Category Archives: comfort


Guy took up the pitchfork, turned over the steaming layers, closed his eyes and inhaled the rich aroma of decay. This had to be as good as taking a drag. He was remembering the bitter taste of a cool, slow burning cigarro. In an instant, his emotional receptors were in full throttle as he found himself back in the old life, passing out the Dominican classics to mark the new-born’s safe arrival. Standing outside the birthing station all those years ago, he knew just how privileged he had been and had wanted to share his joy with the other appointed fathers in the time honoured way. The burden of his daily toil servicing the Heap failed to supress the sweet intoxication of this wistful memory. Happily, the genetic lineage of Guy J. Liberus had been deemed worthy and was assured, for at least one more generation. He hoped his offspring, now fully grown, had inherited above all, his strength of character, as the love of books, though no doubt hard-wired into their brain, would be futile.

The past would often come flooding back, although the memories were not always joyous, and Guy would have to stop himself from sinking into self-pity by concentrating on the job in hand; those crates were never going to sort themselves. His main task, after all, was to select only those books fit for biotic processing, those unsuitable being discarded and destroyed.

As a man of letters, he could never resist thumbing through each copy before deciding its fate. He picked up a mid-twentieth century edition of ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ and gave a sardonic smile as his own Proustian memory, his ‘Madeleine’ moment, came to mind. He took another imaginary drag. Ah oui, Monsieur Proust, smell is undeniably remembered as a feeling. It was hardly surprising that Guy had become addicted to the fragrance of old books. Their aromatic undertones, generated by the breakdown of organic compounds; benzaldehyde, with its almond-like scent, vanillin and ethyl benzene, were a source of great comfort. This two hundred year old volume he held tenderly in his hands, imparted the scent of its own degradation and reeked of a lost age.

Old editions with untreated paper were the best. The Proust was ideal, and although sorely tempted by the prospect of re-reading this seminal work in its original form, Guy knew he would never get away with sneaking all seven volumes of such high grade material past the smart sensors. He reluctantly placed them into the treatment bin and thought about their last owner who had probably, like so many, begrudgingly ‘donated’ their exquisite literary treasures to the cause.

Guy still had his own private scholarly collection at home, meticulously gathered over decades of prolific reading; an intellectual realm that mapped the chronicle of his long life and mirrored his insatiable thirst for knowledge. Not only did he read extensively, he also liked to own every book he read and found it almost impossible to let any go, even those that failed to satisfy. There were times when this attachment could be seen as bordering on the ridiculous, though never by his own well-read tribe who, over several generations, included renowned booksellers, bibliophiles and free spirits. His grandfather and namesake loved to share stories about his bookish adventures; that time on a family holiday, across the Irish Sea in Galway when, aged nine, he had been accidentally locked in a bookshop at the close of business; that awkward moment a few years later when he told the proud university librarian that the prized first edition they brought out to show him was in fact, a second. Books were Guy’s birthright. Naturally, he preferred their company to people.

Sometimes at the Heap, Guy was assigned to the dispiriting task of dismantling and layering the literary material selected for processing, and while doing so he would often flinch at the sight of books being de-fleshed. The best brown elements for aerobic digestion and composting were those that had started out their life as a tree. All bindings and glossy covers had to be removed, but the cardboard covers and pages could be retained as they would eventually break down. The porous nature of the remains enabled air to penetrate and excess moisture to escape. Mixing and turning the top layer on a regular basis accelerated the aeration, although it would still take several weeks for the decomposition to reach the thermophilic or sanitation phase, after which a series of secondary reactions cooled and cured this pungent lasagne into a friable humus suitable for spreading.

From time to time Guy reflected on how similar this process was to the stacking and fermenting of tobacco leaves that would turn from blonde to black and eventually sweat down to a mellow woody compound. In the late twentieth century, Guy’s ancestor Sidney had cultivated and cured his own pipe tobacco at home. He was rumoured to have used antifreeze as an additive, hopefully just propylene glycol, which would have given the do-it-yourself baccy a sweeter flavour. Nevertheless, the family did at the time strongly suspect the incorporation of the potentially toxic motor coolant conveniently stored in Sidney’s garden shed. Whatever the recipe, it seemed no harm was done as he lived to a ripe old age.

