The case of the disappearing bookshelves

Can you love books too much? For me, a large part of the pleasure when reading a book is deciding where it will go on my bookcase when it is finished. I love blogs or twitter chats about book shelves and how they are arranged, pictures of libraries are pure book porn for me and I often fall asleep at night imagining redesigning the entire house around books.

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From the number of posts I’ve seen along these lines I am obviously not alone, but of course I’m a reader and a writer and the people I follow are too; or they are editors, agents, publishers – book lovers. But what about other people in our lives? Even if they don’t introduce themselves with; “Hello, I’m a reader,” don’t  they like books too? I started wondering this a few weeks ago when I was writing about how I read and I realised that in almost all the houses I have visited for the first time in the last 6 years, I haven’t seen a single book in a living room.

There could be many reasons for this. For a start I’m talking about less than a dozen houses – I’m not a madly sociable person. The people I have visited have often been because of children’s parties or looking after a neighbours pets, it may well be that many of my friends have houses bursting with books. But it has still struck me each time I see a room with not a single book, either laid aside mid-read, or proudly on display.

I know ebooks are replacing the need for books on shelves, and de-cluttering is very much in fashion now. But even if people are reading on tablets and pads, where are all their books from just a few years ago before ereaders? I had friends years ago who gave many books away to charity shops after reading due to a lack of space, but they always replaced them at the same time with more second hand books to read. Are books considered old fashioned? Ugly? Bragging? I cannot imagine not having my collections all around me, but as I have said before, I am a slow reader for whom each book represent a microcosm of the person I was when I read it, where I was, how the book made me feel – I am bombarded with memories when I pick up a loved read, and the story itself isn’t often the first thing I think of when I feel the physical book in my hands again.

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I would never judge anyone on the books they have on display – well I would try not to. But these days it’s more the utter lack of books that surprises me (and which I also try not to judge). Maybe it is to do with the age I now am and that the homes I visit are all of busy working families. When I was a student or single (ok, I lived in Oxford but I refuse to believe only University towns have people happy to display books so prominently – having said that, I did used to love walking home and peering into lit rooms, so many were lined with books in a way that I haven’t seen anywhere in the countryside, but I think a lot of that is architecture as much as the occupier’s choice. The classic town houses of Oxford and other cities and towns are designed with nooks and alcoves for book shelves, even if you don’t put books on them. The countryside homes built with agriculture or industry in mind tend to have more utilitarian features (I’m aware this is a sweeping generalisation but so many homes have been made in converted barns and former farm or industrial buildings and they are huge or neatly uniform places, no recesses or niches and any book shelves often seem dwarfed by the size of the rooms.) Plasma screens are the dominant features and dvds or games are the only purchases on display, books are only to be found in children’s’ bedrooms it seems.

Were books on display a part of showing off in the 70s and 80s when I grew up and all the houses of my parent’s friend’s were full of books? Are they no longer seen as essential? Were they for show, or art back then? Or am I basing all this on a very small selection or homes (yes, this cannot be a statistically significant finding.)

I do unashamedly love books though, browsing shelves whether in a library, a book shop or someone’s house – and I almost always ask permission before approaching someone’s shelves (or waited till they had left in the days when I babysat in other people’s homes.) Having just written that as if it were normal I think I have answered my initial question – it is possible for me to love, or revere, books too much.

However, even now, when I finish a book I take a lot of pleasure in working out where on my shelves it will go. My bookcases are roughly arranged with absolute favourites at top left and on around the room in decreasing satisfaction. If I read a book by an already admired author and it disappoints, it can mean the author’s entire oeuvre gets moved down – or up of course if an author surprises me.

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The pictures I have posted here are all from my flat in Oxford. It was a bare concrete place when I moved in and along with a budget for a washing machine, fridge-freezer, bed, sofa, carpet (yes, I did choose that very dark green one in the photos, I loved it, everyone else who ever visited commented on it and at least two people offered to mow it for me) I also had money put aside for bookcases to create the effect in the first picture. It gave the room a focus and features, yes the tv was prominent, and the hi fi, but for me it was all about the books. I loved the fact I had enough space to break up the shelves so some just had ornaments on them. That last post is the bookcase I had in my bedroom where I could lie back on a lazy weekend morning as I drank a pot of tea and wondered if the book I was currently reading would make it into that room with my absolute favourite books (although I had forgotten until I looked at the picture just how many of the shelves contained pony books!) I feel as if I haven’t read nearly as much as I would like to in the 6 years since I took these photos just before the flat was sold, but comparing them with todays shelves my top selections have indeed been added to. I’m resolved to take photos of my collections at least once a year to monitor their change, and I shall never apologise for loving books too much.

