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A Life In Books

August 13, 2010

My father died seven years ago this month. He was 81. Though I loved him and miss him still, I’m not one to get sentimental about people who’ve gone. There’s no grave to lay flowers on – he was cremated. He should really have gone on much longer. In his last years he developed angina, and then leukemia, which prevented an operation to fix his heart problems. Throught his life, he stayed very fit, and looked years younger. When I took him to the cardiac specialist for the last time, it was summer, and he was wearing shorts. “Nice legs”, she said, and they were.

A couple of years before he died, I found myself with more time on my hands than before. My partner and I had sold one of our businesses, so I had an opportunity to ease back on work. When you get to your fifties you realise that you’ve reached a cusp – more time gone than there is to come. Not that that bothered me. In fact, you start measuring time more by quality than by hours in the day. But because you have plenty of it, you start thinking more of the past as well as present and the future. After all, you own your past, so why not make good use of it?

So I embarked on a series of projects to preserve my past as well as that of my family. No, not an autobiography. My life isn’t significant enough to warrant what would be a vanity project. Three hundred pages of justification, embroidery and minutiae. I’d die of boredom after the first fifty pages.

My first project was to digitise all the family photos. I borrowed all the photos I could find from my parents and set to work. By the time I’d finished, I’d worn out two scanners and had a photo folder with well over ten thousand pictures, from daguerreotypes made in the mid-1800s to family snaps of my own growing family. All categorised and easily accessible. I put the photos from my generation backwards on to a DVD, and sent them to each of my siblings. That way, everyone had everything that would mean something to them. If my kids and their kids are interested, it will be there for them as well.

The next project was to capture some oral history. I’d bought a near-broadcast standard digital video, and decided to interview my parents. I wrote a hundred questions which I sent to them in advance. Over five sessions, I sat them in their garden and asked them questions. What was life like in the 20s? What do you remember of your parents? How did you feel before the war? Did you support Churchill or the appeasers? Describe a typical day at the age of ten. What were you doing on VE day? They sat talking in the garden in the English summer, pausing occasionally to let an aircraft pass over – they lived in Barnes, on the flight path to Heathrow.

My mother said little. She always felt overshadowed by my father’s confidence and fluency. He was a lawyer, you see, and never at a loss for words. That didn’t stop the odd scornful interjection when his narrative flew too high. The interaction between the two of them said as much as my father’s words. He was in his element, and in the end I went away with five hours of stories, reflections and opinions. Again, I burned a DVD and sent one to my siblings. My mother never wanted to see the tapes, and these days they wouldn’t mean much to her.

Then my father died, and another project began. This one was much longer. It started with the occasional visit to the parental loft, and a root around papers, books and mementoes. Things picked up speed this summer when my mother’s health declined. We decided decided it was time to clear the house of personal stuff in preparation for the time when she would go into nursing care. My mother didn’t much mind what we did. Since my father died, her world slowly shrank from visits to the supermarket, church twice a week and the occasional visit to us for Sunday lunch, to hours spent in the sitting room with soaps, library books and radio, punctuated with visits to hospital, help from kindly neighbours and the heroic support of my wife, who shopped for her and visited her once or twice a week.

This summer, my brother and I decided to deal with the books and papers. To the day he died, our father continued to work. He took on work for no pay for neighbours. He also had an international network with whom he embarked on endless schemes to make huge amounts of money, much of which he would give to a children’s charity he had set up specially for the day the boat came in. It never did. The result was over a hundred legal folders stuffed with contracts, faxes, letters, prospectuses and other weighty stuff.

Interesting as the papers were as a testament to his immense energy and output, the real interest for Patrick and me was the books. He’d got rid of half of them ten years ago to raise some cash. A book dealer came and took hundreds away. Those that remained still showed the breadth and depth of his interests. We separated them into categories. History, psychology, philosophy, poetry, plays, politics, economics, travel, maths, science, religion, spirituality, art, architecture, language, health and healing.

He was always a prolific reader – over his reading life he must have got through one or two books a week, if not more. It’s no wonder that my mother would occasionally weigh into him for one reason or another. With his work and his books, she was entitled to think that she never got the time she was due. Yet for all her complaining, she more than once referred to him as her rock. Especially after he died.

I used to regularly plunder his library while he was alive. I promised to return them, but never did. He had so many books he never noticed. Patrick and I used to joke about some of his books with particularly obscure titles as “typical Dad books”. Tomes like “Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition”, “The Holographic Paradigm and Other Paradoxes”, “Wholeness and the Duplicate Order”, and “Wilhelm II – Aus Meinem Leben 1859-1888”. He learned German at 60, you see, around the same time as he took up motorcycling, and bought himself a Honda 500 bike, complete with regulation leathers.

But what to do with the books? Patrick and I decided that we would make them available to members of the family to take what they wanted, and sell the rest to a second-hand bookseller, perhaps, in Hay-on Wye, which over the past twenty years has become the secondhand book souk to the nation. Rather than load them into a set of boxes and cart them around the shops, I volunteered to photograph all the spines, and create a little database of the titles, subjects authors and publishers.

Today I finished the job. When I look at the compendium of his books, it occurs to me that, more than all the pictures, videos, conversations and memories, these books are rather like the beams in a timber-framed house. They provide the shape into which everything else fits. Books by Huxley, Koestler and Jung remind me of conversations we would have about the mind. “Books like Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death” remind me of his rock solid conviction that there was an afterlife. Travel books remind me of family holidays. And his language books reminded me of his description of a chance meeting with Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, shortly before Speer’s death.

He was a man who loved conversation. Who had a talent for finding the passion of others, drawing it out and being a fascinated audience. He had circles of friends, not always intersecting, but representing different aspects of his life. They all came together to his funeral. His swimming pool circle who described how he held forth in the jacuzzi. An Egyptian filmmaker who said what a wonderful person he was. Neighbors, business associates, and the ghosts of those long gone.

Denis had a long life, with many ups and downs, setbacks and thwarted ambitions. He was no saint. But when I would look at him buried in a book, I saw someone contented with the moment. And there were many moments.

I said earlier that I’m not sentimental about him, but one thing saddens me. He often talked about writing about things that were important to him, but never made the time. A man who met thousands of people and spoke millions of words in his lifetime wrote little but legal documents and a few diaries that give only the slightest hint of his inner thoughts. All that knowledge that he poured into himself, and so little output beyond the dry, banal words that he wrote on behalf of others. Perhaps there was a core that he shared with nobody, and he felt all else to be superfcial. And perhaps we have words enough already.

So we have his books to remember him by, like the artifacts of Tutankhamun – things that inform us about him, but don’t reveal a heart that will be forever private.

Maybe that’s the way with all of us.

From → Books, History, Social, UK

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