A book from the self-made lending library of his father’s childhood seeks out Jon Woolcott, 80 years later.
During the first lockdown I wrote a piece for Caught by the River called Grave Goods. It was an attempt to capture the feeling, the odd atmosphere of those months, which I somewhat presumptuously named The Worryweird. Reading it back now it seems even more infused with anxiety than I had intended. Rather than taking up the ukulele or baking banana bread I retreated into the domestic and the familiar, and in roaming the house I rediscovered children’s books, especially those which had once belonged to my father. I might have been looking for comfort, although often the books proved to be anything but comforting, full of strangeness and shadow, like finding frightening patterns in wallpaper or ogres looming from the flames in the hearth. Just as troubling was tracing dad’s careful childhood attempt to make a lending library from his books. He had stamped the first blank page of each book with his address and glued in a slip of paper with the words The New Library planted unevenly along its edge, for the date by which the book should be returned. But I never found a date to show that any had been issued. The New Library might have been a diversion for an only child in suburban Surrey in the 1930s, but it was also a failure. That too seemed fitting for the spring of 2020.
Last week I had a tweet from someone I didn’t know. Her name was Beverley, she lived in Salford, and she had recently remembered a book that had entranced her and her brother as children, a book that had become so tattered that eventually it was thrown away. The artwork in The World’s Fairy Book had transfixed them both, and one image, The Old Man of the Sea, was especially strange and memorable. Bev tracked down a copy of the book online and bought it.
Inside the cover was an address stamp from Esher, and above it, at the top of the page, in neat handwriting was my father’s name, and the date: 3rd September 1932. I have an unusual name, and a simple Google search led Bev to me and to Grave Goods.
3rd September 1932 was dad’s seventh birthday – I suppose that the book was a present and the handwriting belonged to one of my grandparents or the many aunts that circled the little family. Under the address stamp was a discoloured square patch on the paper – Bev guessed that the library slip had been removed by a previous owner. Generously she offered to send me the book, but I refused. I wanted the book to be abroad in the world, a sign that in some way The New Library had been a success after all, that dad’s books occasionally found grateful readers. In any case, after nearly eighty years absence I couldn’t bear to tell Beverley what the Library fine would be.