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Off the Record: how old books help us deal with new - and frightening - times

The best course of action in these times? Read old books for all the answers.

I made two resolutions back in January. 1) To keep a reading journal, recording the books I read, with a few notes on them, maybe a quote or two. 2) To spend at least the first half of the year reading old books. No specific era or genre in mind, just anything that wasn’t published in the past fifty years or so.

I love reading new fiction, and non-fiction, for that matter. Being part of the conversation about the latest books, sharing ideas with others reading a book at the same time, is one of the best bits of Twitter, when it operates like a huge and friendly book group. But sometimes I can feel caught in a race to keep up. The pile on the bedside table stares at me accusingly. Enough.

I started with the audiobook of Madame Bovary, listening to it on foggy Heath walks over the New Year period, lines leaping out at me in the gloom: “She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris”; “He felt dreary as an empty house”; “Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers”. It reminds me that many writers say you should always read aloud anything you’ve written, in order to feel its rhythms and cadence. By the end of the 14 hours of listening, the book is inside my head and my head has gone somewhere else entirely, which I like.

Meanwhile, I’ve also read Bonjour tristesse and the first two books of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, and I’m planning to work my way through John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym, something by Raymond Carver, more by James Baldwin, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, and War and Peace. Oh no, look at me: I’ve gone and made a list again.

It’s a list without pressure, though, as no one cares when or if I read these books and my opinions don’t need to keep pace with anyone else’s. And it feels like a relief not to have to be current. Is it wrong to want to distract myself? Am I in denial? It feels good, like changing channels, or turning the dial on a radio – other lives going on in other times. It makes me feel we’re not alone, stranded here in the present.

And relevance springs up everywhere. People have always felt like us; things we think we invented turn out to have been there all the time, and you’ll be reading away, merrily cocooned in the past, when you stumble across some observation that sounds like it was made yesterday.

For instance, this from my latest read, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns: “The sun seemed to shine perpetually . . . The summers used to be like that when I was a child, and in the winters there was always deep snow or hard frost. The weather has grown all half-hearted now.” We all claim that nowadays, whatever our age, but she wrote it back in 1950.

In A Buyer’s Market by Anthony Powell (1952), I find this quotation that perfectly describes the supposedly modern teen phenomenon of FOMO (fear of missing out): “There is a strong disposition in youth, from which some individuals never escape, to suppose that everyone else is having a more enjoyable time than we are ourselves . . .”

And finally – this passage from Powell’s A Question of Upbringing, where Nick Jenkins is talking about his disreputable uncle, made me sit up straight, in astonished recognition of the kind of chancer who now seems everywhere to be in power:


. . . Uncle Giles had been relegated by most of the people who knew him at all well to that limbo where nothing is expected of a person, and where more than usually outrageous actions are approached, at least conversationally, as if they constituted a series of practical jokes . . . The curious thing about persons regarding whom society has taken this largely self-defensive measure is that the existence of the individual himself reaches a pitch when nothing he does can ever be accepted as serious.


Oh Lord, I thought, there really is nothing new under the sun. You go reading old books looking for an escape into the past, and where do you find yourself? Slap bang in the middle of the present, as usual. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

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David had taken the same tablets for years. Why the sudden side effects?

Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot.

David had been getting bouts of faintness and dizziness for the past week. He said it was exactly like the turns he used to get before he’d had his pacemaker inserted. A malfunctioning pacemaker didn’t sound too good, so I told him I’d pop in at lunchtime.

Everything was in good order. He was recovering from a nasty cough, though, so I wondered aloud if, at the age of 82, he might just be feeling weak from having fought that off. I suggested he let me know if things didn’t settle.

I imagined he would give it a week or two, but the following day there was another visit request. Apparently he’d had a further turn that morning. The carer hadn’t liked the look of him so she’d rung the surgery.

Once again, he was back to normal by the time I got there. I quizzed him further. The symptoms came on when he got up from the sofa, or if bending down for something, suggesting his blood pressure might be falling with the change in posture. I checked the medication listed in his notes: eight different drugs, at least two of which could cause that problem. But David had been taking the same tablets for years; why would he suddenly develop side effects now?

I thought I’d better establish if his blood pressure was dropping. I got him to stand, and measured it repeatedly over a period of several minutes. Not a hint of a fall. And nor did he now feel in the slightest bit unwell. I was stumped. David’s wife had been watching proceedings from her armchair. “Mind you,” she said, “it only happens mid-morning.”

The specific timing made me pause. I asked to see his tablets. David passed me a carrier bag of boxes. I went through them methodically, cross-referencing each one to his notes.

“Well, there’s your trouble,” I said, holding out a couple of the packets. One was emblazoned with the name “Diffundox”, the other “Prosurin”. “They’re actually the same thing.”

Every medication has two names, a brand name and a generic one – both Diffundox and Prosurin are brand names of a medication known generically as tamsulosin, which improves weak urinary flow in men with enlarged prostates. Doctors are encouraged to prescribe generically in almost all circumstances – if I put “tamsulosin” on a prescription, the pharmacist can supply the best value generic available at that time, but if I specify a brand name they’re obliged to dispense that particular one irrespective of cost.

Generic prescribing is good for the NHS drug budget, but it can be horribly confusing for patients. Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot. And while the box always has the generic name on it somewhere, it’s much less prominent than the brand name. With so many patients on multiple medications, all of which are subject to chopping and changing between generics, it’s no wonder mix-ups occur. Couple that with doctors forever stopping and starting drugs and adjusting doses, and you start to get some inkling of quite how much potential there is for error.

I said to David that, at some point the previous week, two different brands of tamsulosin must have found their way into his bag. They looked for all the world like different medications to him, with the result that he was inadvertently taking a double dose every morning. The postural drops in his blood pressure were making him distinctly unwell, but were wearing off after a few hours.

Even though I tried to explain things clearly, David looked baffled that I, an apparently sane and rational being, seemed to be suggesting that two self-evidently different tablets were somehow the same. The arcane world of drug pricing and generic substitution was clearly not something he had much interest in exploring. So, I pocketed one of the aberrant packets of pills, returned the rest, and told him he would feel much better the next day. I’m glad to say he did. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game