Gail Trimble hastens into Greens, armed with a laptop and an apology – tempus fugit when you’re exploring the realm of Catullus 64. Two latte-orders later, the scene switches from Ariadne’s isle of Naxos to a less foregone imaginary island. Time to discover the contents of Gail’s castaway book-bag…
Children of two scientists, Gail and her brother grew up in a home laden with piles upon piles of Usborne factual books. An early ingredient to her University Challenge success? Pair this with teeming enthusiasm for fiction (Roald Dahl, Narnia, and Greek mythology all close to the heart) and a winning formula seems at hand.
To relay back to my book-dodging little sister, I ask what Gail deems most valuable in childhood reading, and her first response: “viewpoints”. She talks of images as building-blocks in one’s head – often otherwise inaccessible vistas. I’m engrossed (hugely envying her tutees), being swept along with her lively thinking-aloud style of speaking. Gail singles out the guidance of a personality behind the pages; the classicist inside her seems fascinated by the rhetorical element of reading. “Do I trust what I’m being told? Would I do things differently?” – nothing is to be taken at face value in the Trimble household. Drawing a link between authorial manipulation and the weasel-words of politicians, Gail adds that growing up with fiction can deter from being shepherded blindly by words.
Apart from the occasional teenage verse (“as one does”) Gail has never had much drive to create fiction herself. Plots and characters sketched by others are so engaging, she says, it means that she struggles for her own inventions. Instead, she enjoys “turning what I observe into words rather than creating”, whether that be for her diary or her contribution to Corpus Christi’s Pelican Record.
While her classics degree at Corpus almost led astray onto a philosophy-future, Gail’s love of literature ultimately took the steering wheel. Her current project, a commentary on Catullus’ labyrinthine sixty-fourth poem (alongside tutoring at Trinity), surprisingly makes more room for leisurely reading than the chaos of undergrad life.
Catullus’ story within a story occupies no mean amount of her thought-space – the shape of literature is something that captivates Gail. During our coffee, one proof of this comes in the form of her energised eulogy of Cloud Atlas and its brilliantly bizarre structure. Hence my surprise at her answer as to whether plot is second to style: “no, a great story is obviously a wonderful thing.”
So, moment of truth. Which five stories make up Gail’s literary entourage on her desert island? Voilà…
* Gaudy Night – Dorothy L. Sayers
* Persuasion – Jane Austen
* The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien
* The Complete Works of Virgil
* Little Town on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder
Sayers’ detective tale (read and reread since Gail was thirteen, and a spark behind her Oxford application), the obligatory Austen novel, a hefty bulk of Tolkien, an inevitable Latin classic, and the comfort of a childhood favourite. After our coffee convivium, I left Greens in faintly dazed awe at Gail’s blend of genius and geniality. An early Christmas present of a fully-certified and barely academic reading list gift-wrapped with insightful conversation: what’s not to love?