Within sixty years of Sidney’s passing, as the Earth’s surface temperature began to rise at an alarming rate, curing tobacco on a domestic and industrial scale, along with many more damaging enterprises, had been superseded by a profusion of heat mitigation projects. Record breaking heat waves and droughts, fanned by heat domes, El Niño and the persistent burning of fossil fuels, had lengthened the natural fire seasons. Those greenhouse gases that had for ten thousand years kept the planet at a reasonably comfortable temperature for human habitation, were trapping more and more of the Sun’s harmful rays.

Instead of cooling their tobacco, the tabaqueros, through sheer necessity, joined collective efforts across all nations to cool a bruised Earth, rendered black and blue by countless wildfires and floods. Reforestation was the way forward. Greening on a small scale had already been well established, mostly through the worldwide Transition movement. Communities in villages, towns and cities had understood the need for the restoration of landscapes and ecosystems and had come together to build a low-carbon future. Guy’s grandfather, despite being a young US-based tech entrepreneur in agricultural intelligence who tracked commercial crop yields around the world, earnestly joined the American Community Garden Association and contributed to his local urban neighbourhood rewilding project in the mid-2020s. Public parks, school grounds, vacant and derelict land and even domestic gardens, were transformed as ‘going green’ became the mantra. The climate fightback was underway and Sidney’s vegetable patch and tobacco shed, swamped by boscage, was unrecognisable.

Millions of trees were planted in this global effort to reduce the number of heat-related deaths, and biodynamic agriculture became a by-word for a more diverse and resilient environment. Traditional land practices such as crop rotation, irrigation and heavy fertilizer use, conveniently disguised by ambitious tree planting schemes, continued for a few years as governments colluded with major producers to distract everyone from what was really going on. While the term ‘greenwashing’ had been coined in the late twentieth century, it was several decades before the crime of agronomic false greening on a global scale had been fully exposed by the Greta Thunberg Foundation. Only then was the practice of intensive farming abandoned.

As a responsible citizen, Guy had joined the Climate Majority Project, a movement that was still going strong since its inception over a hundred years earlier, in 2023. His great-grandmother, a social historian at the time, had once dabbled in non-violent direct action with the notorious Extinction Rebellion campaign, but despite having picketed with striking coal miners in North Yorkshire decades earlier as a young postgraduate student, her squeamishness for street blockades and sit-ins soon kicked in. She returned to her books and kept her head down.

Having inherited the ancestral aversion to civil disobedience, Guy belonged to the more mainstream movement in which he felt at home. In the spirit of supporting the climate-concerned majority, he dutifully went vegan. By then, quitting animal protein had become more of a financial necessity because of the tax levied on red and processed meat, although the practical benefit was the ten more years of life expectancy afforded by a plant-based diet. For Guy that would be ten more years to enjoy books, for he would never stop buying hold-in-your-hand-put-on-your-shelf books.

Until a shattering proclamation changed everything. Twenty years ago, that timeworn expression, ‘Stop the press!’ had taken on a darker meaning when every printing press in every nation had been decommissioned, and a decree made for the appropriation of all printed matter; books – hardbacks, paperbacks, and folios; newsprint – broadsheets, tabloids and gazettes; circulars – magazines, periodicals, journals, bulletins and reports. Initially, only public collections were seized and removed to classified treatment plants. Public libraries, large and small, were dismantled and could no longer serve their few remaining cardholders. Then, much to Guy’s dismay, the authorities began to acquire institutional and private collections through a system of enforced endowments. Academic library syndicates, urged by their affiliated librarians and scholars, rigorously defended their acquisitions to no avail, while spurious investors who had been collecting just for the money, readily gave up their rare editions in exchange for the prospect of an early place on the Great Exodus. 

Some readers had always repurposed books, employing paper craft skills to transform the pages into envelopes, wrapping paper, confetti, wreaths, flowers and even chandeliers; stripping out the spines to make bookmarks, and turning entire books into sculptures, trinket boxes, journals and plant holders. Guy had engaged in none of the above. In his eyes, dismantling a book was tantamount to an act of self-harm, or possibly worse since the injury could never achieve even the slightest sense of release. More egregious, were the rippers who rendered a book worthless by visiting libraries and charity shops and surreptitiously tearing out single pages, before placing the vandalised volume back on the shelf. Suddenly, none of these irritations mattered and Guy found himself in a living hell.

