Last year, pursuant to a most excellently nutty project, I found myself acquiring a nutty book. And it is a sheer joy to open a nutty book – in this case The Living Universe by Francis Younghusband – and find that it has been annotated by an even nuttier reader.
The book, a best-seller published in 1933, is one of the first ever “New Age” tracts. And indeed “New Age” is a phrase I think (I am too lazy to nail this) Younghusband uses somewhere in the book. He might even have coined it.
It is a revelatory book. It leads us via some mind-blowing facts culled from physics and chemistry and astronomy (contemplation of the very small, contemplation of the very large) through an intellectual hymn to the mind-blowingly austere beauty of the Himalayas (an explorer, Younghusband was the first westerner to “open up” Tibet) on a journey that will propel us toward a rapturous new mysticism, a religion that will allow us all to feel the life force all around us in the Cosmos.
The annotations are dated 1973. I can almost see this phantom annotator now. He surely acquired the book for a song off a second-hand book stall on Portobello Road. He lives in a squat in Notting Hill. He owns an Afghan coat. He sits up late on his own in his airless room, reading and smoking the odd spliff.
“This is a serious matter,” writes Younghusband at one point. “Is it?” responds our annotator, scathingly, in the margin. His stoned-out scepticism still resonates.
Sadly, he doesn’t have much stamina. There’s a dense flurry of activity beginning on page 2 but his last commentary (“there is NO SUCH THING as movement”) arrives on page 14. The rest (the book is 249 pages long) is silence.
I wonder what became of him. Is he still with us?
“I believe [the world] is only all energy,” he informs us (an audience he never suspected he’d ever have) at the top of one page. “But I am not worried,” he adds. “Nothing Man does lasts FOR EVER.”
And do you know what? He may well have a point here.