Castles and ruins and interrupted stories

History, archaeology, myth, legend, inspiration and anything else you want them to be. That’s why I love castles. Especially ruined ones. In fact anything ruined. And hillforts or other ancient earthworks. And did I mention standing stones? Or stone circles? Burial sites, graveyards, the remains of abbeys, country houses that date back centuries. Where to stop? (& I won’t even start on the appeal of older men, that’s a whole other ruination…)

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Skenfrith Castle

I think it would be a challenge to find any UK based romantic writer or reader without a picture of a castle, or an ancient monument on their blog or twitter account. They are inspiring, intriguing, mysterious, imposing and unknown  – descriptions that fit many classic heroes. They can be gothic and brooding, or bright and well maintained; small and dangerously crumbly, or massive and easy to get lost in (definitely only talking about castles there.) They are an endless source of inspiration and not just for historical novelists. But my main feeling is always an awareness of a story being unfinished, or interrupted; we can research a castle’s past all we like, but we can’t know a fraction of the lives and stories that have happened within its walls and that thrills and saddens me all at once.

Anyone who tweets a picture of a castle has me at once, (beware of Ailish Sinclair and Louise Marley if you don’t want to lose half a day.) The images and stories capture all of my senses, but it’s much more than my love of the past (which led me to a degree in Ancient and Medieval History,) in fact it’s the opposite of that; the unknown, the things I can never read in a guide book or on a plaque on a crumbling stone wall. It’s the untold story; the tangible awareness of seeing a fragment of a vast story going back in time, and forward as well. How much of these immense edifices will be here long after I’m gone?

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Tintern Abbey

Sure, I love imagining what it must have been like to live there in a castle’s heyday and I’ve stood in roofless banqueting halls or sat in draughty windows and tried to imagine being a lady doing tapestry work by candlelight, or a knight preparing for battle or more likely being a serving wench lugging firewood up three stories of dark uneven stone spiral staircase or mucking out the stables. More than anything, I enjoy finding a quiet corner and just sitting, or standing, and absorbing the place; letting my imagination run riot. Not picturing any particular battle or siege or famous occupant, simply looking at the tiny details as well as the impressive ones. How many thousands of hands have worn that handrail so smooth? Was that hill I can see from this arrow slit wooded centuries ago? Did it always feel this cold? How many generations of swallows have hatched in that nest and where did they roost before this was a ruin?

I would always rather avoid a guided tour in favour of sitting outside with whichever book I am currently reading and letting the noise and presence of the place wash over me. It doesn’t matter what I’m reading, the fiction and the place lull me into a true (for me) appreciation of the past, present and future. People have lived and died – maybe violently – in these paces and somehow by stepping outside of it by reading or just looking and daydreaming it becomes more vivid for me. I suppose I’m trying to capture a fleeting feeling of what it was like to simply live there. Or maybe I’m just enjoying the warmth of sun drenched stones and peace and quiet among other bustling tourists or historians keen to unlock a castle’s secrets. Everyone has different ways to picture or experience the past, I like to sit and remember, both the building’s impermanence, and my own; and to celebrate, just for a moment, being an insignificant part of its ongoing story.

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Castell y Bere with Bird Rock in the distance

The first castles I remember visiting were Caernarfon and Conwy, huge, impressive, easy to get lost in. My main memory is of passageways deep in the walls that were barely wide enough to pass through. Then I visited Chepstow Castle (and Tintern Abbey in the same day) this was all at junior school at must have formed my love of ruins; when I discovered Raglan Castle that was my favourite for years (umm, doesn’t everyone have a favourite castle?) Then there was Castell y Bere; very little of the buildings remain but for location and the immense brooding presence of Bird Rock nearby it can’t be beaten (with the added delight of being where parts of Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising books were set – I’m so glad I didn’t re read the Grey King before I climbed Cadir Idris in a snow storm.)

Maybe part of why I love the more derelict castles is that sometimes it’s nice to step outside the preconceived notions of historians, archaeologists and other experts and allow ourselves to paint whatever we want onto what is left of the canvas before us. Such an attitude also explains my love of hillforts and stone circles and burial mounds. No one can truly say why they were built, although archaeology helps; but almost anyone who has read enough can make their own informed guess and no one can say they are categorically wrong. It was this (perhaps arrogant) view that made me choose the dark ages as one of my main periods to study.

