Thursday, 28 August 2008

Emily's Book

I'm reading 'The Cove Shivering Club' by Michael Curtin. I bought it from the Oxfam book shop. I know buying second-hand is hard on authors, but at least someone is benefitting; anyway, books are too precious to be burnt, and I'm helping to save the planet.

When I opened the book, this note was marking a previous owner's place.

As I looked at it, I felt a strange insight into the girl who wrote it. For a start, it is cut from a Christmas card, and I can relate to people who save their old Christmas cards and cut them up for gift tags. They too have been brought up to smooth and fold wrapping paper so that it can go back in the drawer in the attic for another year. Their mothers before them unpicked the knots in the string from parcels and coiled it round their fingers before storing it in a round tin in the kitchen, beside the square tin of butter wrappers, for greasing baking trays. And their mother's mothers carefully saved the gummed edges of sheets of stamps, secreting them in their writing desks, alongside the pink and green treasury tags and the horn pencil sharpener.

She was pretty and loved, this girl, if disorganised and not terribly bright. It was a girl, no doubt about that. The writing has no backward slope, but there is a feminine fullness to the broad-looped 'o's, and the coquettish tone of the note confirms it. You can tell she was pretty and loved by the self-absorbed confidence of that 'me', and because her grandmother kept the card as a marker, so that she would enjoy it several times a day. She was not a reader, though, and bought the book in a last minute panic on Christmas Eve 1996, because it was prominently displayed, and it was a Sunday and few shops were open and time was running out. If she'd looked inside she'd have noticed the swear words peppering the text, and wondered if it was suitable for Grandma.

Although unfazed by the swearing, she never finished the book, the grandmother. The card lay between pages 198 and 199, in the middle of a single paragraph that continues for three pages without relief. She liked her letters organised. She was readily seduced away from it when someone lent her the latest Jane Gardam ('Faith Fox', I believe it was), and somehow never got round to resuming it.

If the girl was in her early twenties then, she would have been born around in the mid 1970s. The most popular girl's name in England and Wales then was Emily. It fits; I know this was Emily's card. Her grandmother's name may have been Barbara, or even Joan.

Emily had high hopes back then. She was in her final year at Guildford, reading Media Studies. Barbara Joan had been a bit of a bluestocking; head girl at Wycombe Abbey, followed by a Masters in Medieval English at Girton. Then the War came along and she found herself in a chilly hut at Bletchley Park, playing with groups of letters (when Emily saw the film Gosford Park, she imagined Grandma in a cocktail dress in the drawing-room, and felt a sense of connection).

Emily is 34 now. She is married, separated and living with Joseph who is a junior partner in an independent estate agency in Hythe. Business is not good, and what with school fees and Beccie's pony, clearing poor Grandma's house is a priority, although Heaven knows how they're going to sell the place. She didn't recognise the book, as she heaved it with the others into boxes for Oxfam. They've kept the older ones with nice bindings, though.


  1. Is that the title of THE overdue novel we're waiting for? Your notes remind me of discovering notes too in books from Bosnian & Oxfam shops. Some with scribbled writing/greetings on the front pages and then those odd ones stuffed with things such as leafs and recipes. Odd & interesting people with a story too? I think so.

    Ever read books reeking of cigarette smoke or another's house/room that made you wonder about who and where they are?

    Our city library (out of choice) has an interesting mixture of Jewish elderlies, Blacks, students and some books there also have stories within their pages to tell.

  2. I used to volunteer in Oxfam Bookshop in Oxford and often had books donated which turned out to contain personal letters and cards - some mundane, some more poignant - even the odd love letter! A few books came in from Irene to John Bayliss after her death too!

    We also had a great many attic/damp-garage/smoking infused books donated on a daily basis - some in such a poor state they had to be shredded for cat litter for local animal sanctuary (our means of disposing of unsaleable items)

    I suppose it might be good material for a novel BT.

  3. So that's where my old book ended up! ;-)

  4. Foofy - I have wondered about previous owners. I also have no compunction about marking passages and pencilling notes in the margin...and enjoy other people's jottings when I find them. Books aren't sacred cows, and they acquire character through their histories.

    Laura - How rewarding - like archaeology! I have bought the odd book and later found it to have been signed. (I like the humbling thought of masterpieces by the great and the good reduced to cat litter).

    Steve - What on earth was that stuck to the bottom of page 41?

  5. That was inspired. You should look out for more of these - there could even be a book in them!

  6. Rol - Thank you; I was afraid it was a bit silly, but maybe you're right. Hope you had a good break, by the way.

  7. Brillant post, one of the best have read for a while.

  8. Thank you, Birdwatcher; you are too kind. In turn I've been enjoying your excellent photography...and envying your trip to Rhum - one of the very few Hebridean Islands I haven't visited (I suspect because it doesn't have the best of anchorages).