Thursday, 1 July 2010

In my bad books

I love books.  So says everyone who ever applies for a job in publishing (note - it's not the qualification you might think it is).

Sometimes though, they are not the benign objects of escape and pleasure I previous found them to be but instruments of torture cluttering up my life.

Books furnish a house my academic husband used to say when he was still my husband and the house still his to furnish.  And so every wall at home was lined with them; tatty Penguin classics from the fifties that had once belonged to his parents, multilingual and diverse reference books, dictionaries, encyclopaediae and all his set texts from college - so that our children learned to spell out Lenin and Stalin from their spines and toddled over to pick off Belloc's Cautionary Tales for bedtime stories.  He read the reviews and bought hardback fiction and popular science, exhibition catalogues and shiny coffee table books (before we even had a table to display them on) and eventually, I too caught the book-buying bug.  From the odd airport purchase in the summer I became an avid consumer of new novels until our house was well and truly furnished.

And then he left.

Without the furniture.

Now what the heck do I want with his dead mother's French novels?  They've both gone!  Why do I still have the Hachette paperbacks?  When am I going to need Clausewitz on War or Trosky's History of The Russian Revolution?  Am I ever going to pick up Zeldin's The French or flick through Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations in a quiet moment between the tennis and the world cup?  It's telling that there have been several milimetres of dust nestling on top of all these books since the ceiling fell in at about the same time as the marriage - all, that is, except for the slim volumes of poetry, many decorated with a lover case f, that for me has nothing to do with Faber - which are miraculously clean and unfelted by plaster.  Forget all those cliches about lipstick on the collar and furtive text messaging - the way you really know your husband is having an affair is when he starts reaching for the John Donne and suddenly develops a desire to reread Rilke. 

So the books stayed while the husband didn't. And though they taunt me from the shelves with the taint of our collective obsolecence I'm loathe to get rid of them.  They are part of the landscape of my kids' life and when I once suggested packing them up and sending them off to furnish their father's new bachelor pad they reacted with horror.  The disappearance of Jane's All The World's Aircraft 1973-74 would further underline the disappearance of dad and they want some things to remain the same.  So I edit them out when I look at the walls and try to see them exactly as my husband intended them to be - literary wallpaper, albeit to his taste not mine.

My own books are closeted away upstairs in the cupboard that used to be my study.  These, I need not be so precious about.  It is time, I have finally decided, to further declutter my life.  I need to clear some space, to reinvent myself post marriage.  I've done away with the bed and am about to revamp the family bathroom.  Now that my eldest son has gone off to live with his girlfriend I'm going to occupy his vacated bedroom and rent my ensuite to a student.   I'm also going to move into my ex husband's study that I've always covetted and and turn it into mine though currently it's still full of his previously indespensible books that, like me, proved not to be.  Some selective shuffling is called for.

And so I climb on a stepladder and begin.

Out go the several different versions of my own novel - now it's been published I don't think that the British Library are going to be clamouring for the original marked-up manuscript. Easy, this. Out go the ancient restaurant guides for places that no longer exist in capital cities I will never return to.  Relief to get rid of the darn things.  Out go the copies of Gourmet magazine from 2000 onwards, some of which I've never opened, let along cooked from.  Sod it, I can make macaroni cheese without a recipe.  Out go all the old FT magazines in which my restaurant column appeared for three years – I wish I could get rid of the calories I accumulated just as easily. Ancient history.  Out go guarantees for electrical appliances I haven't owned for a decade. (Why couldn't I find them when the bloody things broke down?)  The art supplies I've been collecting for years are boxed up and relocated to the new office where the fantasy me will finally make fantasy hand-bound, illustrated journals in her new fantasy oh-so-creative life.  (Mmn, yes, my studio, I can call it...)  And finally I throw out a sofa and one child to accommodate a map chest.   Now that's what I call furniture.  So what if it takes up half the room?  While my husband compulsively shopped for books I confess that I bought decorative paper as if fearing an imminent worldwide shortage of gift wrap but now the many reams are tenderly laid to rest with the contents of my art school portfolios. I arrange candles on top of it.  I am a woman who lives in a house festooned with candlesticks.  At least in the gloom you can't see any of the books on the Middle East.