Ruin is of course a loaded word. “Fallen or wrecked or impaired state,” ruination as a verb means to reduce and ruinous is “dilapidated, bringing ruin, disastrous.” It implies the place has been spoiled, or is decaying. To me it’s still growing, evolving; it may yet flourish anew. I’ve visited and been awed by many cathedrals, but none move me in any spiritual way as much as the remains of Tintern Abbey. If a castle hadn’t been abandoned and left to decay, it might still be occupied and modernised and unrecognisable from its original form.  I’m not trying to be critical, I’ve just puzzled a long time as to why the well preserved castles such as Powis and Conwy don’t enthral me the way the gaping keep at Skenfrith does, or that lonely wall still battling the winds at Dolwyddelan Castle.

 

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Dolwyddelan Castle

Do you have a favourite castle, or ancient site? Or do you prefer a well-kept manor house or country park to visit? Have you written about any, real or fictional? The first two books I wrote featured castles – one ruined, one still lived in. And in my current book the name of a castle looms large, even though everyone has forgotten where it is…

 

Where orchids now grow

The sheared off wall of golden stone loomed out of the trees with no warning, its naked window frames reaching like broken fingers through strangling masses of ivy. A sight as abruptly alarming in this mist wreathed wood as a shark’s fin cutting through the surface of a boating pond.

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The first rule of exploring was that you veered off the main track at every fork or side turning. Most led to padlocked gates or narrowed into woodland paths barely big enough for a fox to follow. The second rule of exploring was that it was always the eldest sister who investigated first and she was already slipping her feet out of the stirrups and handing her reins to her younger sister. She too, however, was quick to dismount. It was easier to control two ponies from the ground and besides, it felt wrong to remain mounted while her sister was going exploring, even if the taste of chocolate in her mouth was suddenly making her feel sick.

“What is it?”

“A church, stupid.”

“Yes, but, why?”

She watched her sister pick her way carefully among gravestones tumbled like discarded dominoes, many were flat on the ground, others leaning precariously against their neighbours, barely any still intact.

She wanted to call out “Is it safe?” But since when had that been a concern for her sister? She looked up again at the end wall of the church, golden Cotswold stone turned wraith-grey in the drizzle and mist that coiled around the ruin in a duel with the choking ivy.

Earlier in the day the sun had made them curse the cheap, heavy waterproof coats they were wearing. The very first side track had led to a small cutting at the side of the path, as if someone had taken a giant ice cream scoop to the crumbling rock of the steep hillside. An old quarry said the younger girl and after loosening the ponies’ girths and taking off their coats she had searched for fossils among the tumbled limestone and primroses. Her sister had tugged old flimsy branches into the clearing, at first with the idea of making jumps for the ponies and then to form a barricade.

“We could come here often and untack the ponies, let them have a proper break while we explore.”

Images of picnics and adventures as in all her favourite pony books fired the younger sister and she joined in gathering armfuls of long brittle grass to leave to dry like hay for a future visit and patted it into comfy cushions on a ledge where they sat and ate their sandwiches, sharing the apple cores with the ponies and devouring Lion Bars.

The next clearing they found was directly on the main track, neatly stacked piles of wood showed it was for logging. The usual arguments ensued as the elder girl moved wood obviously intended for sale into improvised jumps and the younger one tried to measure the ground for a dressage arena. It was just large and flat enough to canter an egg shaped circle. After their own pony had had enough and tried to canter for home, and borrowed, tired old Sam gave up after half a circuit at a trot, they moved on into the denser woods.

The track wound up and down, never following the contour of the hill for long, they manged a few hare-brained canters with the ponies’ hooves squelching through mud or ringing out alarmingly loud where the path became stony. Gradually the track narrowed and a walk was as fast as they could go, the trees crowded in on either side and branches whipped their faces making them duck low over the ponies’ necks. The sun had withdrawn behind ominous clouds and the closer barricade of branches and leaves trapped the steamy air around them and made them sweat while they shivered.

The younger girl had suggested turning back several times. Her sense of direction was better and she knew if they came to a road it would be a long slow ride home, and if they didn’t come to a road they were definitely lost. And then came yet another side track on their right; narrow, twisting, yet very well worn.

Without a word, the elder sister urged her pony to scramble up the bank and then on through smaller scratchy shrubs, and then to a sudden halt.

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The wall in front of them was obviously that of a church. The tall pointed shape, the high arching windows even with no glass in them. One side wall joined it, the opposite one was a tumble of rubble, moss covered stones rolled among the drunken gravestones. There was no roof, and no slates scattered among the debris, roof beams lay crumbled in the interior of the church like the staved in ribs of a crushed animal.

