I keep a spreadsheet of all my books. It’s currently at around the 1500-books mark. I’m giving you all the opportunity to stop reading now.
Still with me? Good. Well, it’s the greatest endeavour to which my rudimentary excel skills have been employed (a regret for any grown woman; a travesty for a policy official). As well as guarding against the mundane misfortune of buying the same book twice, and providing insurance against casual theft or the more extreme disaster of losing my library to the impending environmental apocalypse (when I’m on the raft as London floods in 2050, I can supply Grant from Brockley with the proof behind my exotic tales of owning an ancient edition of Milton’s Poetical Works. It’ll comfort us both, I think), the process of updating it can throw up some interesting finds. In doing so recently, I discovered that, amongst the dozens of books that had found their way from my Great Uncle Jack’s precious library to mine, the 1930s anthology FOUR GREAT DETECTIVE NOVELS included Agatha Christie’s famous The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926); a mystery about a Red House (1921) written by A.A. Milne when he wasn’t cavorting with philosophical bears ; The Rasp (1924) by famed thriller writer Philip Macdonald, and The Man from the River (1928) by intriguing socialist husband and wife writing duo G.D.H and M.Cole. Treasure! I reasoned that to distract myself from the fecal maelstrom of 2020, I could lose myself in these Golden-Age-of-the-detective-novel gems.
I never knew Great Uncle Jack: he died in his mid-twenties, from the effects of sulphur fumes inhaled while working in a factory making vehicle batteries during World War Two. Despite touching insights from my Nan (‘we were great pals’) and my wonderful Great Uncle Ted (a ‘lovely man’, he was a ‘VERY regular visitor to the local library’; an ‘avid moviegoer’ who retained an encyclopaedic knowledge of the movie world, down to the precise date and cinema in which he watched each film; a keen diarist; and a correspondent with pen friends in Britain, America and New Zealand), my acquaintance with a gentleman who died forty years before I was born will remain forever superficial.
But dear Jack and I are connected across the ages in my grateful guardianship of his books. There I was, during a pandemic, reading a book he had purchased eighty-odd years before during a World War. I found his improvised bookmark at the end of the Ackroyd mystery, a torn sheet of newspaper half-referencing London pubs and Hitler, during the week our nation’s pubs reopened following lockdown. During the week my fiance’s club Charlton FC was relegated, I used the address Jack had beautifully inscribed on the book’s flyleaf and the Rightmove website to nose inside the Charlton family home in which he had enjoyed these stories, imagining where, in a three-bedroomed house that sheltered eleven of the twelve Ellis siblings, he had found his reading nook.
As I put my own thumbs on what I hoped were his inky thumbprints – a mystery themselves, given Ted’s recollection of Jack being ‘very fastidious about everything, especially his personal possessions and his clothes’ – these little connections invited me down one of my labyrinthine bibliophile thought-holes. Those of us with prized book collections may wonder: where will our books end up? As he snuggled up somewhere with Christie in Charlton SE7, Jack could never have known that his precious tome (the flyleaf inscription reads ‘this is the sole property of John Ellis’) would eighty years later be devoured a few miles further south in Bromley BR2, in a house where his photo has been placed proudly on a bookshelf next to portraits of our illustrious distant relation, the Welsh Bard Robert Ellis ; his bookcase has been lovingly repurposed to house his great-great nephew’s growing book collection (already almost 200-strong. Might need a spreadsheet); and his own collection of books are kept secure in his little sister Margaret’s old bookcase, all by a never-known great niece who found great delight in identifying a relation who shared her eminently sensible practice of writing one’s name and the date of purchase in all newly-acquired volumes. If Jack had entertained hopes of passing his books on to children himself, would me looking after them, and celebrating him, offer some solace? It’s simplistic to think that, really. But when our young people die before their time, we yearn to find some solace somewhere, don’t we?
And where will my own books end up? There’s every chance that Rufus will react against the bochord-chic* of this house and adopt a minimalist lifestyle, and the endless library games we play with Jack’s old bookcase may actually put him off founding the Bronte Turner Library for Lost Souls in his mother’s loving memory (as I am planning for my will to stipulate. I’m only slightly joking). My books may be scattered to the winds, to follow those few books I have let go in my life but miss, like the lost copy of Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, a Women’s Press masterpiece that I ecstatically retrieved from a sale in Edmonton Green library, only to give away because its 500 pages seemed impenetrable and I began to feel that its fluorescent yellow bravado was mocking me. If Ru decides to pack ’em all up in charity bags and send them off to the four corners of civilisation (well, Bromley), will a future bibliophile pick up one of my books, see the inscription inside and wonder, momentarily as we all do whenever we find a mysterious name on a flyleaf: well, who was that then?
Somewhere, though, on a hard drive deep within a landfill long after the world has stopped turning, there’ll still be the spreadsheet. It’s a comfort. It really is.
So what about Christie, Milne et al? Well, there are the familiar tropes of red herrings and locked rooms and amateur detectives running rings around the local constabulary in a pre-DNA age, and many dynamics on class and money that reflect the time in which they were written – the butler who desperately thieved in order to pay for his wife’s healthcare provided a poignant connection with our recent explosion of pride in our amazing NHS. But there was drug running and cocaine use, illegal abortions, open marriages, domestic abuse, alcoholism: EastEnders writ large in interwar country towns. All of this gloriously sufficed to take my mind off the fact that, just like detective stories and the journey of a second-hand book, we don’t know how any of this is going to end. Thank you, Great Uncle Jack, for some great reads. I think you would appreciate my spreadsheet. I certainly appreciate you.
Rest In Bookishness, John Alfred Thomas Ellis, 1914-1940
*bochord is old English for library, being equivalent to ‘book’ and ‘hoard’.