I bet you remember your first fountain pen. Mine was a Conway Stewart with marbled barrel, I had it for starting Big School and I used to polish it. That trusty pen lasted until A-levels finally broke its back and after that I slipped down the primrose ballpoint path to slovenly writing. I never used a typewriter — too noisy, so I hand-wrote my books until the almost-silent laptop seduced me down another slithery slope. But I still hand-write when I need to take my time — books can be divided, like Americans, into fast ones and slow ones. Recently, a friend told me he had gone back to a fountain pen and was finding it a joy when writing up his notes — he is not a novelist but an engineer, and appreciates good tools. I tried his pen and it felt like grasping the hand of a friend I hadn’t met for years. I bought one and, via the miracle that is online ordering, it came the next morning. My new pen is perfectly delightful, cost less than 20 quid, is fluorescent yellow for never-losing on a chaotic desk and generally the coolest pen on the block. It is a Lamy Safari and I commend it to you.
I WAS REPRIMANDED recently over that miraculous online ordering, and as I have recently moved a mile from a small market town which has everyone’s idea of the old-fashioned high street, I decided to put it to the test. It serves us well for hairdresser, optician, computer supplies, pharmacist, newsagent and fresh fish, and has a plethora of gift shops supplying stuff nobody needs but everyone wants. My dull list read ‘Cosmetic sponge. Arch-support insoles. Disposable nappies, size 4’ (for a visiting grandchild). Our bricks-and-mortar shops yielded none of the above. Cosmetic sponges didn’t exist; insoles ‘only men’s’; nappies, ‘out of that size’ — though a friend accomplished all her list, which read ‘China bell-pull’. My stuff, bought online, arrived next morning with free delivery. I rest my case.
MYFANWY PIPER, that wise woman, used to say, ‘There’s too much talk.’ Now it has extended sideways to ‘There’s too much writing’, the problem being that people feel they have to read it all. ‘I’ve started a blog’ is news to make the heart sink. I need my later years to read the best — novels, biographies, scholarship in a hundred subjects I want to learn about, poetry, letters, wit. I’ve cut out newspapers other than the local one, plus a canter through the hatches, matches and despatches and where the Queen went yesterday. No blogs, websites, gossip columns or online mags. But reading and rereading the best is endlessly stimulating to the mind and enriching to the spirit. Two new novels have been both — John le Carré’s latest spy story, A Delicate Truth, and Lionel Shriver’s intelligent, morally challenging novel Big Brother. I abandon new books often now, mainly because they are badly written. Good prose nourishes like good food and nowadays is harder to find. My recent rereading has been of Jean Rhys. If you want prose so good it makes a writer weep, read hers.
THE QUEST for spiritual refreshment becomes more earnest in later life. Silence does it best for me, and the natural world. The seascapes and marshes, curlews and avocets of north Norfolk, the returning swifts, joyously tumbling above one’s head, make the heart leap. Music so familiar it runs through my veins — Howells’s church anthems, Bach cantatas, beloved Britten, a random tune from a familiar musical of one’s youth — it’s all stored up for some future bleak midwinter. To add new fuel, I plan to visit every church in Norfolk (Anglican and over 250 years old). I am a Christian but you surely need not be to find spiritual and other enrichment this way.
‘YOU ARE now registered with this practice and your GP is Dr Smith.’
‘I’d like to see Dr Smith, please.’
‘He hasn’t any appointments for a fortnight.’
‘That’s fine, no rush.’
‘We don’t book more than a fortnight ahead. You can see any doctor.’
Fine in extremis, but with a complex immune system condition and specialist input, I need a relationship with one. That is now both impossible and deemed unnecessary. ‘All the doctors have your notes on screen.’
‘So who does my specialist write to ?’
‘Your own GP. Dr Smith.’
‘Who I will probably never see.’
‘You could try but he’s usually fully booked and we don’t make…’
So who are these people who get to see him? They come in on a Monday morning and queue to grab one of the newly released appointments. I tried that. The queue snaked round the block and back, and of course when I got to the counter, you’ve guessed it, the appointments had all gone. Desperately, I thought of paying to see my GP.
‘I’m sorry, Dr Smith doesn’t take private patients.’
So I guess I’ll never have the pleasure of his acquaintance.