It’s World Book Day today. Recently I’ve finally managed to put up bookcases in my office and am hence able to haul out the books that have been in archive boxes clogging up nearly every wardrobe and cupboard in the place since I moved to Ireland. Now that they’re all lined up neatly on the shelves at last, I can swivel my chair around from this keyboard and look along the rows at, in a way, the story of my life. There are books of research for work, novels, poetry, nearly three shelves of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanacks and a surprisingly large number of showbiz biographies and autobiographies that I’ve accumulated over more than two decades of book buying.
Many books, more than I’d like to even think about, have fallen victim to numerous culls over the years for reasons of space and now emigration, so what I have left is arguably my lifetime’s ‘greatest hits’ collection; the real, genuine keepers.
Which led me to think, if the place was on fire and I could only save a handful, what would I do? Bearing in mind it can often take me twenty minutes just to pick a volume for the fifteen-minute bus journey into town, this is something I should probably nail down: something to confirm every time I give the smoke alarm its monthly check.
So, after much thought this World Book Day, here’s what would be in my arms when I emerged coughing and sooty from the conflagration.
1) Down Tops’l: The Story Of The East Coast Sailing Barge by Harvey Wenham. Books are not just about the text. They’re not even about a pretty cover. Some are of course, most perhaps, but many books are artefacts of a life that mean more than the subject matter or the author. It’s the case with this one, and it’s why I’d make a beeline for this one first. It belonged to my grandfather. Not only that, on the frontispiece in my mother’s writing are the words “Happy Father’s Day 1975, with love from Charles”. As those who’ve read Attention All Shipping will know, my grandfather had a small fishing boat at Folkestone in which he would attempt to face down cross-channel ferries and would often need rescuing by the lifeboats (happy birthday RNLI today, by the way, 186 years young). He loved ships, he loved the east coast and he loved the sea. This was my gift to him on Father’s Day in 1975 (although I can’t claim the credit for choosing it, obviously, being four at the time), the last Father’s Day he’d live to see. I have only a few vague memories of him, but I have this book. And that’s why I’d save it.
2) Collected Poems by Noel Coward. You might recall I made a programme for Radio 4 about Noel Coward’s poetry a couple of years ago because I think his polymath status disguises the fact that he was a terrifically gifted poet. It’s only a slim volume, this, but it’s got some quite beautiful poetry in it: some of it is witty, some scathing, some beautifully tender, some clearly a rare mirror to the real man that his image has since superseded. Its pages are yellow, it’s dog-eared from going just about everywhere with me and it would certainly be sought out among the flames.
3) Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 1983, edited by John Woodcock. My first ever Wisden. When I was a kid I was nuts about cricket. Loved it. During the summer I played for the school on Saturdays and a club on Sundays and would spend the holidays not missing a ball of the test matches on television. For my 13th birthday in 1983 my parents gave me my first Wisden. Wisden is the cricket bible. Its yellow cover and brown writing and the woodcut of Georgian cricketers are as unchanging as the yearly round of summer, and I devoured this particular one. It’s in a terrible state now, pages are falling out and everything, because I took it everywhere with me. I practically memorised all 1332 pages of the thing. I don’t even need to open it to tell you that the Five Cricketers Of The Year that year were Malcolm Marshall, Trevor Jesty, Kapil Dev, Alvin Kallicharan and Imran Khan. I spent time with that book at an age when you never seem to spend similar time on anything again, an all-encompassing, timeless relationship with a single volume that only a child can achieve. I’ve got every Wisden since that one, not necessarily because I’m still nuts about cricket – my interest is now a passing one – but more as a nod to the specky kid with the cricket bag in the corner of his bedroom and the 1983 Wisden on his bedside table. I’ve never read any of them as voraciously as I read that first one. The increasing shelf space that each annual edition takes up is also a handy reminder the passing years and my own mortality. Alas.
4) Purnell’s Concise Encyclopedia Of Science by Robin Kerrod. This was the only school prize I ever won. I was six years old and the label pasted into the front says that I received it for consistent good work. Definitely a unique occurrence of that particular achievement. I’m not even interested in science, but I chose that book as my prize purely because Osman Ertesun was the coolest kid in the class and he’d won a prize and he’d chosen that book already. Hence I thought if Osman chose it, it must be the coolest book in the world. And it was. There’s a spaceship on the front.
5) The Times Atlas Of The World – There’s no great personal story attached to this; it’s just a beautiful object. I’m not much of a traveller so leafing through the atlas, its pages peeling apart as if they’re wet after feeling its heavy weight as it slides from the slipcase into my hand, allows the imagination to run free and is one of the great book experiences of a lifetime. Every home should have a good atlas, and everyone should save it in the event of a fire.
Happy World Books Day. Celebrate the miracle of books. And don’t forget to check that smoke avandamet cod unapproved, drugs medication
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