I’m sitting up here, a little uncomfortably on my fence, looking to my left and to my right at the noisy partisans on either side.
On one side I can see people wearing Barcelona shirts, or those of Man United, then over there its Real Madrid or Man City. I look again and I can see them layering Marmite into their sandwiches, or putting the peanut butter on their bread before the jam, while on the other they’re smashing jars of the divisive black goo, and applying gentle beige dollops in the middle of their predominantly jammy constructions. Over there some guys are screaming “tax and spend, tax and spend”, trying desperately to drown out those on the other side who are yelling, just as loud, “but what about the deficit?” straight back at them.
Then, just there, alone at the back of the gardens on each side of me, on the edge of shade sits a boy on one side and a girl on the other, quietly cross-legged amongst the tumultuous scenes around them; reading.
“What’s that you’re reading?” I called to them.
“Gatsby” they both answered.
“…on my Kindle”, continued the girl. I look again as she waves it triumphantly.
“Ugh,” groaned the boy, “I’d never have one of those. They’re so impersonal. This edition,” he said, brandishing aloft a stunning, pocket sized hardback with silver leafing on the edge of the pages, “was my Nan’s. She gave it to my mum, who gave it to me, and I’ll give it to my kids when I’m older.”
“Bor-ing,” sang the girl. “What a load of nostalgic nonsense. Get with the times dude. Give me a wi-fi connection and five minutes and I’ll have the complete works of Dostoyevsky or Dickens or Wilde, at a fraction of the cost you’d pay for that chopped down old tree.”
“Why would I want that?” shouted the boy over the high fence in the direction of his unseen foe. “Why would I want to deny myself the pleasure of searching through second-hand bookstores for the very book I don’t even know I’m desperate to read, or the unbridled joy of browsing and finding a signed copy or a love letter hidden between pages or to feel familiar volumes under my fingertips?”
“Oh you old romantic you,” she sneered at him. “What do you want, to read, or to have a house full of trophies?”
“Both,” he cried, “and what’s wrong with that?”
“You’re living in the past man, books are going the way that vinyl went, they’re redundant. They’re a pointless artefact that should be consigned to the museum. The future is digital – the future is the mp3, the eBook. It’s all up in the cloud.”
“You’re up in the clouds! I’ll never own an e-reader of any kind. They’re trying to kill these things I love. My books are a comforting blanket. They’re my childhood, my adolescence, my adulthood and they’ll be my death. I won’t give them up for anyone.”
As one, they both turned to me on their respective sides, frustrated and anguished at the other’s insistence on the ‘wrong’ course.
“You have to choose a side” they yelled.
“Convenient and contemporary,” she cried.
“Reminiscent and romantic,” he shouted.
I sat there, on my fence, and I just didn’t get it. What exactly was I choosing? I like the slightly salty scent wafting up upon opening an old book. I’m fascinated by the prints of fingers that have opened the volume before me. I appreciate not lugging three or four books away for a fortnight on holiday and that if I finish all of those, that there are loads more ready and waiting for me. Why have I got to choose?
I followed the line of my fence to the end of the gardens, where I could just make out a dull bass line. I stood and carefully tightrope walked, foot ahead of foot, arms out wide, along the narrow divide on which I’d perched. At the end I parted the trees and the dull bass line burst through, wobbling me momentarily.
“What are you guys doing?” I called out to the guys in headphones, standing at decks and mixing in a sumptuous blend of every different type of music you’d ever heard.
“Playing some tunes man, come on down,” they called back.
I jumped down into the wide field and looked around. I went up to the guy closest to me, looking over his shoulder. “What’s that?” I asked.
“That,” he replied, “lets me mix in the mp3’s from here,” he continued, indicating his laptop set just off to one side, “with the records I’ve got in there,” pointing to the little square black bag at his feet, “or if I want, I can borrow his records,” pointing to the next closest DJ to him, “or he can hook up to my Mac with one of these”, brandishing a cable. Just as he said that, he held up one finger, then two then three then four and … BAM, dropped a new beat to cut under that romping bass line I’d heard, what must have been a lifetime ago.
I couldn’t stop my head from bobbing and a smile creased my face. I looked back to where I’d jumped down, and saw the boy and girl sitting together on the fence. They’d originally climbed up looking to see where the music was coming from, and where I’d disappeared to. It was only then that they’d spotted each other for the first time, recognising themselves instantly.
She was sat cross legged, nervously sniffing the open pages of his third generation book. He was totally absorbed, scrolling further and further to see what other books by Fitzgerald were available for free.