I thought that the whole simplicity thing for me began with discovering St Francis when I was fifteen years old.
But I’ve uncovered a deeper layer I had forgotten.
When the fretting and fretting to live in a shed finally got to the point of explaining to Tony the Badger that, though I love him with all my heart and certainly want to share his company and sleep in his bed, I just have to live in a shed, and plans were made to get a second shed for the garden I knew at once that my shed was to be called The Palace Flophouse.
Now I haven’t read Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday since I was about 12 years old, so in all those years The Palace Flophouse has lain (as I thought) dormant in my imagination – but it’s obviously that that’s what's broken through to the surface. Until a week or so ago, I could have told you who wrote those books, but not a single character or happening or anything else about then. All forgotten.
When I thought of the shed as The Palace Flophouse, I felt two reservations. 1) I really dislike plagiarism and living on borrowed ideas. I would have preferred to make up a name of my own. 2) I like to call a place by a holy name – the Big House at Aylesbury is Hagia Sophia, the flat in Hastings was Gezellig, the tribe house in Hastings is Godsblessing House.
But I knew it had to be the Palace Flophouse so, intrigued, I re-read Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, and how startled I was. Because with the top layer of my mind I had totally and utterly forgotten the content of those books, I hadn’t appreciated how formative they had been, or remembered what a resonance they had found with my soul.
The two books taken together are about the best treatise on simplicity, living simply, I ever read. I’m not sure why they don’t usually get a mention. Where Thoreau’s Walden seems to be a kind of set text (I haven’t read it all but enough to get the gist of where he’s coming from), I don’t recall ever seeing Steinbeck referenced as a simplicity guru which, in the best sense, he surely is.
Reading those books again has made something immense fall into place for me. I came to St Francis after I read those, when a certain view and understanding had already formed. The one place I part company with St Francis is over his extreme asceticism – mortification of the flesh, despising of the self. Steinbeck talks of liking yourself in the same easy way you might like anyone else, and he looks steadily at human weakness and idiosyncrasy with humour and compassion and understanding – which is surely less neurotic.
It’s not often I come across a book that makes a difference, that doesn’t leave me thinking ‘Yes, but...’ and wandering off after page 23. It’s not often either that I come across a book that can effect a healing in me, or that can create a tangible wise peace. Reading these two books forty years after I last read them has done just that.
Cannery Row. Sweet Thursday. If you know yourself called to live simply; I recommend them.