From the Wind in the Willows to Poirot Clare Hastings dives into the joy of books
Some people love a family tree or a house history, but I think I chart my life through my books.
They are so much more than a mere backdrop, they are a memory prompt.
I come from a family of writers, some good, some brilliant and some bad. They have covered everything from crime and cookery to military history and novels. Grandparents, great-grandparents, parents, cousins on both sides of my family were never happier than when filling a blank page. Although I have shelves that are a testament to their efforts, and are of course part of my personal history, it is the books I have chosen to give shelf space to that prompt significant memories.
During lockdown D.I.Y seems to have been more pressing than reading. I have to confess to setting in with a will and way to paint a wall, and have hardly picked up a book.
A quick survey amongst some of my friends, showed that it was easier to flop in front of a box set than to read. I think Kindle has something to do with this. A fantastic tool to travel with, but in fact when it comes to remembering the title and the name of the author, it is rather detrimental.
I certainly need the physical presence of pages to really engage. Nothing can ever replace the thrill of a new book as you prise open the pristine paper.
In pursuit of the need to clean and decorate I have just cleared a wall of books. This took much longer than it should have, as I had to keep stopping to dip in, and it was the dipping that made me think ‘aren’t books brilliant’. Books I had barely opened in years, books that I had inherited, or books I had bought years ago now chart the course of my life.
Books on cookery lead this field. I discovered a little Teach Yourself to Cook Book obviously given to me when I was still at school. It has my name and address in childish scrawl written on the opening page. The recipes were compiled in 1938, mine was a later 1960s edition. I can’t imagine I ever wanted to boil haddock or whitings, and there is a recipe for gruel - basically porridge, but I probably toyed with a chocolate sandwich cake.
I have cook books dating back to the 70s and 80s. Just to look at the technicolour photographs gives me endless pleasure, and reminds me of dinners and the efforts I made in entertaining.
I remember clearly making an ice bowl, holly berries protruding from the ice, and the pudding that went in it. It was supposed to be marvellous one-up-manship, but my guest couldn’t touch it due to an earlier visit to the dentist.
Obviously the books you read as a child are the building blocks to a lifetime of words. I loved The Wind in Willows. Not Toad. I found his activities rather boorish, but Mole, there was a character with depth and feeling. His description of going back to his house in the chapter ‘Dulce Domum’ still reduces me to tears, even though I must know the chapter by heart, and his love of home inspired me to love mine.
‘You don’t understand! It’s my home, my old home! I’ve just come across the smell of it, and it’s close by here, really quite close. And I MUST go it, I must, I must!.
Mole cared about the interior of his home, and the garden (how I loved Mole’s garden), He was quite the decorator.
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I stopped clearing to look through a charming little book published in 1913 called Wild Flower Preservation. This must have been my mother’s who gathered flowers to press when she was a child. It is very instructive, clearly written and illustrated, and there is evidently much more to saving a flower than squashing it between books, there are words of warning too
‘Too much cannot be said against greedy and destructive gathering, so largely responsible for the closing of so many secluded woods that might otherwise be open to the public. Never tear out handfuls of plants to choose out the best afterwards and throw the remainder away. This is really not playing the game’.
I love an anthology, and came across a Penguin anthology called Love Letters chosen by Antonia Fraser in 1976.They are as you might expect from this writer of historical works filled with treats, the chapters divided into subdivisions by emotion - pleas, ejections, jealousies, gallantries, separations etc and they make you long for a letter rather than an email. Written more recently in 1996, I also found Louise Guinness’s anthology on fathers, which is excellent bedtime fair and covers fatherhood from many angles, Homer to Seamus Heaney and is a delight to reread.
You can chart the years through crime novels. Sherlock leading the field, Poirot, Rebus,and onto Cormoran Strike, and goodness women make good crime writers. Ruth Rendell, Kate Atkinson, PD James, Minette Walters the list goes on and on. I was introduced to Josephine Tey as a child and there in my book pile was The Man in the Queue, which is going straight onto the bedside table. A really old fashioned ‘whodunit’ rather than a slash and burn.
Has my reading changed over the years? Well in a way. As a teenager I selected books that I knew I ‘should’ read, or ones that put on the shelf could single me out as a woman of discernment - D.H Lawrence, Truman Capote and Joe Orton vied for space with a series of art books. These were rather jolly with a glossy painting a page, and proved I knew my way around the National Gallery.
I have got to a stage, when really I could just start at the beginning of my shelves and just re-read. I do have a clear out every now and again, when I think I should create more space, and we all have books we are perfectly happy to read once, and then pass on, but looking through my small heaps, ready to be dusted and returned to place, there are very few I am happy to part with. The words or the settings may in some cases be dated (or worse in need of ‘wokening up’), but they are still remarkable books, and are relevant in creating worlds in and beyond our imagination.
It has become time to look beyond the vagaries and faults of our authors and just look at their words and whether we agree with them or not, me and my shelves will be ever grateful for their commitment to writing, which has enriched my life in a multitude of ways.
FURTHER READING: There's no better evening than a good meal and a good book. We've reviewed the best supermarket cooking kits to keep things quick and easy.