Our books

I bought another book this morning. Nothing remarkable about that, especially not for me, but for some reason I started to think about how the contrast between the many books i have surrounded myself with as an adult and the few – the much cherished few – we had at home when i was a child.

We didn’t buy books but that’s not to say we didn’t have any at all. My dad had a few books on farming, a book about the minerals of the earth and a set of art encyclopaedias he must have bought in instalments, though I never saw him read them. I read them surreptitiously – we children weren’t supposed to touch them, discovering in their pages the wonders of prehistoric art and the women of Titian, both of which I still love. I also read the book about minerals but the farming textbooks were too much and so I never did learn how to raise cows for milk.

For her part, my mum had a beautiful leatherbound anthology of stories (“Alice in Wonderland”,”The Water Babies”, tales from the Mabinogion, etc) and poetry (mostly Tennyson, Kipling, Walter de la Mare & co). This book had a poignant history: it had originally been a present to one of my mother’s uncles from the German family who sheltered him after he was shot down during the Second World War. It was intended for his daughter Katherine who, having survived polio, was now bed-ridden with TB.

Sadly, she died and the book passed to my mum who was another quiet, sickly, careful child: when she passed it on to us, it was still in pristine condition. Not for long. The leather covers came off one by one and ink ‘annotations’ soon ‘decorated’ the pages. I didn’t mind. I read it from missing cover to missing cover over and over again. I’ve loved the smell of old paper ever since, as i have the weight of a book in my hands – two reasons why e-books have never tempted me.

The Victorian stories inside the anthology were as different as could be to the bland tales the teachers regaled us with at school: slightly macabre and supernaturally inventive. The language was richer but more formal. The sentences were longer and exotically punctuated: there and then i fell in love with the semi-colon. Then there were the pictures: Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland in particular. I was less keen on the poetry apart from the nonsense rhymes of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

It was in this book that i first had my heart broken by a story. It was the Mabinogion tale about a knight who leaves his dog guarding his young son. A wolf comes in and attacks the baby. Although the dog is unable to save the child he does succeed in killing the wolf. But when the knight returns and sees the the dead infant he believes it is the dog who has killed him: he slays his faithful hound only to  discover, a little while later, the corpse of the true killer lying bloodied behind a curtain. I cried when i read that story and even now the injustice of the dog’s death fills me with sorrow. By contrast, i can scarcely recall what the books we read at school were about.

Finally, we had one other book in our house and it was the book from which we were taught to read: the Bible. Well, a children’s Bible. This contained all the best stories from the Bible with magnificent coloured drawings on each page (Cain, i recall, was clad in a strange tasselled coat of the kind a Country Music singer might wear). The language was simplified from the original but retained the tongue-twisting polysyllables that passed for names. How i struggled with those Babylonian kings! My dad used to record us reading: on the one fragment that still survives i can be heard stumbling repeatedly over “Nebuchadnezzar”  while he corrects me – quietly in the background – and gets me to try again.

The Bible was an even greater rollercoaster of a read than the “Great Anthology”. It was supposed to explain what was good and what was bad and indeed it did contain stories of beautiful wisdom: Solomon judging the women fighting over a baby, Jesus challenging the would-be executioners of an adulteress. Yet it also contained examples of terrifying carnage such as the destruction of Jericho.  Eve seemed to me to be more victim than transgressor while the Philistines were like the “Red Indians” in American cowboy movies: condemned merely because history had come to belong to their enemies. I began to think and haven’t stopped since.

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The sound of people breathing

Normblog comments on another blogger’s claim that when people make a noise or allow their children to make a noise in public they are stealing from us. He sympathises with the way she feels, but makes the very sensible point that beyond its use as a form of torture, there are no real rights in relation to noise in public spaces, only social conventions. He ends by saying:

And the way things have been going, socially acceptable is now more noisy than some of us enjoy.

I wonder though: is this true? In many ways i think the problem is not so much that people are increasingly noisy as that so many of us are increasingly unused to the noise that other people make. The high-tech world may have given us the leaky earphone, so often mentioned in noise-related complaints; but it has also given us online shopping, social networking and myriad other things, which tend to make us increasingly self-sufficient and reduce our need for actual contact with other human beings.

