I was in the West End recently with elder son Jake and wanted, for reasons too woven to explain, to verify the distance of the Sun from the Earth. I could have asked Siri this most simple of questions but as he is as dim as a box of squirrels I couldn’t be arsed. Besides when the need arose we were standing outside a secondhand bookshop and I thought, in a flash of intuitive brilliance, that we might find the answer inside, the old way, it would certainly be quicker than waiting for Siri to get back from California. It would also give me the chance to make a point, that books still have a purpose, albeit a rather difficult one to explain to a fourteen year old boy with a relentless 4G Android phone.
The bookshop was extraordinary, unchanged in God knows how many years, with dust like stars and shelves floor to ceiling, all bowing under the weight of knowledge. After perusing unsuccessfully through wilfully obscure titles the arsenic painted beauty behind the counter told me that what I wanted would be in the basement, in the unloved rooms. So surrendering our bags as a defence against optimistic theft we descended in search of understanding and having passed through various vaulted tombs stacked with tomes I discovered a near complete Encyclopedia Britannica circa 1957. Figuring the Sun would still be in much the same place even after 60 years I removed volume 21 and carried it beneath a circular skylight, a tube train rumbling beneath my feet. I found the relevant page, my finger pausing upon the pertinent line and turned triumphantly to Jake to improve him with the answer.
‘Ninety two point nine six million miles.’ He said looking up from his phone.
‘Nearly.’ I replied.
Ninety three million miles.
I steal a glimpse of the sun,
contemplate its distant troops
as bathed in glory hallowed
I enter the dusky reading room,
vision jumping through fiery hoops
held aloft by horizons narrowed.
Found within the bookshop gloom,
down the barrel of a pun
I scan the colourful lies,
see nothing but all of them,
a pegged card on silver spokes
titles tick-ticking across my eyes.
Appealing to alabaster Gothic purity,
black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm,
batting lashes and attendant jokes,
I am directed down in upturned fear
notice drawn to a petty sign
IN THE INTERESTS OF SECURITY
PLEASE LEAVE YOUR BAG HERE.
This I begrudgingly do,
with split infinitive and split hairs,
base mettle tarnished,
to paddle hollow shallow stairs,
my cascading eye line
descending in peek-a-boo.
Sinister banister posts loom,
bottom shelf to ankle stout,
boards slap-dash varnished,
pulling dusty glossy zoom
before the shop winks out.
I sink below the floor
into the red brick catacombs
of thoughts long gone rotten.
Lost, abducted, banished,
piles of lifeless pages
laid out in bleeding finery,
the 50p rooms,
corpus of the literary vanished.
I pass a sneezing minotaur
seizing the bodies of the forgotten,
flicking through the wealth of ages,
tossing stories on unlit pyres,
the pitiless perfection of binary
fuelling the mythical fires.
The unbound lie in tangles,
to make my skin tingle,
the inchoate skein angles,
as classic and pulp mingle.
Deeper my righteous prurience delves,
past despairing overlooked hardback deference,
to a dim lit chamber of makeshift shelves,
supported by blocks of frowned upon reference.
Proud but weary encyclopedia,
often borrowed but never lent,
rub shoulders with lesser swotted media,
in the faded remnants of their raiment.
And within these speckled ranks so serried,
the same flesh, blood and gristle,
I find a piece of Britannica buried,
SORD to TEXAS 21 beneath a golden thistle.
Chaste fingers run up its spine
and touch its collar frayed,
a pale neck at once revealed
but any reticence is mine.
It freely opens, lets slip a date of birth,
through autumnal leaves I wade,
along bleary path and gloaming field,
to learn how far the Sun is from the Earth.
I move for better light to stand beneath
a slanting street set circus grill,
which hangs late light upon me in a wreath
and bids my trembling hands be still.
As the saffron vale begins to shine,
under my feet the known vibration,
rushing hour on the northern line,
makes dancing figures of my learning.
Caught between the breath of heaven
and the very bowel of damnation,
the source of my question
illuminates the answer while
uplit faces pass below in single file,
hearts and minds open to suggestion
and these walls cry out with yearning.