Finding somewhere to write in our house was always going to be a problem; there were just so many of us in the family taking up the available space, but when my eldest went to university, the opportunity presented itself, in the form of her little room under the eaves at the very top of the many stairs. Here I have my desk and my very own bookshelf. Many of the books are for reference and research (like The Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches) an infamous treaty on witches written in the 1480s – gripping stuff) but others are very special books that I’ve carried around with me from bedsit to flat to house to (borrowed) room since I was a child. They are very precious and I like to have them near me when I’m working. You can tell I have read them over and over again because the bindings are falling apart.
On the bookshelf I keep my favourite Enid Blyton, Five Go Adventuring Again, my tatty, ancient Complete Works of Shakespeare and Jane Eyre (my old copy was in such dire straits that I received a beautiful new clothbound copy from my son for Christmas).
Lord of the Rings (‘published in one volume India paper edition 1969’) is there too, looking fairly innocuous – if shabby – now, but the label inside identifies it as the book I chose for my sixth-form prize for Music. At the time, the nuns thought it a most scandalous choice: not only was it far too lacking in gravitas to be a proper prize, but it was also – shock! horror! – a paperback. I was determined to have it, though, having read and loved the three separate hardback first editions in the school library. Since the lowly Music prize was only 23/- (£1.15p) – unlike the high-status English and Maths prizes (both £5 at least), I wanted to get as much value as I could out of the measly sum they gave me.
My absolute most favourite book as a child was The House with the Twisting Passage by Marion St. John Webb, which was first published in 1922. Jenny is sent to live with her Aunt Abby in an old rambling house (hmmm – sounds familiar?), and spends her lonely hours imagining the occupants of the empty rooms along the twisting passage. She is then sent to stay with another aunt, Aunt Emma, in her fussy little house in Putney and when Jenny returns to Aunt Abby’s.....? This book is wonderfully atmospheric. It utterly captivated me when I was little, and still does.
I also loved Andersen’s Fairy Tales. The old copy here on my shelf has no illustrations, or rather it was printed with no illustrations. As I turn the pages for the present purpose, I notice I had, aged eight or so, drawn my own pictures in the margins with a horrendously runny biro. Fortunately, I was presented with a wonderful, and subsequently much-loved book The Golden Story Book (now with no cover whatsoever, the pages only held loosely together by bits of aged glue) which includes some of the Andersen tales, beautifully illustrated by Anne Anderson, her work considerably more competent than mine. My favourite stories by Hans Christian Andersen were The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen (which I always felt had some mystical meaning I could never quite fathom), and The Little Match Girl. The ending always made me weep buckets, but I carried on reading it over and over again. It’s a wonder the page didn’t dissolve away.
Another book which sent me into floods every single time was Heidi by Joanna Spyri, a birthday present in 1959 from my Auntie Edith and Uncle Norman. Again, the illustrations are lovely (although I notice as I look through it more liberal use of that runny biro; for some reason I thought Heidi and Clara should be wearing crowns throughout), and one picture used to get to me every time, that of Heidi throwing herself into her grandfather’s arms when she returns from Frankfurt. In fact, even today, I only have to get to the page before the picture, and my eyes start to brim over, knowing what’s coming. Not very grown up, I know, but my husband goes through the same thing when he gets towards the last page of The Railway Children.
Unfortunately, living rather off the beaten track, we had no access to a public library, but the best thing my father ever did was to buy the ten-volume Children’s Encyclopaedia edited by Arthur Mee, Volume Ten of which sits on my shelf (the rest are downstairs on the communal bookshelves). These would be considered incredibly old-fashioned and out of date by modern standards, but for me they opened up a fabulous world of history, geography, science, myth and stories, art (all the great masters in grainy black and white), ideas and poetry, including my favourite poem (yes, another weepy), The Crowning of Dreaming John by John Drinkwater, again beautifully illustrated here and introduced with the words ‘...one of the finest poems of our matchless countryside...’ (Aaaaah... I’m going again). I’ve never come across anyone else who has even heard of this poem, so it was probably written with the sole intention of becoming a delicious secret between Drinkwater, Arthur Mee and me.
Mind you, I thought nobody else in the world had ever come across the old ballad, Long Lankin, either, when I first discovered it as a teenager in this slim, dog-eared volume, The Penguin Book of English Folksongs. Without this book, I wouldn’t be sitting here today writing about the others on my shelf.
I suppose I should aim to be a little bit more mature now, but I’m still wallowing in the past, as one of the books I still read at least once a year is again an out of print, ancient thing with seriously worn binding from much use, The Widow Woman by Charles Lee, first published in 1896. For me this is a perfectly executed, funny, gentle gem of a book with such a touching little love story at its heart, and again, some lovely drawings – very short, barely two hours worth of blissful escapism.
As a cautionary measure, I am now going to share with you an embarrassing experience I endured because of another book on my shelf.
Years ago, one of my daughters was given as a present The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an alphabet book by Edward Gorey, a man who often used odd anagrams of his name as pseudonyms. We all loved the book’s weirdness so much, I decided to seek out some more Edward Gorey for the children. Looking down a list of his works, not knowing which one to choose, I hit upon The Curious Sofa as it sounded, well, curious. I duly ordered it from the local bookshop which I had frequented quite happily for many years.
A few days later, I received what seemed like a rather furtive phone call from the proprietor to say that the book had arrived. When I went into the shop the assistant was unable to find it and called said proprietor; who sidled in, whispered to her behind his hand, and directed her to a low, shadowy shelf where a few books were lined up in thick brown envelopes. Still blissfully ignorant, I took the book, breezily thanked them both and left.
Imagine my horror when, on getting home, I opened the envelope and read the cover: The Curious Sofa – a pornographic work by Ogdred Weary. Mortified with embarrassment, I immediately went and made myself a cup of strong, restorative tea, worrying that I would never be able to go into that very nice shop again.
As it happens, the book is not particularly risque at all, just a little strange... and I leave it to lurk there upon my shelf as a warning to make sure I know what I’m ordering before I order it.
As a footnote, I did go into the bookshop a few months later, and the manager seemed to have forgotten the incident entirely, or was a perfect gentleman – actually, I hope both.
I could ramble on and on, because reading books, shuffling through or dipping in and out of them is for me just the best thing there is (oh, and listening to music). I read and enjoy new books all the time but I hope it has been interesting for you to see where, for me, the pleasure of reading began. It’s an odd thing, isn’t it, that the joy of a good story, which has popped out of somebody else’s head and into yours, can remain with you all your days.
I am now taking you back down the stairs to the real world...
It's always great to hold onto your favourite books - my copy of Watership Down is very ragged now but I still read it and take with me everytime I move!
I hadnt heard the Long Lankin rhyme - it gave me the chills - that book was so creepy.