The principle of leaving the planet better than you found it had been long established. While Scouts UK, with its many ideals, had withdrawn its pledge to the British monarchy long before the Sovereignty’s demise, it had remained true to the doctrine of sustainable living, and as a Boy Scout himself, Guy had had no argument with promising to do his best and to love the world. His father, a solar geoengineer with both eyes firmly on the Doomsday Clock, had devoted his life to securing the Earth’s future as a planet fit for human habitation by restoring the correct energy flows and therefore balancing the Earth’s ‘energy budget’. On the assumption that there was no time to waste, the man had worked on the award winning Becquerel Stratospheric Aerosol Injection Programme, which attempted to mitigate the temperature rises by spraying particles into the stratosphere that would reflect the sun’s energy away from the Earth, back to space.

While thankful that his old dad was no longer around to witness the annihilation of the world’s literary heritage, Guy was daunted by the prospect of butchering his family’s priceless collection alone. Destroying libraries was nothing new and as he prepared to face this gruesome task, he thought of a few notorious examples in historical times of conflict, when irreplaceable collections had been lost, not all as the result of enemy action. He had read that during the Second World War the English populace (Guy’s ancestors excepted) willingly handed over their books for recycling and reuse, in response to a national salvage campaign. Sixty million were destroyed although some were saved and later dispatched in peacetime to war-damaged libraries abroad.

By then the world was on the brink of the third industrial revolution, heading towards a new digital age that transformed the reading experience. The first prototype electronic reader appeared back in 1949 and ever since, doomsayers had wrongly predicted the death of the printed book, despite the more recent popularity of brain implants that not only enabled a reader to instantly download any text on demand, but also enhanced their ability to follow a story from beginning to end by blocking the compulsive urge to check their communication devices every few minutes.

Fortunately for Guy, this particular augmentation was never mandatory. Instead of submitting to these invasive technologies, he had always been free to enjoy the deliciously tactile sensation of sitting down to read on his own terms. The touch, feel and smell of a book; the act of turning the pages and unfolding the story; of annotating quotations and in a way, having your own private conversation with the author; the growing sense of achievement as you move through a book, changing the bookmark place; the sense of durability when there is no need to refresh the page; no distractions, no getting sucked into sponsor notifications that lead you down a rabbit hole; and no screen fatigue that would stop you from falling asleep at the end of the day.

Guy never was convinced by those who claimed that technology offered books a guaranteed immortality. While the storage issue had supposedly been resolved through high capacity cloud based petabyte-scale solutions, not all digital files were being updated, which rendered them inaccessible when systems were upgraded. The fact that his own library had been digitised along with everything else in preparation for the Great Exodus, was not reassuring, although he fully accepted that even with a photographic memory, it would take many lifetimes to memorize every volume. And anyway, a ‘remembered’ text would no doubt lose its precision with each shifting recollection.

He struggled to imagine this new existence, one without access to physical books, especially his books. They had been his greatest treasure and in recent months, his only company, with each book representing a small parcel of energy infused with a creative force that informed and vitalised his spirit. While remaining aware that he was physically holding a book, as he turned the pages he would find himself travelling to an inner realm of memories and imagination, where time past and time future merged with the present. Artificial intelligence with its deep brain simulation and synthesised imagination was an anathema, and Guy never felt more human than when he was reading.

Two years previously Guy had been put to work on his local branch of the Heap, located within easy reach of his modest quarters on the westside of his ancient university city which now, thanks to rising sea levels, rested on the shores of the resubmerged Fens, the erstwhile breadbasket of Britain. The university library, the college libraries and their individual academic collections had been dismantled after the public libraries had been cleared; eight million books in the university library alone, including a first edition of Newton’s ‘Principia’, Darwin’s personal copy of ‘On the Origin of Species’, and a copy of the Gutenberg Bible. The priceless volumes from these venerated institutions made for exceptionally rich material. Guy knew it was only a matter of time before he would become the grim reaper of his own, for it would be his job to sort his collection at the plant.