In our own private world everything is under control. Telly too loud for you? Turn it down. Don’t feel like chatting to your ‘friends’? Don’t log on. And so many of those keen to criticise other people’s leaking earphones are plugged into their own half the time, which may well leak too. How many of us ever bother to find out?

It’s a vicious circle, because the more we withdraw from other people, the more sensitised we become to them: the noise they make, the space they take up, the demands they make on us; and the more sensitised we become the less we are able to endure other people and so the more we withdraw from them. In the end it’s as much as we can take to hear the sound of other people breathing, and even that had better be quiet: no coughs please.

We lose the ability to appreciate the ideas that others may have about public space –  especially when those others are a different generation from us or from a different culture. We end up living in our universe and experiencing those around us as we would alien invaders.

When i was a child i used to get the bus with my mum or my nan. There was no option to sit and read a book, let alone listen to music – even if earphones had been invented then. Social participation in public was compulsory. You were grilled by countless old ladies about your accomplishments at school (God help you if you didn’t have any), subjected to elaborate enquiries about the health of any relative whose name they could remember and regaled with instructive stories about “the War” and “the Olden Days”. The trick, as i recall, was to fix on your face the most attentive expression you could muster and pretend they hadn’t told you the same tale the week before.

The noise and chaos of children was widely tolerated – people spent time with them more often so they were used to them; and yet at the same time it was better controlled because when people interact with one another – as opposed to ignore one another – they form a group with the power to enforce group norms.

I’m not saying i always liked it because i didn’t. I am an unsociable curmudgeon of a person and i was more than happy to move down to London where i could read my book in peace, unbothered by so much as a “Nice weather… for the time of year”; but I am coming to understand now that as much as i gained peace in the short term i have also gradually lost something. I live by myself and truly wonder if i could ever live with anyone else again. And i wonder what this bodes for me when i’m older.

My perfect museum: ‘A living house’

This morning on the way to work i found myself thinking about museums: why they are always unsatisfactory and what they ought to be like. In my notebook i wrote: “A living house: 1940s”. What did i mean by that?

***

You begin out on the street looking at the house from the front. What you see as you look through the windows is a modern-day home in the midst of every day life. It’s film footage: the windows are screens, though this isn’t apparent. Likewise, the faint sounds you hear from within are recordings.

You meet your guide – incapable of speech it seems – who ushers you into an adjacent house. Here the windows are blacked out, front and back, and the building is soundproofed. Looking around, you see you are in a waiting room: nondescript and devoid of anything but chairs (along the walls); and a great clock, which ticks, yet whose hands do not move. A bare bulb flickers uncertainly. The guide motions you to be seated and disappears through a door which locks behind them. There are no other doors. You wait.

Your guide returns. Now he or she is dressed in the fashions of the forties. You are led through a door that had been concealed from you: down into the cellar and along a tunnel. When you emerge at the other end you are at the bottom of the garden – a long garden with high walls – of the house through whose front windows you had earlier gazed. Washing is on the line. Voices can be heard indoors.

You enter through the back door, straight into the kitchen. This is no longer a modern house; the furnishings, all the contents, belong to the 1940s – or earlier still of course. What do you see? Maybe a table with butter and other ingredients laid upon it – as though someone had stepped out partway through baking a pie. Or perhaps the table is set for tea. You must smell it too: reality always has an odour. You must also touch it. There can be no ropes draped around the scene, sealing you off from it. Go on… pick up the fork, taste the butter if you want and place your hand against the side of the kettle – you may be startled to find it’s still warm. All the rooms are like this; each contains a tableau suggesting life in motion, arrested only upon your entry. Whichever room you are in you hear sounds from one or more of the others: a wireless; the voices of people discussing the war; laughter; rows. But as you turn the handle of the door, that room falls silent.

In the front room you go over to the window and when you look out you see the road – the very one in which you’d stood earlier, gazing across at this room; but this time you see it as it looked then. It’s quiet and still, there is no-one around. When you look from the upstairs windows the scene is still that of the past, but now there are people going about their business. The guide – how long have they been there? – is standing behind you, watching you watching. You’re led across the landing into the back bedroom. Through the window you see a woman come out to remove the washing.

