The sociologist on holiday
Les Back has some suggestions of which books not to take on vacation
A few years ago I took the ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao with my partner and children on route to the coast of northern Spain. Staying there overnight we visited the Guggenheim Museum of modern art. The curved steel structure looked like some vast exotic ship-like crab that had crawled up out of the sea. The shining building contained not a single straight line. At the time a retrospective of the modern artist Juan Munoz was showing. Munoz studied at Croydon Art College and spent many of his artistically formative years in London. He died in 2001 at the young age of 48. Credited with re-introducing human figures to modern sculpture, many of his works have a sociological quality concerned with listening, incommensurability, how the familiar remains a mystery. The exhibit was a “sociologist’s holiday”. My family left me to it, wandering for probably far too long through the astonishing collection of painting, sculptures, sound and video installations.
So taken with it, I returned the next day to watch once more a play that Munoz had written with John Berger called Will It Be A Likeness? My family took a bearing for the shops as I headed off towards the museum one last time. Armed with a huge bag of change I waited in line. When it was my turn I produced the jingling bag and asked the woman behind the desk to forgive me. She helped me count the money and as we got to the last pile of copper coins (the entrance fee was 12.50 euros), my eldest daughter came charging into the museum in floods of tears. “Dad come quick our car has been broken into.” We ran back to the car park. The rear windows were smashed and a bag - containing all my wife and my clothes – was missing.
Incandescent with rage my wife mentally ran her fingers through the wardrobe of clothes in the stolen bag, a swimsuit bought for the holiday, a multi-coloured skirt purchased several years before in Spain, her “special” blouse. She couldn’t comprehend why I seemed matter-of-fact about the theft. “I don’t understand you,” she said tearfully in exasperation. “You don’t seem to be bothered or upset.” The truth is I wasn’t really bothered by the larceny, even though we had to confront the prospect of surviving the next two weeks in the clothes we were standing up in. I tried to comfort my daughter – her art book, paints and crayons had also been taken. I told her that you have to try and keep vicious and violent things from touching you deeply. She couldn’t understand why I wasn’t angry either and those words were of little consolation.
After an hour a police officer dressed in plain clothes – a detective – arrived. He asked me to follow him to the station. Arriving there he invited me into an office where I tried to explain the incident in my pigeon Spanish. His English was predictably better. He told me that he’d visited Britain regularly. He had a relative who lived in “Royal Tunbridge Wells” and the aristocratic connection of the country town seemed important to him. I explained that I would need a report written in English for insurance purposes. He started to write but he struggled to find the right words. I offered to do it for him, I explained that I was an academic.
“Oh, so you write books, eh?”
I said I did
“Sure,” he said ushering me in front of the computer screen. I started to type with the detective interjecting enthusiastically.
“The being of the person who is stole... What is that?”
“The victim,” I replied.
“Ah si – the victeeem,” he repeated.
“The bag of the victeem,” he said as if pleased with his newfound command of English.
After about 30 minutes the report was written. It was actually a very pleasant experience of co-authorship. As I left the detective opened his palms and shrugged his shoulders.
“I am sooorry,” he said.
After what seemed like a long pause, he continued: “I hope your holiday will be better. Perhaps, you will make a book about this?”
“Perhaps,” I replied, as we shook hands.
The shattered glass cleaned out of the car, I returned to my family and found them outside the Guggenheim Museum tucking into some delicious ice-creams.
It wasn’t until a few days later that I realised that stowed away secretly in that stolen bag was... a notebook. It was almost completely full of scribbled ideas, references and intellectual “notes to self’. It was only then that I started to think about the value of what had been lost. I tried to remember what it contained, my stomach tightened as I calculated the full extent of the nauseating loss. The clothes hadn’t really mattered to me, it was easy to brush that off – but a beloved moleskin full of reflections written over a period of six months? What price on that?
If “the pen is the tongue of the mind” as Miguel de Cervantes commented, then the notebook is the mind’s ledger. The notebook contained a record of leads, a list of faithfully copied quotations, an ethnographic compendium of overheard conversations, answers to matters of fact, lists of bibliographic leads. The notebook is the fundamental tool of the trade – the mind’s imprint on paper. What had in fact been stolen was irreplaceable. It was thinking time, something that can be – at best – only partially recalled. I strained to remember but also mourned the loss of what I could not.
Thinking about it now, I often don’t go back to the notebooks once they are full. There is comfort in knowing that those preliminary thoughts are there though, if I ever needed. In the case of the stolen notebook, however, it was full of extended notes, information and even passages I planned to publish written out in long hand. A few days after our ordeal in Bilbao, and still bemoaning the loss of the pilfered notebook, my daughter said in answer to yet another my complaints about the theft: “The thing about notebooks, Dad... you can’t back them up, can you?” She’s right of course but you can leave them at home! Packing for the annual vacation now only novels make it into the luggage, no space for smuggled notebooks or things to do “if I just get a spare moment”.
This is an extract from Les Back’s Academic Diary, his unique web based interactive book