Finally my very own colour supplement double-page spread  is developing on the page with me standing, airbrushed in the midst of it.  And then I get to the books.  More of the husbands' stowaways are cluttering my shelves like spores.  Humph.  The Go-Between, yellow as a heavy smoker, with frail crumbly paper.  I loved this book. On the Beach.  I gave this to my son after seeing it on his summer reading list, reread it myself and was up all night crying.  God knows what it did to the child. And then my hand lights upon Nectar in a Sieve. This was the first book my husband ever bought me. And next to it there's 100 Years of Solitude.  I read this in his Oxford bedsit while he wrote up his thesis, then moved on to Midnight's Children, which still keeps it company on the shelf thirty years later, the two of them bound side by side in a more enduring partnership than we managed.  This is when I get the first little pang.   But I am on a stepladder.  It is no time for sentiment.  I move on and left them happily alone in their union.  Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals.  My ex brought this to me when during a serious illness I had just before we were married and I fell in love with it, as did each of my kids when subsequently, they read it as teenagers.  I had a little flashback to the BBC series with Brian Blessed which we all gathered like a 1950s TV advert to watch in the days before we all sat in our own individual rooms with our own individual laptops immersed in our own individual worlds.  Ooooh pain.  Molly Keane - another gift, this time when I was pregnant with our second child and on bed rest.  A twist of the guts - real PAIN.  And then come the travel books.  Rough guides to everywhere except where we eventually ended up - apart.  Venice - we went there in 2001 with all the children.  Michelin guides to France, Italy, Spain - more family holidays.  Maps of the Barcelona, Madrid, Rome - all trips we took alone while my parents babysat.  The 'let's save our marriage' holiday in Marrakesh. A Hundred freaking Places to Stay In Britain and the only place I want to stay is in the past.  But the past isn't a very comfortable resting place.  I want to throw them all away so I don't have to remember,  but instead I just line up their spines with the end of the bookshelf and tidy them up in the way I can't quite tidy my emotions. Especially when I see all the guides for Portugal that he mysteriously bought for a trip he never took.  With me, anyway.

And then, like Pandora, I open the box jammed into the shelf underneath.

It's full of ephemera -  on top is my son's letter to god, written when he was about fifteen judging by the handwriting, or five by the sentiments.  A tsunami of emotion almost knocks me off the ladder.  My knees buckle.  AGONY.  A card from my daughter telling me to please be happy making me realise, ten years too late that I mustn't have seemed so, and a note urging me not to throw the card away because it had her favourite sticker.  No sign of the sticker.  Sensibly, she must have reclaimed it later.  Dozens of Valentine’s cards elegant with statements of enduring love from my husband that failed to live up to their promise.  Cards from bouquets.  ‘You are the love of my life.’  He says in his loopy handwriting.  Why am I keeping these - the defunct guarantees are more useful? I find other children’s pictures drawn with increasing degrees of skill, and hand made birthday cards, baby bracelets and programs from long past sports days, and then there are the photographs.  Staring up at me - young size 8 me who ridiculously thought she was fat and an impossibly young, handsome husband.  My thirtysomething effigy has short red hair and she and her happy partner are smiling delightedly at the camera, their arms hooked around each other's necks.  They're everywhere - surrounded by children, carrying children, hugging children, pushing children, dressed up, undressed, thin, pregnant and smiling, smiling, smiling.  Always bloody smiling.  Idiots.  What did they have to smile about, locked perpetually in the celluloid world of Kodak moments?  I can't look.  And yet I'm still lifting photograph after photograph and feeling my heart squeeze like it's being pressed under one of those Alessi lemon squeezers and all that's dripping out is acid.

'Why do you get upset?' one of my sons once asked me seeing me crippled with nostalgia over a family photograph album.  'We're not dead.'  'But you are, in a way,' I replied, because although I have four fantastic, wonderful adult children who are the joy of my life, those four little gap toothed kids who painstakingly wrote ‘I love you’ on coloured cardboard and hung on to my knees like neurotic koalas are as gone as their father.  And the memories, far from warming me, sear into my chest.

I resolutely close the box and put it back next to the travel books.  My eyes survey the rest of the shelves, defeated.  Pedantic long for our demographic.  We were a publisher’s wet dream: Hardback after hardback book - each with its own story that has nothing to do with the plot.  Some I can't even remember if I've read, but like the little match girl, memories of my lost life are vividly rekindled with every one I look at.  I'd like to put them all on a bonfire and burn them to ash.

Working in publishing and having such a huge number of in-house novels to choose from, I hardly read a physical book and I certainly don't own them any more.  Though the arrival of ebooks is being welcolmed in the publishing industry with the enthusiasm of an outbreak of bubonic plague by a ship full of immune suppressed sailors, every one of us at work has been issued with a handy e-reader.  Mine sits in my handbag and has quickly become an essential on my checklist for the day:  phone, wallet, oyster card, ereader, and with it I'm never alone.  At the mere turn of a switch I currently have the choice of 17 novels, some speculative, others that we're publishing imminently, and yet more the choice jewels of our list.  But until recently, I loved books as covetable objects. Nothing beats the pleasure of going into a bookshop, stroking the cover, and flicking through the first pages of a new novel on the 3 for 2 table.  One of the many things you can't do with an ereader is flick, those machines are slooooooow and clumsy, with none of the sensual pleasures of a book.  However, with a virtual copy, there's nothing to sit on the shelf and haunt me with memories since they don’t physically exist.

No, you don't get your heart broken by an ebook.

Thank god.