We all know that you can't judge a book by its cover, but you can surely judge people by the covers of their books. Or could, until the Kindle and iPad came along to ruin that peculiar paperback snobbery that the British middle classes take on holiday as surely as they take the Factor 30 and the floppy straw hat.
We have just come back from 12 days in Turkey, where around the hotel swimming-pool my wife and I were able to make only a limited series of snap judgements about our fellow Brits, owing to the number of electronic books being read behind maddeningly unrevealing black cases. It simply hadn't occurred to me, until we arrived at the pool on our first morning, that I was about to lose my inalienable right as a paperback snob to see what is causing the fellow on the next sunbed to chuckle. And of course it's only going to get worse, as more and more people take their holiday reading in digital form.
Despite the packing benefits, I can't imagine ever doing it myself. For me, the book soiled by a combination of heat, suntan lotion and water, fit only for the bin by the eve of the homeward journey, is one of the tactile pleasures of a summer holiday. And I write as a man whose copy of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, by Jonathan Coe, actually disintegrated with two chapters to go.
I'd left it by the pool while I went on a tour of an olive-oil factory, but of course only mad dogs and Englishmen leave out paperbacks in the midday sun. I came back to find that the binding-glue had melted, and that a gust of wind had then scattered 20 or 30 pages to all parts. This reportedly prompted an exciting and rather neighbourly paperchase by several of my fellow guests, watched by my children, who were having lunch on a nearby terrace, and were not quite sure whether they should join in, shout encouragement, or keep their heads down pretending that the book had nothing to do with them.
They took the third option, immensely relieved that I wasn't there myself chasing round the pool after poor Maxwell Sim, whose terrible privacy had turned into public embarrassment. For the kids, the shame would have been unendurable, while I would have felt like the leading player in what in the old days would have been a commercial for Hamlet, the mild cigar from Benson & Hedges, and what could now be a rather effective commercial for Kindle, with proper smugness on the faces of those following the chaos from behind their e-books.
Meanwhile, I suppose we paperback snobs will have to find some other way of assessing the e-book brigade, while continuing to make the most of what's left, silently deriding thepeople on the Greek islands ostentatiously holding up their copies of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and speculating on the dynamic between the wife reading Katie Price and the husband reading Martin Amis.
Around the pool in Turkey, for the record, we also clocked a couple of Maeve Binchys, a pair of Harry Potters, two copies of Keith Richards' autobiography, a Graham Greene, a Lynda La Plante, a Frederick Forsyth and, most impressively, a Marcel Proust. Somewhere or other there were also three missing pages of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, which ends with a clever twist. According to the blurb it does, anyway. Cruelly, the pages missing were the last three, yet even that won't get me taking e-books on holiday. After all, pure paperback snobbery means letting others judge you as slyly and doubtless unfairly as you do them.
You don't know what you've got till it's gone
A hundred years ago this month an Italian carpenter called Vincenzo Peruggia secured himself a kind of immortality by stealing a valuable painting not entirely as an act of greed (although he did try to sell it) but at least partly in the spirit of patriotism.
The painting was Leonardo da Vinci'sMona Lisa, and Peruggia believed fervently that it belonged not in the Louvre museum in Paris but in Italy, evidently also believing, mistakenly, that Napoleon Bonaparte had stolen it in the first place and that he was merely righting anhistoric wrong.
Whatever the motivation, he didn't have to work very hard, more or less walking up tothe Mona Lisa when nobody else was around, taking her off the wall and hiding her underhis coat.
She stayed hidden for more than two years before Peruggia was finally rumbled, and it was those two years that turned the Mona Lisa, painting, into the Mona Lisa, icon. The theft made front-page headlines around the world, and thousands of reproductions, effectively wanted posters, gave the old girl the global fame she retains today. Is there a better example, in cultural if not monetary terms, of crime paying?
Splendours and miseriesof the vegetable patch
We came back from holiday to find thatour Jerusalem artichoke plants had grownlike Jack's giant beanstalk, to well over twometres high.
This is the first year I have grown Jerusalem artichokes and the pleasure of coming home to find them prospering more than compensates for the disappointment of the bolted spinach and lettuce. It's hard to convey to anyone not into growing their own produce what emotional ups and downs a vegetable patch can yield.
But of course I won't really know whether the Jerusalem artichokes have succeeded until I dig the first plants up sometime in late autumn. And even then only their popularity with the family will constitute real success for a vegetable rudely dismissed by the writer John Goodyer in 1621 as the cause of "a filthie loathsome stinking winde ... more fit for swine than men".