06 Jan Books and chocolate
A metre of books came into the house over Christmas. It’s a while since we got into the habit of giving each other only books. Oh, and chocolate. It wouldn’t be Christmas without chocolate. I always get a large tube of Smarties – it’s a nostalgia thing.
A bit like Quality Street. When I visited her the other day, my daughter showed me the coloured transparent wrappers she’s been collecting. She has a plan to make something with them, something that will filter the light through their lovely, rich sheen. It’s a romantic plan and delightful – if fanciful. Fingering those wrappers took me back to winters in the old manse in Edinburgh. A big tin of Quality Street arrived each year. I don’t remember who gave it. Probably the fairy-godmother-pretend-auntie who lived down the road and adored us. Auntie Nina. She had lost her only son in the war and she lost her husband soon after I was born, so I only ever knew her as an alone person who always brought gifts. The Quality Street sat out of reach for a while, its pastel white and lilac-rimmed lid shiny, tantalising and sealed with Sellotape until my mother said it could be opened. In those days, you were a Quality Street or a Roses household. My grandmother preferred Roses where everything was soft-centred. Boring, to my taste, but easier on her dentures. I was glad in our house we were Quality Street people; they were much more interesting.
Books arrived at Christmas time in those days too though with nothing like the metric value of today. There was the comic annual – the Judy or the Bunty depending on where your loyalties lay. I was a Bunty child; my sister may have graduated to Jackie at some stage but I have a sense it was rather frowned upon in our house. Then, later, for some reason, there was a fashion for giving the Guinness Book of Records. I say for some reason because, as a family, we weren’t especially interested in world records. But it made for some amusing guessing games and unexpected enlightenment about obscure human pursuits with eye-popping statistics. Wrapped in flimsy Santa Claus paper, the Guinness Book of Records became a fixture on the modest pile of presents that awaited my sister and me on Christmas morning.
Nowadays, the Christmas metre of books is a delight, something to bring joy to the dark nights of January. The only downside is the prospect of culling a metre of the existing collection to accommodate them. There is no space in the house for more bookshelves, no more corners to squeeze in another bookcase. The choosing gets harder and harder. I feel I’ve only just done the ‘shift and sacrifice’ that was needed to absorb the books we got for our birthdays in the summer. And here we are again.
Books are the history of me. Memories laced between the covers of this volume and that. I can hardly bring them to mind in the abstract but if I go to the shelf, see the familiar spine, stroke it gently, then the recall is instant. There are books marking important moments in my life. I pick them up and am transported to another time, another me. I won a couple of prizes in my final year at school and, though I’m almost certain I will never read The History of German Literature again nor even need to refer to it, it is too much of a landmark in life to be let go. Books that were gifts from people no longer here. Books lent and never returned, not intentionally but negligently, forgetfully; the contact is gone except I can bring it to mind if I pick up that book. How I would love to be able to return it even now, so many years later, renew the acquaintance, say sorry. Books that belonged to people that have been important, parents, grandparents, friends, mentors. I have managed to pare back the bibles that were left in my mother’s house when she died from 21 to 4. There were 16 alone in a small red vanity case that had belonged to my sister and a pair of crisp £20 notes inside the Good News Bible in the bookcase – a compelling example of taking things literally! The four bibles that have survived the thinning out are old, their covers worn by moist palms, their pages creased by time. They contain inscriptions that make me cry. They are too precious to abandon to the carefully curated shelves of the local charity bookshop. They must stay.
So, what will it be? Some of the novels, I suppose. I have loved them; they are like life drawings on my walls. But I know that there are hardly any I will ever read again. All those new titles that sit in pristine piles on tables in my local small Waterstones, I know I will want to read some of those, that they will have their turn of being loved by me and, come the time for the next cull, we will have our time of parting.