• Lush Places

The Good Life: Off the books

Updated: May 11, 2020

When it comes to watching others work, Michele's the boss. By Michele Hewitson.

When my grandfather died, he left my uncle Nick his copy of War and Peace. When Nick died he did not leave it to me. I am very grateful that he did not, and never more so than right now: I might have to read the bloody thing. Everyone else is. The Guardian last week reported that ebook downloads of War and Peace are up 84 per cent.

I am working very hard to emerge from the Great Lush Places Lock Up having achieved not a single self-improving activity. My abs will remain absent; my intellect unstimulated; my mindfulness meandering.

Greg phoned his father to say that he was on the dole: “your boy’s finally come good!” Greg reckons there is every possibility he will end his working life as he began it: pumping gas. I feel he is being overly optimistic.

Despite the jokes we have been making for years about being born bone idle, and about how we wanted to retire the day we began working, it is actually quite discombobulating to wake up one morning and find oneself without any work to do. The idea of drifting is a nice dream; the reality is that, after a lifetime of sneering at rules and routines, I find myself almost nostalgic for such things.

I was pretty chuffed to pick up a day’s work last week. Miles assigned me to watch Errol the ram, whom he suspected was slacking on the job. There was a distinct lack of red-painted bottoms in the paddock. The rams get about with a rather fetching tartan harness around their shoulders to which is attached a block of dye which rubs off on the ewe’s bums while the ram does his duty. Every ram has his own colour, and sometimes the first or second or third ram’s attempt hasn’t taken, and so some of our ladies have very colourful bums: red, yellow and green. They look as though they are wearing those knitted rasta hats on their rear ends.

Mile’s hunch was right; Errol was not performing his ram business, so it was rather dull work for me. But I was very good at it. Watching other people work is possibly my greatest talent.


While wiling away those ram-watching hours, it occurred to me that I was so good at working while not working that I could get other people to write my column.

I could ask the best and brainiest former books editors in the land “what’s the book you’d re-read in lock down, once you’ve run out of new ones?” Nobody picked War and Peace.

Margo White, former arts and books editor for the dearly-departed Listener.

“Anything by Alice Munro. Also, Jenny Offill. Awful name, but you might like her.”

Linda Herrick, former arts and books editor at the New Zealand Herald.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I have read it at least three times over the years, and it’s enchanting.”

Mark Broatch, former arts and books editor for the Listener.

“If I was stuck in a hospital bed with a non-threatening illness (something other than Covid-19, say) I would probably ask for Geoff Dyer’s Working the Room, or Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. These books, apart from being terrific reads, capture what it is to pursue understanding for itself, and show that one of the best things a writer can do is uncover, in a reader, a similar, unrealised fascination. Oh, I just saw in my shelves Christopher Hitchens’ Love, Poverty and War …”

Russell Baillie, the last arts and books editor for the Listener.

“Social media has been full of ‘isolation house’ quizzes during the lockdown. If you haven’t seen them, they ask 'which famous people would you like flat with?' But John Clarke already did that in highly-entertaining fashion in his 2002 farce The Tournament, in which he pitched the great minds of the 20th century into a tennis tournament. Think Magritte teaming up with Dali as doubles partners, or Katherine Mansfield and Frances Hodgkins doing New Zealand proud in the ladies’ event. I was predisposed to love this book, given I’ve idolised Clarke since standard three. It’s a big, show-off, shaggy dog story. It was a product of Clarke’s wide intellect, and his deep love for sport. But it still makes me laugh out loud every time and, once off the shelf, I read passages to anyone within earshot, usually just before I force it upon them to read. But, assuming I got it back from the last person I loaned it to, it would be the book I would return to if there was nothing else left to read. Especially as there’s no decent sport on the telly right now.”

I have never been a books editor. I applied to be one once, but that brainy cow Herrick got the job. She’s probably read War and Peace a hundred times.

But I’m the boss of me now, and so here are my unqualified picks:

Maurice Gee’s Plumb trilogy. It seems right for the moment: generations trapped.

Ditto, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazelot Chronicles, which I re-read about every second year, because they contain entire worlds, and she knows that cats smell like circuses.

Tove Jansson’s Moominsummer Madness in which the Moomin family are isolated after a flood and trapped on a floating theatre. There is a shortage of food, there is a ghostly presence, and Little My bites someone — doesn’t she always? Anyway, it all ends happily, and everyone gets to go home to Moomin Valley where there is, surely, jam for tea.