“Your turn.”

While she had stood with their tired ponies she had felt annoyance at having to wait; now she felt no eagerness to explore. “Is here much to see?”

“Go and look.” There was the perennially frustrated voice of an older braver sister.  So she went, picking her way among the crumbling graves, craning her head to see the grey scudding clouds through the tree canopy, somehow looking everywhere but at the gutted church with its blind window frames that seemed instead to be watching her. No wind reached through the dense wood, yet the trees rustled and sighed behind her.

She finally peered through the doorway but couldn’t try to push past the piles of fallen masonry and saplings thrusting their way up the length of the nave. How long would a place have to be empty before plants took root, or pushed through the stone floor that must surely have been there?

Stepping back out into the wood she gulped in the moist air, and tasted smoke; through the trees she saw more walls and heard a dog. A cottage, as dark and dreary as the ruin, carved wooden eaves that belonged on a gingerbread cottage dripped dankly, drab curtains hid the inside, as if the grime covering the windows weren’t enough to shut out the dismal day.

She scurried back to her sister. “We should go.”

“Why?”

“Someone might see us.”

“And?”

“I don’t think we should be here.”

Her sister wanted to explore further but the dog barked again and they heard a door slam and soon were back in their saddles and hurrying to the main track. Without a word the older girl turned left and back home the way they had come, their thirst for exploring and adventure quenched for now, the warmth and comforting smell of damply steaming ponies gradually making everything normal again.

That evening they asked their parents if they knew about the church in the wood. They didn’t and had never walked that way, but the location rang a bell with their father. He searched a local history book and found reference to the grand house in the Ridings, built in the 1820s and pulled down a little over a century later in the 1930s, only the lodge houses and church in the woods being left. Their father remembered a friend from the pub who had talked about it and attended the auctions when the house was dismantled; he had bought some beams from the house to use in his farm’s barns.

A few days letter a very formal letter arrived telling the girls that their permit to ride in the nearby woods did not cover the Ridings. It was a shock. They had been seen by someone, and recognised. They had only recently discovered that they needed a permit for the other woods and knew that very few of their horse riding friends had bothered to apply for one; to now be chastised for their exploring seemed deeply unfair.

They never went back. Not with their ponies. Sometimes the younger sister would think of those armfuls of grass they had so eagerly and optimistically gathered to dry. It would all have blown or mouldered away, or maybe been used as nests by mice or birds.

Many years later they went that way again, with their parents, the jumping clearing had more coppiced wood stacked in it and they walked on, keen to reach the ruined church.

Which wasn’t there.

No stones, no beams, no carved window frame remained. Just a large stone cross on its side in a bank of earth to record the church that had once stood there. The cottage gleamed with fresh paint and a new conservatory and well-tended gardens that reached back into the woods where the graveyard had once been. Not one gravestone remained.

They were following a map, sure not to be caught out for trespassing or being off the beaten track. As they struck out across the fields that had once been the parkland for the vanished  country house the younger girl kept looking back, as if hoping to see one wall of the church still poking through the woods and beckoning her as it had years before.

They’ve walked that way once or twice since; it’s a picturesque if long way to a good country pub. One time the younger sister walked it with just her mother and they found bee orchids growing in the logging clearing. Brambles and saplings were reclaiming the cleared ground, the few piles of cut wood were crumbled and past being of any use except to hedgehogs and woodlice as a home. There wasn’t room to canter a circle now and she fleetingly wondered how many precious plants they had sliced apart with their long dead ponies’ steel shod hooves.

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She persuaded her mother to turn back soon after that, she couldn’t bear to walk past where the church that once frightened and awed her in the mist should have been.  Where long forgotten graves slept silently beneath the whispering branches. They took away all the gravestones, but what about the graves, what about the bodies?

She wishes they had been left to crumble, alone.

Love must conquer hate and fear

Three weeks ago I hadn’t the heart to post a planned blog in the face of the news about the Orlando shooting and then the murder of British MP, Jo Cox. I was already heart sick this week after the so called Islamic State carried out its deadliest single attack anywhere in the world in Baghdad.

And now in less than 48 hours two black men in separate incidents have been shot dead at point blank range by police officers in the United States.

Their deaths don’t have the unbelievable shock of a gun death in the UK, but they should have. This should be astonishing and everyone should be calling it an outrage and demanding justice.  This isn’t happening partly because it has happened before, but mostly because of the colour of the dead men’s skin.

Alton Sterling.

Philando Castile.

Five children whose fathers will never come home.

Black Lives Matter.