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What's the point of books?

The year is 1991 and I am in Tallinn hunting for metal. It is the surprising end of the Soviet Union and the tectonic plates are shifting. 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 Baltic States to oblivion in 1967 by re-assigning to the USSR the gold that the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians had sent by ship to the Bank of England in 1944.*

Western Europe generally accepted that the Baltic States had been snuffed out and only a few commentators didn’t agree. Bernard Levin was one, and I remember a Times article by him in the 1970s in which he listed the names of some of the Estonian WWII dead; just a list 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So here I was in Tallinn, a few days after Mikael Gorbachev had withdrawn the tanks that had been dispatched to suppress the resurgent state.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 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 with all my expeditions, I tried to make sure I didn’t only experience airports and offices. So, this time I visited the Maritime Museum. Tallinn in history was a 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 drab and cold city, in which the centralised state fixed the temperature in citizens' homes in winter at a steady 60 degrees Farenheit; where paving slabs 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 and friendships. I remember passing the British Consulate where a motley line of people queued for a visa to Britain – a queue for the door.

But at the Maritime Museum, which was almost empty, an elderly woman sat on a chair by the door with her head in a book. As I passed, I noticed it was a thick, battered paperback 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 my visit I thanked her and tried to open a conversation with the words ‘I see you are interested in Churchill’. Barely looking up, she said rather abruptly, ‘I am not interested in Churchill. I just want to know what happened’.

The book that I think the lady was reading... (Publ. 1991 by Random House)

I had many encounters on my trips to the former Soviet states, but her comment was not to be forgotten. The state she belonged to, from the time of its occupation in 1944, had regulated knowledge. It promoted myths about the Great Patriotic War and denied its citizens the freedom to seek knowledge where they chose. But, despite this, it appeared that this woman - born before the war - had kept alive both the flame of her wish for freedom but also her English language. Who knows, perhaps she had squirrelled away old classics, or occasionally listened to a hissing long wave radio signal from the BBC World Service? And now, with no time to lose, she was quietly finding out ‘What happened’.

Her belief in the English language and the veracity of authors writing in it, was the same belief that had allowed the Estonian government to send its gold to The Bank of England. And here she was now, for the first time in her long life, intent on discovering – as she said - what had happened; how world events had shaped out while her country was out of radio contact - and how transmitted without the filter of a politically oppressive system.

One time, I was lost in Tallinn with deep snow all around, and found myself in a street of old wooden houses, straight out of a Russian 19th century painting. I knocked on a door to ask the way. Down the stairs came an old professor and his wife. Peering inside I could see the stuff they'd kept from the old days – old frayed carpets, brass candelabra, 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. Life had gone on and they'd hung on to the past. Perhaps they'd kept the past alive to think and dream in the world of academia, while all around was utilitarian, or subject to the pettiness of the Soviet state.

When they heard that I was English, they did not want to let me go and I realised that hearing an English voice was for them like the first day of spring.

So whenever I am asked ‘What is the point of books?’, I think of those two old folk and the lady in the Maritime Museum; all long dead now but who survived 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.

A version of this article was published on on 8th July 2020

*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 .


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