Rembrandt used to do that

John came in today. He’s always looking for history. He always has a list. The list is in a huge notebook with creased and folded pages, and with a pencil eased in and held against the muscles of the book’s spine.

He is usually quite worked up. This is always because he has found more reading.

‘For God’s sake, more reading. And I’m getting on in life.’ He leans hopelessly against the counter.

We go through the list. Today it is John Maynard Keynes, the English economist who died in 1946.

‘I really need this.’ (Essays in Persuasion).

He tells me about his high school. ‘The maths teacher used to beat me.’

‘And I want this one.’ (A Treatise on Possibility).

‘And this. Can you get this?’ (Essays in Biography).

Suddenly he asks me about Clive Cussler. ‘Does he write his own books?’

I said that he did. But then, later on, he collaborated with other writers.

John gave a shout of laughter. ‘Like Rembrandt, then! He used to get his students to do some of his stuff. You know, the apprentices. There they were, all doing the backgrounds.’

He kept laughing. His beard swung about. Other customers looked around.

‘And John Macarthur. You know him? It was Elizabeth that ran the place, did the sheep, brought in the merinos. Not him, the old scoundrel. Not the same thing as Clive Cussler of course. But it was still Elizabeth that brought in the merinos.’

Then he left, taking his notebook and pencil, and with his beard subdued for the time being.

Self Portrait with Saskia by Rembrandt c.1635