Last year, I set myself a challenge: to finally read the fifty-odd books I inherited from my Nanny Turner when she left us for the big library in the sky in 2014. A wide-ranging collection for a woman with little formal education apart from the English GCSE she took in her 70s (too busy being the eldest daughter of twelve Greenwich siblings), this challenge was not a chore, but it was certainly more of an emotional undertaking than I had anticipated.
At that time I was trudging through a very unpleasant bout of depression and, as I turned the pages during those black-dog nights, I was comforted by the thought of Nan turning the same pages during her own late-night reading sessions, and by the sense of pride and gratitude I felt towards a grandmother who had enjoyed this eclectic mix of books and now offered me the same joy during a bleak time. But as I worked my way through Nan’s books I realised that something else was happening. I was recreating her, piecing her together using her books, both through the titles she had left us and the ephemera I found hidden within them – letters from family, inscriptions from the broad mix of friends she kept, and most touchingly, various attempts to commit to paper her 97 years on earth. Together they captured her interests, her character and her magic. No wonder I apologised out loud to her for spilling the best part of a gin and tonic over her Iris Murdoch biography (wondering how many digestive biscuits had narrowly escaped becoming a permanent part of her library): I felt she was there.
It was of course possible that I was overblowing all of this, and that this bookish resurrection of Nan was simply a reflection of my craving for a bit of her South London ‘Nevermind, eh?’ realtalk to hoist me back from the brink: during an early counselling session, I declared my son, my miscarried first child and my late Nan as the people I felt I trusted most in the world at that time, which was all the proof I needed that I had thoroughly lost the plot. But still it became clearer to me that the books we bequeath to others somehow become our ghosts and something for our families to latch on to, after we have passed. I never met my Great Uncle Jack, Nan’s elder brother and wonderful pal who died in his 20s, but his glorious book collection fills me with famililal pride, by including gems which were well awry of any predetermined 1930s working-class reading list (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Darwin, a massive volume of Oliver Cromwell’s speeches…I could go on, but you would all dribble), and inspires fellow bibliophile respect, given it was protected from his aforementioned Greenwich siblings via charges for borrowing and fines for misuse. I treasure my late Uncle Mark’s childhood books, complete with his school project book rack, as they give me a connection to Mark as a boy, when I am not going to now know him in his old age. The very fact we feel the need to keep hold of these books – in my Great Uncle Jack’s case, they have been in the family for 80 years now – suggests how evocative they are of the people we miss.
And then I wondered: am I creating my own bookish ghost for my son Rufus? I’m always buying him books I think he’ll enjoy when he’s older – at two and a half, he could open his own book stall with the hundred or so books I have squirrelled away ‘for a later date’. I never had a fear of death before having a child but the thought of Rufus living without my love breaks my heart. The bags of books at the bottom of my wardrobe are a way of giving him a bit of me if I’m ever gone. (Though he may prefer a Children’s ISA. Sorry, lad.)
It’s bittersweet of course, this bibliophilic séance. We cannot know our loved ones’ reactions to their books as we form our own opinions on them ourselves years later. Did my Nan reach the end of my 2010 Christmas gift to her, the Oxford English Collection of Short Stories, or stop during T. H. White’s peculiar tale The Troll, as a turned-over page suggests? What did Great Uncle Jack think of the Old Warty’s speeches? Did Ladybird’s The Story of Football inspire my Uncle Mark’s lifelong obsession with the beautiful game? I can never know, and I miss them all the more.
So to paraphrase that occasionally on-the-money curmudgeon Philip Larkin: what will survive of us is love…through books. We may not be King George III bequeathing the British Library to the nation, but we do transmit love and knowledge and some insight into the trickier aspects of life through the books we bestow upon others, speaking to our loved ones and descendants through others’ tongues. It’s a bit like living forever, until the silverfish set in. And as a parting comment, I genuinely think Old Ma Turner tried to offer me some comfort from that great library in the sky on one particularly bad night: why else would I come across the following poem, marked with a cross and its page turned over, just at a time when I needed it most? Judge for yourself, but I think I’m onto something here. Thanks Nan. And sorry about the gin.