Thursday, May 19, 2016

A book tells more than one story

For best results, this should be printed and read on paper, or preferably vellum…

Books are a pain. You usually need a bag to carry them and even then a heavy hardback is hard to handle on the train, especially when you don’t have a seat. That partly explains why I’m only a quarter of the way through that 700-page hardback one of my kids gave me a couple of birthdays ago. If you’re going on holiday, you have to lug several heavy tomes with you. And don’t get me started on reading in bed (yes, I know there are other recreations at bedtime, but let’s keep this decent). Your thumbs get tired (reading, I mean); you have to angle the book towards the light; in winter your arm gets cold – then you wake up with the book on the floor, the pages bent and your place lost because the bookmark is still somewhere in the folds of the duvet. Yes, books are a right pain. 

And yet…

The above-mentioned offspring is in hospital this week for a major operation, so I’m there lending support. Another patient on the ward mentioned downloading 19 books onto an e-reader in preparation, but I only had room for four. 

One of those books is ‘Kidnapped’ by Robert Louis Stevenson: one of those books you find on the bookshelf and question why you've never read it before. Something about the opening pages intrigued me, so I took a picture:

This is why, for all their antidiluvian inconveniences, I have a fondness for books. 

If you look at the picture, you’ll notice a few things. First, this a thumb-numbing hardback. Second, it’s old, published in 1926 to be exact. Also, it came from a publisher in Akron, Ohio, complete with American spellings – in the frontspiece Uncle Ebenezer is leaning out of the “first-story window”. Most interesting of all for me, a young girl has written her name and address in the front: 
Rosemary D Moorhouse,
“Durocina”, Field End Lane,
Holmbridge, Nr Huddersfield. 
I can tell she’s young because her writing later became firmer, more ornate and assured. I know this because that girl’s handwriting adorned all my school permissions and sicknotes. That girl was my mother.

Her own mother, my Nan Mabel, had moved her children to Yorkshire after the bombing got too bad in Carshalton, just south of London. She named the house Durocina after the Roman name for Dorchester in Oxfordshire, where she was brought up. The house still bears that name today.

Why would a girl of around eight be reading a a US edition of an old Scottish classic in Yorkshire in the early 1940s? I don’t know, but Americans had been donating books to English libraries since the end of the First World War, and maybe that gesture of solidarity continued into the dark days of the Second. My mother’s family certainly had no relatives in the US.
Mum (right) with her mother and brother outside their Yorkshire cottage

I don’t know how Mum read about David Balfour’s adventures in ‘Kidnapped’. Perhaps she was huddled up in bed, defying the blackout with a clandestine candle (whose flame would have been a far greater risk to her health than the Luftwaffe), enjoying the gift of an American stranger she would never know and who would never know how his or her gift was appreciated.

And now, eight years after her death, I’m sitting in a hospital waiting room. Her grandchild is in the operating theatre while I'm reading the same words she read, my older fingers touching the same paper her fingers touched seventy years ago, perhaps hoping her light wouldn’t be mistaken by a passing Heinkel for Liverpool docks or the Huddersfield Conservative & Unionist Club.

And this is what I get from a physical book. It has life, it has history, it tells a story and yet it’s also its own story. Download that onto your Kindle if you can.

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