I’m writing this by the pool in Greece. It’s not a pool I own, you understand (though give it a couple of years and we might all be able to afford one). No, it’s the pool in the resort to which my partner and I have repaired for a week, safe in the knowledge that our son can be deposited in the excellent childcare facilities every afternoon, trapping him until such time as we deign to return and collect him. (You have to give a pre-arranged password to prove you’re the parent, by the way – one couple chose the place in which said child had been conceived. I con you not.) Afternoons by the pool are meant for reading, and in the presence of the sun and the absence of the son I’ve been motoring. Young Adolf by Beryl Bainbridge fell within hours. David Frost’s account of his Richard Nixon interviews fared little better, and included confirmation that the ex-President’s small talk before one taping session really did include the line ‘did you do any fornicating this weekend?’ Mark Miodownik’s Stuff Matters, meanwhile, an examination of why different materials behave the way they do, is now my tip in the soon-to-be-published stakes. How can you not warm to a book which reveals that the first stapler was handmade for Louis XV of France, each staple being inscribed with the King’s insignia?
But also I’ve been saddened to realise that the Kindle and the iPad have pretty well killed off that favourite holiday poolside game, Seeing Whether People’s Reading Matter Conforms With What You’d Expect After Chatting To Them At Dinner Last Night. E-readers, of course, present you with nothing more than a plain plastic frontage, or rather backage. You only know that someone is reading, not what they’re reading. This has been obvious in train carriages for a long time, but you don’t know the other people in a train carriage. In a holiday resort you do get to know them, or at least pick up tantalising glimpses. Seeing how their choice of book corresponded with these glimpses was always fun. Would the City Boy be an Andy McNab merchant? Or would he surprise you with a slice of Updike? Would the demure older lady stick to Jane Austen for the 50th year running, or was there a Stieg Larsson in the handbag? Those days, however, are drawing to a close. Soon we’ll all be cocooned in literary anonymity. It’s a technological knife that will cut both ways – we’ll be free to read trash, but also unable to parade the intellectual stuff. No more trying to impress the woman on the other side of the pool with your carefully-angled copy of A Brief History of Time.
There are still a few dead-tree operators around, though. This week I’ve spotted a George R.R. Martin (middle manager who hates being a middle manager – perfect fit) and a Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet (hip young G.P. – ditto). The big surprise has been the BBC4-conversant woman with her own business: half an hour ago I noticed her nose-deep in a Marian Keyes. I would let you know whether the woman reading The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst conformed to expectations, but I haven’t spoken to her at dinner yet. And striking up a first conversation at the poolside is out of the question; she’s wearing a bikini, and in this situation no male, be he 14 or 41, can ever entirely rid his mind of the thought that he is, in effect, talking to a woman in her bra and pants. This is simultaneously the best and the worst thing about bikinis.
I should, in fairness, add that the week has also reminded me of the futility of trying to judge people by their holiday reading. There are plenty of people whose jobs entail copious and demanding reading, so when they hit the sun lounger the last thing they want is Serious Literature. They simply want a break. The perfect example is lying on the next sun lounger along: she’s my partner. Her work as a producer of book readings for Radio 4 means she spends an awful lot of her time at the intellectual end of publishing’s cliff-face. At the moment, however, her chosen reading material is a copy of Heat magazine whose cover stories include ‘Why Posh Wants Gwyneth’s Legs’.
More muscle, apparently.