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  • Charlie Barber


Many are those who, straining to be heard above the throbbing dub of the local coffee shop, insist that they work better with music, and that, despite the echoing strain to which they would on other occasions happily croon along, their copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows remains perfectly comprehensible. Rather than take their word for it, I assume that they are lying. They aren’t trying to fool other people that they are reading; they’ve fooled themselves. Everyone recognises the glorious feeling; the prose begins to flow from the page as if we are being spoken to, ardently; our eyes abandon their fricative disposition; we sigh that the art of reading isn’t so much work after all. We take another languid sip from the coffee cup, into which we have thrown half our income.

We have stopped reading. Like the soldier who rejoices at the lightness of his load, only to realise that he has dropped it, it is easy for us to believe that we are tearing through the volumes like Crichton, when we might as well be watching the patterns inside our eyelids. Muscle will always outrun intellect. This is especially dangerous with a writer as dense as Rowling.

How can we escape this horrid scenario, in which entire books, and, I am afraid to say, lives, are frittered so needlessly away? How do we avoid the mistake of the soldier, ducking fire and bomb, delighted with his agility, carrying a leg? One advantage the reader has over the soldier is that he needn’t read on the battlefield, though the modern ‘bookworm’ attempts to recreate one in the library café. There is no escape from background music. The drowsy sway of chill hop has penetrated even to the ‘studious buzz zone’ in the library, where I heard several youths indulging on a phone speaker the other day. They sat like imperious centurions in a communal lavatorium, so fearful I trembled to approach. Our condition is perhaps harder than the soldier’s. If the crump of artillery and the wail of the stukas were piped into the library café, rather than the soft pulsations of pleasant lo-fi beats, one would quickly grow accustomed. Such sounds form the natural scenery of an heroic life. Then might we read with alacrity.

I went to the gentlemen’s club on Teviot Row yesterday, and indulged in a haggis roll. I was pleased again to register that quaint stage to the left of the mezzanine, on which so many Socratic exchanges have been displayed to the multitude. Biting into my roll, I allowed the assorted spicy particles to explode across my tongue, and experienced a deep joy. There is perhaps no greater concentration of abbatoir rejects in all Midlothian than in a Teviot Haggis roll, and this, I understand, is in direct correlation with its pungency. But it is a pungency whose savour was ashes in my mouth. So heady was the haggis that I found my reason completely overpowered, as if a trap hi-hat were skittering over my palette. I could hardly follow my Clancy.

I was driven from the gentlemen’s club out beyond Bisto Square to those beautiful volcanic foothills for which Edinburgh was once so famous, with my novel in a small valise which I carry for the purpose; stopping only at a couturier to purchase a kashmir scarf, which I wrapped about my throat tightly. I had no intention for mountaineering, but the music from Teviot had produced an effect in accordance with its name, and I was in a trance. Thus did I sleepwalk, like so many of my century, deaf to contending gusts swirling beyond the cliffs to which I was so perilously close, blind to all but the fastness of the sky. But what;—a glimmer of lamina? A flutter of parchment? I recovered from my syncope and found myself surrounded by readers. Surely, not here, on the very crow’s nest of beauty; this vaulted summit, close to the sun? ‘So relaxing’, said one, as the wind tore the pages from his copy of The Deathly Hallows.

Castigate such people. But what shall we do once the irritant is removed? Once the shrapnel is out, how do we cauterise the flesh? With the heat of continued battle. How placid, how blissful, would be the boards of New Amphion, were it not only free from Tame Impala’s desolate music, but also of human speech? If the only sound were the gentle swish of the propellers which, in one of his noblest manoeuvres, the great Scottish inventor Cornelius Hedgebaston attached in 1883 and which, any day now, will endow Teviot Row with the mobility for which it was always intended? Extremely. As a man who has spent time in the German classics will tell you, noise is the ‘fodder of the philistine’, and intelligence increases in inverse correspondence with one’s tolerance for it. I have heard of Japanese palaces where the servants go unshod on the boards. I have seen visions of mute eunuchs in the temple of Osiris.

And when this is done we shall banish other distractions, in the hope that we might ascend by continual shavings to divinity. Yes;—take the food from the cafes; dash chai from the lips of inattentive undergraduates; and you will produce a brood of aesthetes so refined that a camera’s shutter will send them into a fit of apoplexy. Generals, diplomats, statesmen; our next generation will be so sensitive that a clove of garlic will drive them clutching their stomachs from parliament. Truth resides in silent cells between the tangles of life. Music only exists in the blooming quiet after music. From music rises silence; from silence, starvation; and thence, heroic oblivion.

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