What’s the difference between a tradition and a coping mechanism, really? They blend together and rely on one another, and in lots of cases it’s tricky to tell which came first. In this case I think it must be the coping thing because, like so many awkward children, I spent a childhood with my head in a book. (And I wouldn’t have it any other way!) When I moved to London I found an excellent Soho bookstore — the perfect mix of seedy and musty — and I suppose the rest is history. I keep these three together and, whenever I move to a new place, re-read them. It’s lovely to have a bit of continuity when everything else is so different.
I’m not sure I like anything about Hemingway; A Moveable Feast is the lasting exception. Like the other two books, this is a (mostly) autobiographical record of inter-war Continental poverty. (The niche to end all niches, I swear.) 1920s Paris is 1920s Paris and that should be enough, but there are Alps and avalanches and cafés and horse-races and sawdust and sad, biased stories about the Fitzgeralds. He may have been a pig of a man but, my god, he could write.
I think it’d quite like to be friends with George Orwell. Spurred by curiosity and fixed by pride he slips into poverty, first in Paris and then in London, sleeps on park benches and befriends Tsarist exiles. And not once is he phased. Down and Out is the most helpful of the trio: it says that things won’t be too bad, and even if they are you’ll survive as long as you’re almost freakishly analytical about it all.
Goodbye to Berlin is definitely my favourite. I’ll quote the quote on the back cover because it’s perfect: “Reading this novel is much like overhearing anecdotes in a crowded bar while history knocks impatiently at the windows”. (We can thank the Guardian for that.) Set in post-crash, pre-Nazi Berlin, Isherwood paints quaint little portraits of refugees from reality. When I bought it (again at that wonderfully wretched bookstore) and took it to my favourite café (which is always full) I managed to sit with a women who was reading exactly it. I keep her list of yum-cha recommendations between the pages for a bookmark.