Meanwhile, at the end of each working day, he would go home and sit among his books, reflecting on their death knell, a fate that was in his hands. It was not a good feeling, although their tangible presence for the time being, mollified his growing sense of foreboding. Their strong silence had always shielded him from the vicissitudes of life. Letting go of his cherished library, the kinship and the consolation it brought him, was going to be difficult to say the least. While knowing that one day he would be summoned to join the Great Exodus, Guy had quietly hoped he might be permitted to leave his ancestral collection intact. He was convinced it would serve as an enlightened monument to humanity’s brief residency on Earth, forgetting that in a world without humans all things manmade would eventually be broken down as a new soil is built and a more temperate surface is restored. And books were after all, just another type of human waste.

When the confiscation order finally arrived, Guy had just seven days to pack his books. By then, he had already carefully inspected the half-title and title pages, the endpapers, the chapter divisions and the page margins of every volume for signatures, dedications and marginalia. In Guy’s family, the marking of books had never been forbidden and there were times when he could, through the annotations, feel another reader’s presence. Often it was his grandfather, a prolific commentator who’s witty expressions revealed much about his approbation or otherwise. Ancient household manuals and recipe books overflowed with more feminine tokens of friendship, pressed flowers and pretty postcards. With all the jottings and ephemera scanned and recorded, Guy gently placed the books in the crates and prepared himself for a final farewell to his cherished heirlooms and to his home.

Over the past two centuries the Earth’s temperature had failed to stabilize, despite the many schemes purportedly aimed at avoiding a climate catastrophe. While the most recent, a depopulation programme restricting births to one child per human mother, had been deemed less brutal than some of the alternatives, it was still not enough. Humanity had failed to reverse the damage it had caused. The continuing biodiversity crisis had signalled the beginning of the next mass extinction with the tragic loss of even more species, and it was time for humanity to leave, to give Earth the breathing room it needed.

Regulated mitigation and adaptation had been abandoned in favour of taking the now universally accepted policy of managed retreat to an unprecedented level. Efforts went beyond allocating half the planet to nature, a possible solution suggested over two hundred years earlier, and planning for the ultimate displacement was underway. Replications of the Earth’s biosphere had been established elsewhere in the solar system, in preparation for new settlements.

What mattered now, on Earth, was the legacy of the human race in a post-human future. Greening initiatives were extended, and solid waste infrastructure redesignated to create an industrial scale composting facility known as the Heap. The early signs were encouraging as vast areas that had been ravaged by wildfires were already beginning to regenerate a little faster in the relatively milder temperatures. The compost dressing would help to increase the productivity and resilience of the regenerated soil. It would also improve the environment for what there was of the remaining wildlife, as there was no Noah’s Ark in the Great Exodus, not even for those beloved pets who would no doubt be devoured by their feral cousins. Perhaps the Earth would recover and perhaps one day humans could return, when a less hostile habitat is restored.

Glimpses of new green savannas, tree filled canyons and forests provided solace to those climate refugees who, like Guy, would prefer to stay. On the other hand, he was quietly looking forward to meeting his daughter who had been transported with her mother as a new-born twenty-five years earlier, in accordance with the old drill, women and children first. He relished the prospect of telling her about the family library and, in the sincere belief that words do matter, giving her his secret apologia, a heartfelt written statement addressed to his ancestors who may be keeping tabs on their legacy, and his descendants who, he hoped, would also cherish the sanctity of books. This document, not meant as an admission of guilt or a plea for exoneration, explained in his own words the act of libricide wrought by his own hands.

The deed itself had followed Guy’s usual routine at the Heap, apart from one significant difference. Attesting to his personal loss, he softly uttered this brief committal as he held up each volume in his right hand, before gently lowering it into the treatment bin. 

“You have served me well but now you must return to the elements.”

With no particular faith in mind, Guy had wanted to express his gratitude for its enduring gift and acknowledge its sacrifice – trees would hereafter feed on their own kind. He would mourn the loss of his books more than any human, for they were his people, his constant companions who had amplified his understanding and appreciation of the fragile human condition.

