As the third of my Books by Memory series this is a rather tangential book review that uses memory to approach a book, rather than focusing in a more analytical way. This time I am reminiscing on reading Thomas Grant’s Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories.
As I sit here writing with a blanket over my shoulders for warmth, you might expect me to be thinking back to other books read in winter, perhaps by a roaring fire, or with a mug of cocoa, but instead, I feel drawn to books of summer.
There is little that can beat the pleasure of a sunny, slightly aimless, afternoon spent with a book outside. Now in winter, the same does not quite work, even if there is a rather sublime feeling to reading as the cold wind buffets and bare branches frame a leaden sky. So, memories have to be drawn on to provide a vicarious fix of sun-warmed tranquillity.
Of course, it is not really just the environment in which you read that matters, but the ritual. For sitting outside with a book might well add that certain feeling, but when you know you have time and so can pause, decide which book, consider if it’s really sunny enough for sunglasses, and then walk down to the garden, pausing again in the kitchen to make a cuppa, but so caught up are you in the joy of the sun that you go the student way, and milk it at the start and take it outside tea bag and all.
It is rather hard to pin down what should be read on such afternoons when draped in sun-warmed air you are separated from the worries of the next day, yet it would be foolish to think that the surrounding days do not leech into the atmosphere in which you read.
In this case, I feel that I was pushed towards picking up a piece of engaging prose non-fiction, for I was spending my week wading through Latin, both in finely wrought odes, and the dullest of self-congratulatory prose, so could not help but turn to something resoundingly fixed to the modern world, yet with the touch of glamour that a previous world can give. After all, it is far easier to fall in love with a narration when you are able to remove yourself from the details of it.
It can be by a temporal removal, or by stepping out into fiction: either way the impact is the same. Sunny afternoons are for such removal from the life you are living. For it is enjoyable to get that vicarious, almost voyeuristic, touch of a life not unlike your own when you are trundling to work or the like, but on an aimless afternoon, ideally outside of the working week, some form of escape is needed.
And, it hardly needs saying that, such a book would be equally suited to an elongated summer evening with a glass of cider or draught pint to hand. Even if the cuppa provides a certain connection with the innocent afternoons of childhood in which books were a good in and of themselves, not a luxury to be snatched when and wherever possible.
I must admit I do not remember the writing in any detail so I cannot entice you to read the book with any descriptions of coruscating prose or the like, but I do remember the feeling and way the text drew me on and a vivid picture of the events. I suppose it was a little like the tea I was drinking. Lacking the engraved finials of Early grey, which impress at a first meeting but soon are understood to be a distraction, the text flowed like a good breakfast tea in that it had a solid backing, enlivened by complexly constructed flair that never veered from the overriding smooth texture.
Now I have spent a little too much time discussing the idea of a type of reading and tortured a few similes, but then sunny afternoons with books are meant to be slightly self-indulgent and lackadaisical. In this case, I was reading Thomas Grant’s Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories. It might seem an odd choice for a chilled Sunday afternoon, being a recounting of various legal cases, but then I had started it the day before and it had that perfect balance of interest and engaging writing.
Perhaps it helped that I was reading it in just the right setting as it details the life of one who was incredibly privileged. For how many people are able to buy a house after being left a Monet by a friend? Oh, and his parents were part of the Bloomsbury group.
Yet such things feel a tad less impressive when reading in one of the oldest still existing residential streets in Europe, for that summer I spent two weeks in a house on Vicars’ Close in Wells (a city in Somerset, in the South West of England, and often considered the smallest city in England). I was there to improve my Latin skills by reading a range of Latin literature, but mainly remember the time spent otherwise. It is a rather relaxing, and handsomely built, city to amble through and the incongruity of imagining it as it was as a set for Hot Fuzz adds a certain element to enliven the most peaceful evening.
Of course, even a piece that is more focused on memory than accurate review must consider the book in question beyond the vibes given off. And then a book detailing old legal cases might not seem the most interesting, especially as by now most readers of this article will not have memory themselves of the cases in question. However, even if you were to view them as totally irrelevant cases, the way they are described and Hutchinson’s rhetorical brilliance is enough to create a series of enticing recollections.
Perhaps the rather performative nature of many of the defences, which at points would not seem out of place in an am-dram farce, makes one question the effectiveness of an adversary legal system in which trials can become to be seen as games to be won irrespective of the facts, but it would be impossible to come away from this book without acknowledging Hutchinson’s skill as an advocate.
(Also, I do love the detail that in one case someone was only convicted of theft of a picture frame, as the picture in question was returned after a period as a form of protest, but the frame wasn’t, and at that point for theft to be proved an intention to permanently deprive someone of something had to be established.)
It also has further interest for anyone interested in books for it details the obscenity case against the publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, along with many other ‘morality’ trials in which the right to publish or perform was challenged on the basis of specific ideas of morality. Yet as I look via the lens of memory it is hard to remove the filter of other information from the clarity and detail of Mr Grant’s narration, and so it would be a disservice to ramble on now.
So, I will leave it with the exhortation that these are trials that all who care for books, and the freedoms they both provide and rely upon, should know of and keenly keep in mind when faced with challenges to what can or should be published.