Back when I was growing up in England, I was one of those sickly, pimply, anemic looking children who seem to catch every form of contagion going around. Bronchitis, walking pneumonia, measles, mumps, whooping cough, scurvy, ptomaine, toe jam, beri beri, yellow fever – you name it, and it’s a pretty good bet that I was bedridden with it at some point during my infancy and preadolescence. So, while my classmates were out playing tag, practising to be soccer hooligans, setting fire to municipal buildings and generally figuring out new and ever more inventive ways to torment 68 pound asthmatic weaklings like myself, I was spending days or weeks at a time wrapped up in blankets in the living room, drinking weak tea with a splash of me Da’s whiskey and eating kippers and custard.
In between fever dreams, I would read Tin Tin comics, and everything that Robert Louis Stevenson ever wrote. I would also spend hours listening to the “wireless,” while my merchant marine father passed by the door muttering to himself and shaking his head in chagrin at the fickle fortunes that had caused him to spawn what appeared to be the love child of Beatrix Potter and Edgar Allen Poe. My favourite radio program was the old BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Sunday morning chestnut Desert Island Discs, in which various celebrities would offer up the ten recordings they would choose to be stranded with, should they be lucky enough to know in advance which remote island with a power supply they would be conveniently shipwrecked near.
Okay, so there was something missing in the logic department. But I still found the idea fascinating back then, and it’s stuck with me for all these years. To this day, when I find myself trapped on a long bus trip or in a waiting room, I engage in the time-wasting pursuit of doodling down lists of things that I would choose to be stranded with, preferably along with a crate of Lagavulin and a bail of British Columbia’s finest. Not just recordings, but favourite books and movies, as well. I think what appeals to me so much about this is the selection criterion that I would have to use. Ten pieces of music, ten works of literature, and ten films amongst all of the hundreds of each that I’ve enjoyed over my lifetime. How could I narrow down the candidates?
Well, obviously I would have to choose those items that I not only enjoy, but that will have a continuing significance for me. Some of them, I think, would have to be works that are perpetually able to offer up some small surprise, creations of an imagination rich enough to have me continually going to the mine and still being able to find some thin glimmering vein that I hadn’t noticed before. This continued resonance for me would result from the fact that they capture at least some of the often harrowing, frequently wondrous, and always richly strange beauty of human existence. It is for these reasons that I would choose the works of Charles Dickens, Louis Armstrong, Ornette Coleman, Robert Altman, the Coen Brothers, P.T. Anderson, Glenn Gould, and others to be my companions in solitude. Nothing else would be worth the time.