The most disappointing book I ever bought was a collection of short stories produced by the Arts Council of England many years ago. At that time they used to publish an anthology of new writing annually in a thick paperback edition. I would buy it as soon as it came out, keen to see what was happening at the cutting edge of literature.
In those days I was at the start of my career, married with two small children, and struggling to pay the rent on our flat in a fairly insalubrious part of South-East London. We couldn’t afford a washing machine so once a week I would make a pilgrimage to the laundrette with my washing in a black plastic sack and sit there reading while it tumbled round and round in one of the huge old machines that looked like they had been designed and built in the Soviet Union a decade earlier. It was not a chore I enjoyed. The place had an air of ingrained poverty and was frequented mostly by misfits and oddballs of one kind or another
On this occasion I set off as usual with my washing and my box of detergent, feeling a little less reluctant for I had my brand new anthology with me. When I got to the laundrette I saw with considerable pleasure that the place was empty. For a brief interval the daily struggle to feed, entertain, bath and put to bed two impossibly lively children could be forgotten, or at least exchanged for an hour’s uninterrupted reading. Bliss! Whistling to myself, I emptied the clothes into the washing machine, selected the wash I wanted, put in my coins and sat down to begin – only to discover that somehow I seemed to have forgotten my book. I was so cross I could have kicked myself, and the ensuing hour passed unbearably slowly.
At last, however, the washing cycle was finished. I opened the door of the machine and began to take out the clothes. But what on earth had happened to them? They all seemed to be covered in a slimy grey film. It took me a surprisingly long time to work out that I had not, after all, left my book behind. Instead I had impregnated all my clothes with the most exciting new writing that England had to offer.