As I approached the end of 2016 I wanted to read something familiar, something to put me in the mood, the right frame of mind, for my plan to read less in 2017. As I scanned my shelves, running my eyes past all the books I’m unlikely to read in the next year, I realised that it is almost impossible to choose in this kind of situation. Kind of like when people ask you ‘if you were on death row, what would you choose for your last meal?’ and it’s one of those questions I know I can never answer because if I had to choose one thing I would always be thinking about all those other things I didn’t choose and it would spoil whatever my last choice actually was (okay, honestly I would choose pizza but then I would probably quibble about which topping I’d chosen…which would be vegetable ‘cos it’s my absolute favourite. But you get the picture). Then my eyes alighted on On Trying to Keep Still and I knew, just like I know I’d choose vegetable pizza, that it was the perfect choice for this situation.
I’ve read On Trying to Keep Still before a couple of times, it is a book which never disappoints. For those not familiar Jenny Diski was a prolific writer who worked in both fiction and non-fiction, earning a name as a ‘travel writer’ which is a moniker she confronts in the book as it took her somewhat by surprise. Diski, sadly, was one of the many casualties of 2016, one of the few I genuinely mourned. She is a writer of great humour and warmth, and her final book, In Gratitude, is one I read and reviewed with sadness mingled with pleasure, because gone or not she remains, to me, a wonderful woman and writer. I find it strange how she can be gone and yet she still leaps from the page when I read her work. Not that I know her, as such, but rather the version of her which she presented in her writing. I like to imagine she wasn’t that different in the flesh, an approach I expect Diski would have approved of.
The book is split into three sections, covering three journeys Diski takes, all of which relate, bizarre as it sounds, to her desire to be still and silent. The first part involves a trip to New Zealand, a place as far away as it’s possible to be from anywhere (and knows it) where Diski participates in a writers convention but also spends some time seeking solitude and silence in the beautiful surroundings. One of my favourite parts of the book revolve around Diski getting sick and having to cancel a trip to some glow worm caves, a disappointment which she resolves in a fascinating way:
“Back in bed, my body devoted to my racking pain and vomit control, I read about what I was going to miss that evening. In spite of, or because of, my fuzzy state of mind, it seemed easy enough to replace the actual experience I wasn’t going to have with a close, imaginative reading of the brochure:
Have you ever seen limestone passages sculpted by water up close? Or a cascading waterfall underground? Have you drifted in silent darkness beneath the luminous blue-green shimmer of thousands of glow-worms?
No, I hadn’t, and now I never would. But I had the brochure. It wasn’t hard to imagine an underground waterfall, or silent darkness and a blue-green shimmer. And drifting, in between my bowel seizures, was like falling off a log. What’s more there were colour photographs of it and a map of the caves, so I needn’t even worry that my imaginings were inaccurate. One of the photographs was of the boat. It had ten people in it, all smiling, their eyes shining with wonder, gleaming in the glow-worm light. It was crowded with a properly constituted family – mother, father, two small children – a young couple, an older couple, and two young women. My boat, on the other hand, just had me in it as I drifted in the underground dankness, dampess dripping down granite walls, past the thundering waterfall, to the whirlpool cave, through the narrows to emerge finally ‘beyond the roar of the stream to a cavern of silence, the magical glow-worm grotto’ where I continued to drift ‘under the starry shimmer…an unforgettable experience for all ages’. I still haven’t forgotten it.”
On returning from New Zealand, or perhaps some time later, Diski decides to rent a cottage in the Somerset hills for a period of isolation and aloneness. During this alone time she will read, think, write and largely be still and this forms the second section of the book. Except, as you might expect, this doesn’t quite go to plan. Left alone, Diski is painfully aware of not being alone. There is the farmer who owns the cottage for a start. Then there are the spiders. Then there is herself, her own social conscience which pricks her to do the things she wouldn’t do if left entirely at her own disposal: going out, walking, being sociable and seen. Diski claims that her mind is largely empty, yet her writings here show that it was not. In fact her mind is full to overflowing with quirks and desires, lack of desires, expectations, other people’s expectations, worries verging on neuroses and chitter-chatter.
The third section follows Diski, having agreed to write a travel article for a newspaper, heading up to the Sami region of Sweden, deep deep North, spending some time with the Sami herdsmen and their developing tourist industry. What she desired, as she explains throughout the book, is aloneness, silence and darkness but what she encounters is quite the opposite – mass herds of reindeer, a people trying to be both authentic to their culture whilst being compelled to ‘sell’ it to rich tourists, and extreme, unforgiving cold. It is a trip which is both funny, because Diski is so at odds with everything the trip is about, and sad, because Diski writes of the Sami people so humanely, with concern for their cultural needs whilst understanding that her role is to introduce their culture to greater exploitation from the rest of the world which impinges enough on their society as it is. It’s a fascinating section for the travel aspect alone, but as with the rest of the book it is Diski’s endlessly wry tone which makes it so readable.
This was the perfect book to end my reading gluttony with. Perfect because what Diski esponses, all the way through the book, is her rejection of experience, her absolute desire to do nothing and be nothing because, in the end, what does it matter if you haven’t seen the glow-worm caves? Saying no, not doing, not experiencing things is just as valid as saying yes, particularly when there are always things that we’ll miss, that we cannot do, that we cannot experience. It’s just as good to stay in bed, if not better, if that’s what we really want to do. Despite travelling to all ends of the world, Diski finds it just as valuable, if not more, to stay home. It’s a refreshing attitude. The perfect one, in fact, for a person who is always looking over her shoulder at what she might have missed whilst failing to enjoy what is happening right now, here, right in front of me. But not this time. Re-reading On Trying to Keep Still was like a tonic, a timely reminder that reading is a joy, that life is happening all the time and we don’t always need to be thinking about what we’re not doing when not doing anything is, sometimes, reward enough.
On Trying to Keep Still is published by Virago