Suddenly, you hear the sound of air raid sirens… BANG!!! The house is felt to shudder slightly. The lights go out. The guide produces a candle, lights it, and leads you out of the room and down the stairs. More explosions can be heard, thankfully this time at a distance. On the ground floor you smell burning and, glancing through the downstairs windows as you leave, you can see the house across the road has been hit. Sometimes you may hear the sound of a woman crying.

The guide leads you back down the garden path. The washing is gone from the line.

Back into the tunnel you go and into the waiting room. The bulb has failed. Ushering you through the darkness the guide points urgently at the door. You emerge and find yourself back on the road, which is just as you left it. As you pass the house the people inside are watching TV.

***

Ideally, there would be multiple scenarios, for different parts of the day – and perhaps for different days of the week: so there wouldn’t always be a bombing for example. One thing i wouldn’t have is live actors. Seen close up modern day people never convince as citizens of the past: too big, too brash, too obvious that they know how the story will turn out.

In any case, the key is the house.

Waiting and remembering

During a train journey the other day i got chatting with my colleagues about our grandparents and their homes. One of them said that her grandmother is a hoarder. Her house is jammed solid with everything she’s acquired over her life: regardless of whether she could have any imaginable use for them in the future. Indeed, many of the items are irretrievably broken.

This got me thinking about my maternal grandmother. Nana never married and lived almost all her life in the family home. After her parents died in the late 60s their bedroom was simply shut up. My nana and the one brother who also remained at home already had a bedroom each.

As children we were never permitted to go upstairs and I came to feel – in some ways to fear – that my great-grandparents were still up there, especially my great-grandma: probably because her personality pervaded the house. Yet I wasn’t aware of the bedroom itself until the early 90s, when I went over with a friend to do some cleaning. My nan had become quite frail and her eyesight had deteriorated, so the house was covered with dust that she just couldn’t see. We asked her if she had a hoover and she told us there was one in her mum and dad’s room. That was how she described it, even a quarter of a century after her mum and dad had ceased to exist.

When we walked through the door it was like stepping back in time: heavy wooden dressing tables, still laid out with her parents’ ornaments and photographs; a newspaper or a cutting from a newspaper (I forget which) from the 1960s, or possibly earlier. Eeriest of all, the bed was still made up. I remember being weirdly frightened of it: the image of my dead great-grandfather laid out on it kept flashing into my mind. Strange because it was my great-grandmother who was last to die.

We found the hoover in a corner along with a pile of other items, such as a set of kitchen scales, many of which were still in their packaging. By the time any of their children or grandchildren were wealthy enough to afford to buy them things to make their lives more convenient they were past using them: not even the rosary, brand new and sitting in its box. We got the hoover out and switched it on. It spluttered feebly but didn’t suck up any dust, so we gave up and returned to dusting by hand.

Thinking about it, that bedroom was only an extreme manifestation of the atmosphere which characterised the whole house. Downstairs in the dark living room the dresser was also set with photographs which had been there since my great-grandparents’ time, the most important of which was a picture of my nan’s brother, Arthur, who’d been killed in the last few weeks of the Second World War. A great wooden clock ticked away next to his photo. Arthur was in the RAF and, as was so common with airforce deaths, no body was ever found. My great-grandmother never accepted he’d died. She was still waiting for him to return home from the War on the day she died nearly a quarter of a century later.

Somehow it seemed as if the waiting continued even after her death. As a child I’d look up at the picture of “Uncle Arthur”, in his jaunty RAF cap, and imagine him coming up the path just as young and handsome as the day the photo had been taken. At which point “Great-Grandma” would come rushing downstairs to the door to welcome him, just as she’d done when his friend, who she’d mistaken for Arthur, had come to report him dead.

A few years after the cleaning expedition my nana died and the house had to be cleared so it could be returned to the Council. In just one day the spell was broken: the time capsule bedroom was dismantled; the photos, including “Uncle Arthur”, were taken down and put away. The rosary was later buried with my nana. I don’t know what happened to the clock. Another family lives in that house now, one which is unrelated to ours. I sometimes imagine Arthur returning, having finally found his way home, and discovering that no-one is waiting to greet him. It makes me feel sad.