property transaction that meant we didn’t really believe it was happening until it was almost too late. We did sift the books, lugging piles off to Oxfam, but found as we unpacked that we were handling a lot we’d never read again. Who bought this, we demanded of each other, and why? I read it as an undergrad, we said. I really loved it twenty years ago. Or, I hated that, it made me so angry, I can’t think why I’ve kept it so long. Or, oh, that, it was OK, I quite liked it, slow in the second half though. I used to want to keep all the books, to believe that my powers depended on them, that they were a kind of memory bank. Some of them are. I wouldn’t be without the version of the English canon that the Oxford English Faculty gave me: Chaucer and Langland, Shakespeare and Marlowe, Spenser and Milton, Donne and Marvell, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Arnold and Tennyson, the wild battalion of dead white male poets to whose rhythms I walk when comfort is scarce. Break, break, break/ On thy cold grey stones oh sea. The melancholy long withdrawing roar. Rolled round in Earth’s diurnal course/ With rocks and stones and trees. Where Alph the sacred river ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea. I hope they’ll be the last words I forget but meanwhile I need them on paper, at my back. (I always hear/ Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near.) I like my bashed old student editions, with my witless pencil notes in the margins – did I think my older self would go through with an eraser one day?
I wouldn’t like to face the world without Austen’s complete works on my shelf, or Charlotte Brontë’s, or George Eliot’s. (You can take Hardy. And Henry James.) I disagree with Virginia Woolf quite a lot but I still need her to be there. And TS Eliot, nostalgic old git. And Auden and definitely Derek Walcott, I like reading him alongside Donne. I’ve outgrown Plath, she could probably go to Oxfam now and anyway I’ve got her in my head (Love set you going like a fat gold watch), but I’m holding disloyally on to Ted Hughes; I don’t care, I find, now, if people were wrong as long as they could write.
Do you think, I said to my husband, that if we went on continually packing and unpacking the books we’d eventually lose all of them? No, he said, you’d get down to about five shelves and you’d stop, they’d be the ones you really do want.
I want, it turns out, the canon. I want the tradition I inherited, which is also, increasingly, the one I try to pass on my students. There are few women’s voices on this course, I say, let’s talk about why that is, and then I go ahead and give to them what I was given. Look, I say, a heteronormative discourse, isn’t it beautiful? There’s the homophobia: isn’t it a fine rhyme scheme, do you see what he did with the stressed syllables there? As my country accelerates into a world I recognise only from the darker pages of the history books, I find myself less and less interested in ideological forms of cultural criticism. I want the words we’ve had for centuries, the beautiful ones that tell some truth.