Yesterday evening I tried out a new book club. One of the volunteers I work with in the store runs a group and has been encouraging me to join. The book choice was very tempting. The group reads around a theme, four books in total, and the theme at the moment is collectors. The previous book was The Hare With Amber Eyes and this time it was The Conjuror’s Bird by Martin Davies.
I’ve always been wary of joining reading groups because I figure no one really wants a lecturer in literature at them, much as I wished I’d never agreed to cook dinner for one of Mister Litlove’s colleagues, when I found out his wife was a professional chef. But if I kept quiet, nobody need ever know what my job had once been. And on the whole I carried it off okay. When one of the members started complaining about the way that some people read far too much into books, I promise there was not a peep out of me. Alas, I may have ruined this self-restraint later in the evening, when I suddenly found myself in the middle of an impassioned speech about George Sand. I’m not even quite sure how it happened, you know, these things just sneak up on a person. But I thought oops! and applied the internal brakes. Lord it’s hard pretending to be normal, when you’ve been an academic for many years.
The book was charming, and we all agreed we’d enjoyed reading it. The Conjuror’s Bird is a dual narrative, one part set in the present day, as John Fitzgerald (known as Fitz) tries to hunt down The Mysterious Bird of Ulieta, a unique specimen of an extinct bird that had been given to the great 18th century naturalist, Joseph Banks, and is now a curiosity worth a great deal of money to the right collector. The other half of the narrative takes place between 1768 and 1774, gradually unfolding the history of what happened to Banks, the bird and the equally mysterious woman in his life. This is a beautifully organised time shift narrative, with two strong storylines. In the present day, Fitz is trying to shake off the weight of the past, a broken attachment to the beautiful Gabby, who is also on the hunt for the bird, and the shadow of his grandfather, whose search for a rare African peacock ended in disaster. In the historical narrative the naturalist Banks meets and befriends a young woman in his home village with a prodigious talent for draughtsmanship. Her father has caused much scandal, though, and she is condemned to the margins of society. Banks’ passion for her will nearly ruin his career. Anyway, good book, not one of the standout greats, but well worth a read.
So, I left the party about ten o’clock, tired because I don’t do much socialising in the evening, but feeling the evening had gone okay. The group had met in a town called St. Ives, about twenty minutes west of Cambridge on the A14. This is a horrendous road. Just in the past couple of days we’ve had two big crashes on it; a lorry veered across the central reservation, taking out the caravan on the back of a car (which was lucky) and then there’d been a multiple pile-up. There aren’t very many main roads out our way – a big network of tiny ones joining up a scattering of villages, and then the A14, which is ridiculously busy in consequence. It was late, though, and the roads were quiet. As I came to the slip road, I noticed it was closed. This was a nuisance as there was no alternative at that point but to rejoin the A14 headed west, travelling in completely the opposite direction to my home. So, I came off at the next junction, thinking to rejoin the other carriageway, but once again it was closed. I was forced back onto the main road. And at the next junction, same story.
By now I was beginning to wake up from the state of autopilot I’d been driving in and was wondering what the hell was going on. I was at Huntingdon, the next big town along and significantly further from my house, still headed in completely the wrong direction. I stopped at a garage to ask for directions, and the young man there suggested I take a road south, which would eventually lead me back to Cambridge. At the time this seemed crazy, as I live north of Cambridge and would effectively be driving around three sides of a big square. Surely the next slip road would be open? Ignoring the guy’s advice, I rejoined the A14. Then looming up ahead was an information screen – it turned out that it wasn’t just the slip roads that were closed. A long section of the motorway east had been sealed off for the night. Goodness knows why or what for; I never saw any construction workers on it. But it meant that there was no way I was headed east on the A14 that night. I could have burst into tears out of sheer frustration. It was late, I was tired, and I was having visions of spending the night at the wheel, stuck in a Kafkaesque nightmare in which I could not get my car pointed in the right direction.
It seemed ludicrous to have spent the evening discussing explorers circumnavigating the globe and penetrating the Belgian Congo, and then not be able to find my own way home. I pulled off the main road at Brampton, a suburb of Huntingdon, and found that by great good fortune I had a map in the car. My spirits rose: there was a way to get north of the A14 and then head west. It’s funny, I have a mind that retains the names of characters I read in books years ago, but I have a lot of trouble fixing journeys in it. I figured I could check the map as I went along, only this didn’t turn out to be possible. Driving strange roads in the dark, I noticed stopping places once I’d gone past them. But I finally made my way back to St Ives, an hour after I’d left it. Then I launched myself onto the network of small roads, just looking out for names I recognised. About half eleven I entered my own village, with a sort of ‘Darling, I’ll never leave you again’ feeling. And then oh miracles, my own home, my beloved men folk! I even felt fond of the cat (who’d been sick on a pile of my French novels earlier in the week, putting him well out of my graces). I fell on their collective necks with exquisite relief.
‘This is not a good way to persuade you to go out more,’ mused Mister Litlove.
And indeed, part of me thinks E M Forster had it quite right when he decided never to set foot beyond the precincts of Cambridge. Reading about explorers was fine; having to be intrepid late at night, not so great.