Saturday, January 11, 2020

Dick Francis and the Virtue of Temperance

I’m ready for the next units of my degree course. One of them is on poetry so there’s mostly no worry on that score. Hopefully I get to meet poets new to me and to experiment with poetry forms. The other unit is titled “Reading for Writing”. Yes, I get to read books without the guilt factor creeping in and informing me about the ironing pile or the washing up. The unit assignment on this one is choosing an author and identifying writing style, vocabulary choices, common themes and such in their books. The end produce is a unit of work to teach others what you have learned. I can churn out units of work no problem, with pictures and questions and spaces to write answers. I can even produce and interactive powerpoint to accompany my unit. Choosing a author? Not so easy.

Decades ago I discovered Dick Francis books. He sets his stories in the world of horse racing. I suppose if I ever wrote a series of books they might be set in the world of teaching. It’s an environment I am familiar with. The first book I read featured Sid Halley as the hero, a once-time jockey who had a bad fall that left him with a disabled arm. He floated around doing nothing until his father-in-law pushed him into the private detective arena. In a later book, what is left of the arm is removed and replaced by a prosthetic arm.

I went on to read and hold onto every Dick Francis novel I came across. They were mostly gleaned from second hand bookshops. My favourite by far is “Nerve” which features a jockey who appears to have lost his nerve after a particularly bad fall. He descends into an appallingly bad run of form. Favourites that should have an easy win trail in last or near last. Trainers drop him from their lists. It turns out that the problem doesn’t lie with him at all. He hasn’t lost his nerve but someone with a grudge is getting to the horses. Oops – if you want to read the novel and you don’t want to know the ending, just pretend you didn’t read that.

I had the whole collection. There wasn’t a Dick Francis book that I had read and wasn’t proudly stacked on the bookcase in year of printing order. I didn’t read his autobiography.

Then I moved to Cyprus to teach. I took my Dick Francis novels with me and proudly placed them on the bookshelf. The school was church-related and the church was the Plymouth Brethren. They were a lovely group of people but there were rules, strict rules.

A book I’m currently reading is “On the Shoulders of Hobbits” by Louis Markos. He is tracing various virtues through the writing of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit”, and C S Lewis’ Narnia novels. I have got to the chapter on temperance. It’s not about compiling a list of all the things you shouldn’t do, but about living a balanced life between two extremes – indulgence on the one hand and strict denial on the other. There are plenty of scenes where Gandalf or Pippin or someone else lights up a pipe. Smoking? That’s something to be frowned on surely? Louis Markos makes the point that enjoyment of life is essential,  but the secret is in not going over the top – making something enjoyable an addiction or an obsession. I think I have an addictive nature so I tend to avoid things I know I could get addicted to. I rarely play computer games and the just-one-more-go side of them.

Back to my bookshelf in Cyprus and my Dick Francis novels – a church friend saw them and lines of disapproval creased across her brow. Did I not know, she pointed out, that they were not godly? She didn’t quite say they were written by the devil but that was where she was heading. My bookcase should be full of godly literature and the works of Christian writers. I didn’t ask God what He thought but put all the books into a bag and hauled them off to a second-hand bookshop. I confess I went back numerous times and hovered over the shelf they now inhabited, just to look, you understand, not to buy – that came much later.

It was a step along the path that saw me becoming increasingly critical of others that were not into self-denial in any big way. I remember one Monday morning looking through wedding photos from a staff member. I hadn’t been invited. There were no “don’t you look lovely?” or “love the dress” comments. Most people in the staff room, Plymouth Brethren stalwarts all, were looking at the bottles on the table. You see, we frowned on alcohol. The idea of drinking champagne? No way. Looking back, it fills me with sadness. Life was dictated by a list of rules and a person’s holiness was judged according to how well they kept them.

Back home, settled in Scotland, my husband has discovered Dick Francis and he now scours the second-hand bookshops to buy them. The new ones, the hardbacks, he buys me for Christmas or birthday presents. I’m not so sure the newer ones co-authored with his son Felix are up to the grit of the older one. But, even now, holding the books, there is a little shiver that I’m holding something illicit or forbidden. The echo is there from words spoken decades ago.

Just because I have read the chapter on temperance in the book, it doesn’t mean I am about to start smoking or go clubbing at the weekend. I know my limits and I will not exceed them, but I will enjoy life and joy and Dick Francis novels, but not to excess.

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