What is the point of books?
Updated: Jan 17
This article was written by Anthony Lipmann. All views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.
The year is 1991 and I am in Tallinn hunting for metal. The surprising and cataclysmic end of the Soviet Union is a shifting of the tectonic plates. From the point of view of a metal merchant, the sudden outflows of metal, once destined for the military, are a sort of prize.
Harold Wilson’s Labour Government had condemned the Baltics to oblivion in 1967 by re-assigning to the USSR the gold that the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians had placed in a ship in 1944 and sent for safe-keeping to the Bank of England.* Western Europe simply accepted that the Baltic States had been snuffed out. Only a very few commentators didn’t and Bernard Levin was one. I remember a Times article he wrote in the 1970s in which he listed names of some of the Estonian WWII dead; just a list to give them light, to make them less forgotten. For their part, the Estonians had not given up, and kept alive the hope that one day they would be free. So here I was now, a foot soldier in the metal trade, in Tallinn, a few days after Mikael Gorbachev had withdrawn the tanks that had been despatched to suppress the resurgent state. The specific fuse for rebellion had been a Soviet command to mine for polluting phosphorite. The Estonian response, in a country famous for its choirs, had been what was called the Singing Revolution – demonstrations in music and patriotic songs against tanks.
But this article is about books. After travelling around this country of no more than 1.6 million, and its neighbouring Baltic states, I had pulled up at my hotel to prepare for the trip home. As per all my business adventures, I made sure I didn’t only experience airports and offices. So, on this occasion I visited the Maritime Museum. Tallinn in history was a proud Hanseatic port, a critical and powerful part of the league of states which, by controlling the exit and entrance points of goods from the port-deficient Russian empire, ran a kind of protection racket whereby the Estonians and their neighbours removed the cream on top. Today, though, I was looking at a city, drab and cold, where the centralised state even fixed the temperature delivered to its citizens in their homes at a steady 60 degrees Farenheit in winter; where pavements were buckled, the fog of factory emissions hung in the air, and streets were deserted; where no neon sign brightened the gloom and its citizens sheltered indoors to find what little freedom there might be in family relations. I remember passing the British Consulate where a motley line of people queued for a visa to Britain – a queue for the door.
But there at the Maritime Museum, which was almost empty, sat an elderly woman on a chair by the door with her head in a book. As I passed, I noticed it was a thick, battered paperback with a red cover, about Churchill. Thousands of books have been written on Churchill, of which any of their authors might have asked ‘Does the world really need another book?’ or, specifically, ‘Does the world need another book about Churchill?’ Seeing it was in English, perhaps bought at an airport and left by another trader, I thought I would say a few words. So, after looking around, and without the woman giving me a glance, I thanked her for my visit and tried to open a conversation with the words ‘I see you are interested in Churchill’. Barely looking up, so absorbed was she – and I can see her clearly now – she simply said, ‘I am not interested in Churchill. I just want to know what happened’.
Of all my many encounters over several years, when I frequently travelled to the former Soviet area every two weeks to some wrecked place left over by the evil empire, her answer was the most revealing. The state she had belonged to, that had censored information, had created its myths about the Great Patriotic War and occupied her homeland from 1944, had also denied its citizens the type of truths that books reveal, sometimes in histories, at other times in fiction. And yet, despite everything, this woman – born before the war – had kept alive not only the flame of her wish for freedom but also her English language. Perhaps she had squirrelled away old classics, perhaps occasionally listened to a hissing long wave radio signal from the BBC World Service and now, with no time to lose, was quietly finding out ‘What happened’. Her belief in the English language of England, the veracity of its authors in that language, was the same belief that had allowed the Estonian government to send its gold to The Bank of England’s vaults. And here she was now, for the first time in her long life, intent on discovering – as she said – the truth of what had happened; how world events had been shaped while her country was out of radio contact – how transmitted, without the filter of a politically oppressive system.
Once, when I was lost in Tallinn at that time, with deep in snow all around, I found myself in a street of old wooden houses, straight out of a Russian 19th century painting. I knocked on the door to ask the way. Down the stairs came an old professor and his wife. Peering inside I could see what they had hoarded as precious to keep life sane in the mad oppression of the system – old frayed carpets, brass candelabra from the ceilings, portraits and landscapes in oil, reminders of the buccaneering past of Estonia’s Hanseatic history – and of course books, old spine-worn books. But I could also see that both the objects and their owners had become antiques too. Life had taken a different course from the one they expected. So, they kept the past alive, the freedom to think and dream in the world of academia, while all around was utilitarian, subjected to the pettiness of the oppressor state. When they heard that I was English, they did not want to let me go. I realised that hearing an English voice was for them the first day of spring.
Whenever I am asked ‘What is the point of books?’ I think of these two and the lady in the Maritime Museum, no doubt long dead now but who survived long enough to see out the 70 years of the Soviet Union and obtain some fresh facts written by an author who had, perhaps with misgivings, added another book to the vaults of the British Library in St Pancras.
*In 1991 John Major made amends for the actions of the Wilson government, and instructed the Bank of England to re-purchase the gold. His action enabled the three Baltic States to re-launch their country’s finances. Shortly afterwards visa restrictions into and out of the Baltics were lifted with the UK .