As part of the valiant struggle to achieve a sleek and organised life, I have spent much of the last week going through boxes of papers. The photographs – handed on, unannotated, from generation to generation – will have to wait a while longer before I, godlike (or does it make me feel like a Camp Commandant?), pass among them, shepherding them into two piles, the faces of the known and the unknown. I realise that the only solution for the pictures of people now completely unidentifiable is to be shot of them. Tear them up, shred them for mulch, burn them. You see? What began as an exercise in brisk practicality has become freighted with significance. As an academic, I was a True Believer in Semiotics, the study of how we make meaning: is the reward to be haunted by an atavistic reluctance to dispose of these fragile paper shreds of evidence that someone, no matter that every aspect of their identity has been discarded, once existed? I shall set those boxes aside while I re-read Michael Frayn’s Headlong, his fabulous contemplation of the differences between iconography and iconology.
But in another box, I found letters from my father to my mother. No Auden she – you remember his poem, ‘Who’s Who’, which ends:
… answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.
My mother seems to have done quite the reverse: not answered, but kept. And among the letters she kept in a box for more than forty years until she died were letters my father had written to me when I was a child. She never gave them to me: I never knew he had written them, and I never read them until today. I think I might be allowed Ian McEwan’s Atonement on this week’s shelf. And any good re-telling of the story of Pandora, whose box-opening at least lets hope into the world.
‘Box’ is of course one of the collective nouns for books. Auction sales tend to have an assortment of rather tired-looking cardboard boxes under the tables, packed with what the catalogue will describe as ‘books on military subjects’; ‘books, mostly of Roman history’ or the slightly defeatist ‘books, various’. A very enjoyable (and free) morning out is to be had trawling through these boxes on Viewing Day, remembering not to squeak with excitement in the not-terribly-likely event that you find a first edition Ian Fleming or a First Folio Shakespeare in among the Jeffrey Archers. Auctions are where you will also have the opportunity from time to time to rub shoulders with the miles and miles of leather-bound volumes of ‘a gentleman’s library’, and even enjoy the thrill of watching someone else spend huge sums of (quite possibly someone else’s) money on a single small volume that you had failed to grasp the significance of: £62,000 for a first edition of The Great Gatsby, for example – a book I cannot bring myself to like (although, had I a first edition, I might find that absence would indeed make the heart grow fonder. Much, much fonder).
No, I would rather curl up with a copy, first edition or not, of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights any day: a really splendid adventure story that is far too good to be wasted on children. Reading it brings winter right into the room, and it would have been a good candidate for discussion when the NorthernReader Not-Walking Book Club met the other day for coffee and cake and chat about books with a sense of the seasons of the year (see the Walking Book Club page for details, and do join us next time). Chills of a different sort are on offer in Kate Mosse’s first collection of short stories The Mistletoe Bride. You know the haunting legend on which the title tale is based, and perhaps, like me, can’t help feeling that it is still waiting for a Hilaire Belloc poem to point the moral: ‘brides who want to set a test/ should not hide in wooden chests’ perhaps. Keep an eye out for the Folio Society edition of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, by the way, not least for the pleasures of Posy Simmonds’ illustrations.