Any place has book clubs. They’re everywhere. I’ve even talked to one or two myself over the years. But only Godmanchester has GARGLE: Godmanchester Aged Residents Glorify Literature Endlessly.
GARGLE is not a book club; it’s a reading-aloud group. Every six or eight weeks, seven of us meet up to share our favourite pieces of writing with the others. We read two pieces each, five minutes long at the most, and talk about them over nibbles (rather more than nibbles, actually) and copious wine, in alternating houses. And we all walk home several hours later, in lines of varying straightness.
GARGLE is so much better than a book club. There is almost no preparation required. If one chooses, one can ruminate for hours in one’s back catalogue. But one can equally well snatch something off the bookshelf a minute before leaving that seems to hit the moment. Neither do we need to come up with an original analysis in advance, designed to impress the rest of the group with its perceptions, because we don’t know what we’ll be hearing. And there’s no need to skim a selected book on the morning of the meeting and then pretend we’ve read it. No pretences, or pretentiousness, are required.
But the best thing about GARGLE is the diversity of the reading matter. Not just one book at a time, which one may or may not like, but a literary cornucopia that never ceases to delight. This is assisted by the fortuitous fact that all seven us have such varying tastes and literary interests. In the two years of GARGLE’s existence, the spectrum of writing covered has been staggering.
The Polymath’s offerings have ranged from Charles Dickens to Spike Milligan, and taken in Jorge Luis Borges, Lord Byron and Lawrence Durrell. He has read a letter from an unidentified sailor on HMS Sovereign at the Battle of Trafalgar, a poem by Patrick Kavanagh and part of a speech delivered by Professor Philip Allott at a Benefactors’ Dinner at Trinity College, Cambridge.
The Artist has taken us from Lewis Carroll to Saki to Rupert Brooke to John Betjeman to Oscar Wilde. She has delved into the war years via Penelope Lively and the memoirs of Joan Wyndham and the Countess of Ranfurly, and produced extracts from The Journal of Eugène Delacroix and a conversation between Paul Cézanne and his old friend Henri Gasquet, recorded by the latter while having his portrait painted.
The Fleet Street Editor has given us Pushkin and Auden, D H Lawrence and Christopher Logue. She has shared her meanderings into writings on gardening and the votive treasures of Roman Godmanchester. She has taken us with Ivor Gurney and Edward Thomas’s widow as they traced the lanes of Gloucestershire on an Ordnance Survey Map after the First World War.
The Agent has declaimed from Nabokov, Mervyn Peake and Robert Graves, and taken us into biographies of Churchill and David Bowie. He has escorted us to Karachi, Jerusalem and frozen wastelands, all in the comfort of our chairs. Unlike the rest of us, the Agent reads from his iPad, which could give rise to the suspicion that he may not actually own a book. (But his house, opposite that of the Novelist and Aspiring Novelist, is overflowing with them.)
The Vicar, a relative newcomer, has weighed in with Roy Campbell, Dylan Thomas and Rupert Brooke, and read us excerpts from The Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson. We have visited Japan with him, and gone back 2,000 years with Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations.
The Aspiring Novelist has done her best to redress the gender imbalance in the readings with excerpts from Dorothy Parker, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Colette, Alice Walker and Natalia Ginzburg. However, in an admirable display of even-handedness, she has also offered us T S Eliot, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Henry James, Armistead Maupin and Palinurus alias Cyril Connolly.
Meanwhile, the Novelist has flitted from Alan Bennett to Scott Fitzgerald, from Harold Pinter to P G Wodehouse, from George Orwell to P J O’Rourke, and from Christopher Ishwerwood to Laurie Lee. He is also the only one to have read the lyrics of a pop song – And the Ship Sails On by Stephen Duffy.
So far, GARGLE has held seven meetings, and these are far from the only works that have adorned them. So you can see the immense and varied profusion of literary genius that has entertained us, and all with minimal effort on our part.
We would like to patent GARGLE, but it can’t be patented. We would like to be able to franchise it, but an unpatented idea can’t be franchised. So we invite you instead to try it out for yourselves. You don’t have to live in Godmanchester. You don’t have to be an Aged Resident of anywhere in particular (in any case, we’re all quite young, aren’t we?). But you do have to want to Glorify Literature Endlessly.
And we promise you that it beats the hell out of the pressure, the earnestness, the competitiveness and the worthiness of book clubs.