Monday, 17 December 2012

Stark Insensibility

'His tutor, Mr Jorden, fellow of Pembroke, was  not, it seems, a man of such abilities as we should conceive requisite for the instructor of Samuel Johnson, who gave me the following account of him. "He was a very worthy man, but a heavy man, and I did not profit much by his instructions. Indeed, I did not attend him much. The first day after I came to college, I waited on him, and then staid away four. On the sixth, Mr Jorden asked me why I had not attended? I answered, I had been sliding in Christ Church meadow: and this I said with as much nonchalance as I am now talking to you. I had no notion that I was wrong or irreverent to my Tutor." BOSWELL. "That, Sir, was great fortitude of mind." JOHNSON. "No, Sir, stark insensibility."'

If ever (heaven forbid) I were to write a memoir of my prolonged adolescence, it would be titled Stark Insensibility. A recent flurry of activity on the excellent Commonplace Blog got me looking back with an appalled shudder to those years. Last Friday, Dave Myers owned up to The Books I've Stolen - which got his readers queuing up to confess to their own book thefts. My mind reeled back to student days, when I could scan my book collection and know that fully a third of it had been stolen - from bookshops, from libraries, I don't think from any individuals (which is something, I suppose).
What was I up to? I guess it was partly the zeitgeist. Those were strange unsettled times (the turn of the Seventies) and, in some of the circles I moved in, theft - at least from more or less faceless institutions - was no big deal. There were those around who concurred with Prudhon's maxim, Property Is Theft. I wasn't really one of them, but I was more than stupid enough - and amoral enough - to disregard property rights when it suited me. I didn't even get a thrill from the risks I was running - or only from the most audacious feat of swiping; mostly it was just something I (and many others) did. And there is, undeniably, something different about stealing books - which is why so many people who would never dream of stealing anything else will pinch books without too many qualms. It's the form of theft that seems to come closest to the popular euphemism - 'liberating' property.
But here I am again, looking back aghast, and asking why the heck I did what I did. And the best answer is still Johnson's: Stark Insensibility.


  1. You do have an unerring accuracy about the peculiarities of zeitgeist, Nige. This 70s swiping books thing — I recognise it instantly. Like you, I now shudder terribly at my misdeeds. Roger Scruton recounted something similar in one of his books (can't remember which) about a lefty friend of his who felt just fine and dandy (in the 70s) 'liberating' sacred objets from the altars of beautiful churches. Stark Insensibility indeed.

  2. How on earth did Foyles, with its absurd payment system and shambolic dark passages, survive those days? Oh, the shame of looking back: how stupid I was then!

  3. Ah yes Foyles - that madhouse. It often seemed as if bookshops were positively encouraging you to help yourself. More than once, I recall, bookshop staff actually watched me walking out with their stuff, but did nothing about it. Of course they were probably knocking off stock themselves in those days...

  4. Surely not all of them. I have a clear memory of an overworked and harassed member of Foyles staff in the history and philosophy section in the 70s. It was on about the third floor, I think, and he was all on his own there, lugging great piles of books, writing out chitties for customers to take down to the cashier on the ground floor (do you remember the glass kiosk? and the long line of customers waiting to pay?),dashing around to locate a requested book. Queues of people. He used to sweat profusely with the effort of it all. I felt very sorry for him, so sorry in fact that I decided it was a bit mean and I wouldn't do it any more - it was just too easy and he seemed a very nice chap. The last book I ever knicked from Foyles was called, fittingly, "Liberty and Reformation in the Puritan Revolution". It stood on my bookshelf for nearly 40 years. I gave it away to charity only a few months ago.

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