“I claim there ain’t / Another Saint / As great as Valentine!” wrote Ogden Nash. These days I think Valentine might be less than keen on the rampant commercialism of this celebration and demonstration of love in his name – I saw cards yesterday inscribed “Happy Valentines Day to Our Son”!!! What’s that about?
I started my Valentines Day early this morning reading Seamus Heaney’s wonderful poetry in Human Chain and went back again to my favourite poem in the collection, Route 101, in which Heaney traces his journey through life in a series of moments laid over Virgil’s Aeneid and the move to the underworld. But it was the fantastic beginning which brought me to remember my first love – books!
Heaney’s poem begins with this scene of him buying a book as an adolescent “In a stained front-buttoned shopcoat / Sere brown piped with crimson / Out of the Classics bay into an aisle / Smelling of dry rot and disinfectant / She emerges, absorbed in her coin count / Eyes front, right hand at work / In the slack marsupial vent / Of her change – pocket, thinking what to charge / For a used copy of Aeneid VI. / Dustbreath bestirred in the cubicle mouth / I inhaled as she slid my purchase / Into a deckle edged brown paper bag”. If anything captures the beauty and the preciousness in the hum-drum, everyday, ordinariness of buying a book, then this is it for me.
Book love began at first sight in Bawhirely Road library in Greenock where I grew up. In my memories it is the most beautiful, the most grand and the most imposing of buildings! In reality it’s not any of those things as you can see!!
But to my seven-year-old eyes it was a rite of passage becoming a member – but nothing on the exterior prepared me for falling instantly in love with row upon row of books, most spine out but some with that tantalising “come and try me” look as they were displayed front on. The counter was solid and smelt of varnish, but it had a crenellated section for kids – it was hewn I think rather than cut – a bit more heavy axe than refined jigsaw had created I’d guess! I’d linger and dally over choosing so long I’d frequently be “encouraged” to choose and get out with the words “If you don’t get a move on you’ll be sleeping here!”. And I’d have loved to! And years later I did finally sleep with books – I was the Headteacher of a school in Essex when the local library tried to promote books by running a sleepover in the library – I immediately signed up and it was great – I still feel warmed by the memory of sliding into my sleeping bag surrounded by words!
And in the same way that I can reflect back over the years of being in love with my beautiful partner, I can also reflect on moments in my love affair with books, reading and stories. I remember the joy of getting a multiple book library ticket, staying up all night for the first time to finish “The Count of Monte Cristo”, being asked to leave a bookshop after collapsing into an uncontrollable fit of giggling on reading the blurb on the back of Spike Milligan’s “Adolf Hitler, My Part In His Downfall!”, discovering the world of Arthur and the Round Table emerging with my favourite hero of all time Sir Gawain, (even more than Eric Cantona and Guy Garvey from Elbow), waiting with endless plays of Genesis “Wind and Wuthering” in the background on my O Level / GCSE results and yet being more worried about Prince Andrei and Natasha in War and Peace than the results, sitting as a hitch-hiking student by a flea-ridden hotel pool in Greece crying with laughter at the antics of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote and then 25 years later crying by the edge of a stunningly beautiful hotel pool in Greece at the end of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Angel Game” (I’d come a long way in hotel quality but the story quality had been constant throughout!) and re-discovering the majestic Simon Armitage version of Gawain and The Green Knight! These and many more have filled so many minutes, hours and days for me over the years – but today I was grateful to Seamus Heaney for reminding me that my book journey began in that library 43 years ago!
If you’d like to share the moments that mark your book journey I’d love to hear what they are!