Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck (Penguin Modern Classics, but first published 1935)
Of all the pleasures of being in a warm climate on holiday (or even when it’s raining, but just a little), lying under the shade of a pergola in a hammock is certainly one of the best – particularly after lunch, I’ve found. This particular hammock, the one I managed to hoist (is that the right word?) between two stout trees, was a classic of its type; and I had found it covered in cobwebs, rolled up behind the temperamental boiler in a store room off the kitchen, just where the owner said it would be.
It was made of that kind of stiff canvas material, like sail cloth, with weighted tassels all down both sides so that it could be wrapped around you like a cigar – and the canvas connected with cords, drawn together into a single point like a triangle at both ends, to two wooden bars. Both bars then connected to a stout chain with a clip, so that it could be secured to whatever you chose to sling it between.
After a few failed attempts in various places around the garden (no lasting damage I’m glad to say), I managed to secure it just about elbow height between two trees in the shade of a clambering rose bush which had been trained across some cross beams. Perfect, I thought, as I stood back to admire my work so far – but what this really needs is two chairs and a tray balanced across their backs as a makeshift table, so that everything you might need is close to hand. Two minutes later I had my handy hammock–side table assembled, and a few odds and ends to provide essential creature comforts (but no Blackberry I’m glad to say). Nearly ready now, I thought, as the afternoon sunshine distilled its warmth: silence, other than the crickets chirruping and the bees flitting from flower to flower.
There is then, however, the rather tricky business of getting into the hammock – a particular test for land-lubbers like myself – but after a few nervous attempts and at least one calamity involving the makeshift table, I was finally on board and drifted off into a world created by legendary American author John Steinbeck.
The first Steinbeck book I read was East of Eden (for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature), and it remains in my list of the best 5 novels of all time – but shamefully I have neglected reading any of his many other novels ever since.
Tortilla Flat – a copy of which was on the shelves in the house – is one of his earliest novels, and the one which really first put him on the map, so to speak. It’s also a relatively short book, easily read if you’re prepared to put in the hard work of a good few hours in a hammock, for example.
Set in the coastal town of Monterey, California in the early 20th century, the book follows the lives of a handful of down at heel paisanos, with the hero Danny in the centre. The fairly loose plot is gentle and funny, following the comic-tragic events of each of the main characters in turn – but the real star is Steinbeck and the quality of his writing which shines through on every page. Steinbeck later revisited Montery for one of his other classics Cannery Row – but as you know I haven’t read that yet! The book – Tortilla Flat that is, was also made into a 1942 Hollywood movie starring Spencer Tracey and Hedy Lamarr.
This is a great old holiday book, and you can get it here (sorry for the long link) www.amazon.co.uk/s/?ie=UTF8&keywords=tortilla+flat+-+john+steinbeck – or why not try Biblocafe in Glasgow’s West End? www.biblocafe.co.uk – but best of all, here’s a bona fide hammock site! www.lazyhammocks.co.uk