The Christmas I was 14, my grandmother gave me two slender volumes bound in Prussian blue goatskin. One was The Book of Common Prayer printed on India paper, my name in small gold letters on the cover. The other, printed with my initials, was completely blank inside. ‘It’s not for writing about boyfriends,’ she said, ‘it’s for conscience-wrestling.’
She called it a Blue Book – what the English call a commonplace book – and told me to write down quotations, poems and passages from writers that said something to me. Her aim was twofold: to tune my ear because she reckoned a good ear was ‘worth more than a bucket of silver dollars’, and to create a first-aid manual for ‘spiritual bumps’, those periods of doubt that she warned ‘breed like wild dogs’.
I was touched by my grandmother’s faith in me, but what I’d really wanted for Christmas was my own ivory princess phone. As my other ‘big’ present that year was a bottle of White Shoulders, a perfume so strong one sniff was like swallowing a Mickey Finn, I considered that Christmas a write-off.
All the same, from time to time, I would enter something in the Blue Book. The first entry was Emily Dickinson:If I can ease one life the aching, Or cool one pain, Or help one fainting robin Unto his nest again, I shall not live in vain. In fact, I was more interested in my own pain than easing the pain of others or helping robins. I preferred chanting in my Paul Robeson voice William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus: It matters not how strait the gate How charged with punishments the scrollI am the master of my fateI am the captain of my soul.
Over the years, I copied Edna St Vincent Millay’s Renasce, Alice Duer Miller’s The White Cliffs of Dover, nuggets from Pearl Buck, Helen Keller, Zelda Fitzgerald. On the title page, I copied a line from Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm: ‘Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless waited their turn to be milked.’ When my high-school crush on Will McLain went unrequited, I put sonnets under the heading fertilisante douleur, which I carefully translated ‘fertilising or life-giving sorrow’.
When I went away to university, I slipped the book into my trunk. But, like country wines, it didn’t travel well. Surrounded by brainy women who were reading Hegel and Yeats, I became embarrassed by the sentimental nature of my harvested wit and wisdom. The captain of her fate cringed at the thought of someone discovering the treasures she found worthy of copying. The Blue Book went back into the trunk, next toThe Book of Common Prayer.
The year before he died, my father came to spend Christmas with us here in England. He brought a suitcase full of presents from L. L. Bean, a gallon of bourbon that we are still drinking, and-amazing when you think of air travel now-a Daisy BB gun for Sam. On Christmas morning, I unwrapped a small present with a tag that said simply: ‘It’s good to remember who you were.’ Inside was my Blue Book.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d got a princess phone instead. Would I have a tuned ear? Would I have done the conscience-wrestling that pushed me to another country? Even now, in times of doubt, I turn to that first page: ‘Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless waited to be milked’-and feel fat with thanks.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on December 21/28, 2006.