I approached this book nervously due to its subject matter. ‘How Many Camels are There in Holland?’ is something of a memoir written by Phyllida Law about the time spent with her mother as she suffered from dementia. My much beloved nanna has Alzheimer’s and this is the first experience I have had in seeing what havoc this disease brings upon somebody that you love. This is not a recent publication and I have had this copy sitting on my shelf for around two years now, as I always brushed past it feeling like it wasn’t time yet, that I wasn’t in a place where I could handle bringing a topic so painfully close to home into my ‘safe’ space that is reading.
Now, due to my book collection being, well, I would say completely justified…others might say wildly out of hand, I sometimes get to the point of choosing my next read and feel almost blinded by too much choice. I have come to a system with my friend where I ask her to choose which room I should head to and once there I will pick four books. Again authority is handed over to her as I list the four books and she tells me which to read from there. I am not sure how long this system will stay in place but it is fun for the moment! This weekend we went through the ritual but it took a twist at the conclusion. Sent to the bookshelves in my mini entrance hall (this is where my flood disaster happened which you may remember from outpourings on ‘The Day the Rain Came’) I pulled out three which took my fancy. Then I saw it. Still sitting there with its thick, cream jacket and simple sketching’s on the cover, my hand reached out and took the book off the shelf, I felt like I was eventually ready to read it. Snapping a picture of the four books and sending it over to my friend, I knew deep down in my heart what I wanted her to choose. Now sometimes, when she chooses the book I haven’t really been rooting for it is a good thing, it pushes me to getting around to reading something I had been putting off for some reason, and in the end, 99.9% of the time I enjoy them. This time when her answer came through and it wasn’t ‘How Many Camels…’ I felt my heart sink. I admitted my feelings to her as if this was somehow an affair of the book rather than heart and she kindly told me I had to follow what was calling out to me.
Practically from page one I felt like I knew Law and her family of real eccentric characters, they felt like the sort who would be stoic in the face of disaster, if upset would hand you a stiff drink and have kindness seeping through a voice that would very much be taking affairs in to hand. And that is how I found this book to be, kind and honest. Although Law tells their story in a linear fashion it often felt as if I was sitting with somebody who was sharing memories that came calling into the station without any time table. At first a little put off by this I soon settled into the rythm and realised this book almost reminded me of a scene at a wake, where loved voices at a table take turns beginning a yarn with ‘remember the time when she…’ and we all heal a little because of it.
As is the way with this illness things only get more difficult and this can be seen as Laws voice and patience become more strained due to her being the main carer for her mother. We watch the family and those from the community swoop in to help but see how even when trying to rest Law can never rid herself of the worry that weighs on her minute by minute.
As I said, I was worried with how I’d cope with this book but I’m so glad I read it. At times it was upsetting due to recognising some of the experiences Law has a bit too vivdly but mainly it was a pleasure, a reassuring conversation with somebody saying ‘I’ve been there too’ and making you see the moments of light in between the dark patches. Scattered throughout the text we have Law’s own sketchings and watercolours which are simple but charming and a real compliment to her confessional style.
A tear was shed but in the end literature did what it does so well and made me feel less alone. I’m sorry to my friend Emma, but I’m so pleased I went with my hearts choice this time.
How Many Camels are There in Holland? By Phyllida Law £12.99 (Fourth Estate)