Philip Hensher: No pain like having to get rid of books

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The Independent Online

It had all gone a bit too far. At first I'd thought when the bookshelves filled up, "Well, I'll just have a pile against the wall". Then another pile joined the first, and another; months passed and more piles against the opposite wall; then a second layer.

The problem is a familiar one. A bad book-buying habit; a professional occupation which means that publishers send me books every post; another one which means that I've been given a copy of almost every catalogue to an exhibition in London in the past 15 years. In the end, I started to feel as if I were living at the centre of a giant egg-timer, with pyramids of books shoring up the walls.

Other people have solved the problem in more inventive ways. Thomas De Quincey, it is said, waited until his apartments were completely filled with books, then locked the door, threw away the key and moved to a new, empty place. (Now, De Quincey was contributing to my problem, with 21 volumes of his collected works – God knows why or how). But really, there was only one solution: bag them up, and give them to the Trinity Hospice shop in Clapham High Street.

I do it about every five years, I suppose. This time, the principle of how to decide what to throw away seemed to have changed a little. Philip Larkin said that whenever he was asked how many books he owned, he always wanted to say: "Actually, I keep my books round the corner, in the public library." That would be nice. Why do I have 30 volumes of Mark Twain's collected writings, when I pay the London Library a subscription which goes towards keeping their Twain collection in ideal conditions?

If I ever felt a burning urge to re-read The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, they'd happily lend me a copy. And then, there is the internet. Isn't that supposed to be a source of all knowledge nowadays?

Why have three shelves of histories of imperial India, when you could just type the key words into Google, and remind yourself whether it was Dyer or O'Dwyer who ordered the shooting at Amritsar? Two whole metres of the Macmillan Dictionary of Art – surely you could find out a lot of that physically embodied information at the touch of a keypad? Most of the books that have survived successive culls are classics, too. Nothing could be easier than going on to Project Gutenberg, and finding every single pre-1920 novel now taking up precious space.

Well, you can guess what happened. The classics survived, because I like them. The works of any more recent writer survived if, on investigation, it turned out that I'd acquired most or all of their books, because that must mean that I like them. Anything briefly fashionable, anything I just didn't feel I was bothered about, anything I couldn't really imagine myself ever getting round to reading or re-reading went into the bags. I don't know how much we got rid of, though it must have gone into four figures.

And, of course, the internet is not as good as all that. I worry, really, about suggestions that education could start relying exclusively on online resources. Quite often, nowadays, students submit papers which use extraordinarily inaccurate texts of celebrated poems; they always turn out to have got them "off the internet", put there by someone who can't type.

I'm never going to live in a minimalist house with beautiful bare white walls, but for the moment, I can actually see my skirting boards. And, as it happens, just as I started to type this, the internet inexplicably went down. Middlemarch in hard covers: still good against viruses, still readable in a power cut. My motto for the future.

The point about a register office wedding is it's non-religious

Another Islington registrar has made a complaint against her employer, with the funding of something called the Christian Legal Centre.

Following in the footsteps of her colleague, Lillian Ladele, a Christian employee, Theresa Davies, has claimed that she is facing attempts to dismiss her because she refuses to marry same-sex couples. In fact, Islington Council has offered her alternative employment as a receptionist, but Ms Davies wants to have a job of her choosing, with a job description of her choosing.

Islington seem to have gone a long way to accommodate this person, perhaps too far. I wouldn't want to be dealt with by someone with Ms Davies's proclaimed views, even at the reception.

We got married last month in a register office (see the picture above), and one of the things which was stressed to us was that it was impossible for any mention of God or religious beliefs to be brought into the ceremony, even in a poem or a song. We had no problem with that. But if marrying couples are forbidden to bring religion into the ceremony of registration, why do some registrars fail to understand that neither may they?

What can you expect if people aren't paid?

Now that British Airways is proposing to ask its staff to work for nothing for four weeks, we can expect to see a lot fewer smiles and a lot more casual Soviet-era rudeness.

Checking in at Heathrow to fly to Geneva, I handed over my passport and self-printed boarding pass to the BA check-in clerk, who carried on her conversation with a friend on her mobile telephone, not greeting me or saying anything, stamped, took in my baggage, pushed my papers back at me without saying goodbye, and went on yakking about her shift. She was French, as it happens, but I don't really blame her.

If BA staff have now become part-time voluntary-sector workers, I don't think we can expect all those small extras, such as civility, job commitment, turning up, and smiling, though I hope they go on checking that your inflight meal is heated to salmonella-free levels and that the wing-nuts are screwed on tightly.

It's generally thought that in hard times, company staff work harder for customer approval, but human beings are not necessarily logical. If they are not being paid today, then why should they make much of an effort, or pretend that a customer is of any more interest to them than the friend who has just brightened their day by giving them a ring?