In the circumstances it seemed fitting to dwell upon his treasures that in their own way, foretold this absurd endgame; a first edition of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ heavily annotated by his grandfather who had underscored the reference to Earth’s ‘green mantle’, and a well-thumbed copy of ‘The Uninhabitable Earth: a story of the future’ by David Wallace-Wells, the ‘cautious alarmist’ who had called the space travel solution to climate change a delusion, and anyway, not everyone wanted to live in a spaceship. Guy certainly did not. No solid ground, no trees, plants and flowers, no oceans, lakes and rivers, no skies, no home and, perish the thought, no books. He would especially miss holding those written by his own ancestors, the memoirs and histories that had moderated the influences of the past on their own lives and in turn, on his.

The fateful day arrived, and Guy trudged through the gates of the treatment plant for the last time, his gaze firmly fixed ahead so he would not have to look up at the banner emblazoned with the sickening slogan, ‘THE WORD MADE EARTH’. It seemed a small mercy that his was the final collection to be processed before the completion of the Great Exodus.

When the last book had been dealt with, Guy collected his few belongings and went to board the ultimate solo shuttle to the generation ship, with his illicit mea culpa carefully folded and sewn into the lining of his waistcoat. As he crossed the bridge and stood at the top of the boarding platform, he could not help himself and turned back to take a last look at the panorama of rotting parchment that stretched as far as the eye could see. The discolouring remains of his own pages, gripped in the brittle stiffness of decay, were, he thought, still visible in the fading light, but the sweet odour of sanctity that lingered in the dank air failed to console him. He shuddered and looked down at his hands, indelibly stained lampblack, bearing testimony to the carnage that would forever be etched upon his memory. His brief custody had regrettably been the last chapter in their magnificent lives.

Yet this catastrophe would not define him. The vehemence of his sorrow, while matching the intensity of the love he felt for his lost books, would not render him helpless. The woeful exhaustion brought on by the enforced severance and destruction would pass, and he would soon begin to dream of that library he would one day build for the new humans elsewhere, of the stories he would collect and the shelves he would fill.

Over geologic time, the Earth, no longer shackled by homo sapiens, continued on its tilted way through the seasons towards a green renaissance. The plants and trees, nourished by the new black gold, made it through the searing epoch and began to reclaim their rightful place as the guardians of the climate. Pasqueflowers, imperial purple anemones with bright yellow stamens, bloomed exuberantly across the tundra, much like their hermaphrodite ancestors that had first colonized dry land. Spirited cyclamens, poppies and thistles invaded deserted megacities, and radiant sunflowers played their part in helping to detoxify the contaminated terrain, while strong and resilient rowan trees with their bountiful red threads, heralded a new dawn.

And in this beginning, the soil had remembered those plundered words. The sorry wilderness that Guy had beheld on his departure was now a carpet of diaphanous Madonna lilies dancing in the sunlight, their petals traced with a cipher, markings he would have joyfully recognised.

His beloved books had found their destiny.

Image of Madonna Lily sourced via I, Ranger, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The art of threading a book

In his tribute to the art of reading, the author and former Director of the National Library of Argentina, Alberto Manguel, declares, ‘We are what we read’. He does so in response to Walt Whitman’s assertion that the process of reading is merely an intellectual one. Manguel contends that unconsciously, the reader and text become intertwined.

Researchers at the Washington University Dynamic Cognition Laboratory in St Louis, Missouri, would concur with Manguel. They found that deep reading creates a sort of virtual reality, as the reader constructs a mental simulation of the narrative as they read. For example, if a character in the book someone is reading pulls a light cord, activity in the reader’s brain increases in the frontal lobe region which controls grasping motions.

In essence therefore, the reader becomes the book.

‘Deep’ (or slow) reading is, I assume, a more meditative activity than say, rapid reading. My blog post on How to remedy excessive daydreaming and get writing explores the latter, citing Geoffrey A. Dudley, B.A. on the benefits of ‘Rapid Reading’ (1964)

Dudley wrote several self-improvement books from the late 1950s to the mid ’90s, and while he never told us to go deep, he did tell us that in order to read faster, we must first learn to concentrate.

Concentration is surely required for all reading, fast or slow, is it not?

In ‘Jake the Dog’, a charming story by the author Norah C. James (whose first novel was banned in Britain in 1929), narrated from the dog’s point of view, we find Jake observing his owner, ‘holding a stiff, flat thing in front of her face and staring at it. It was a queer thing to do, he thought’.

In our attempt to concentrate, to eliminate distraction and sustain our attention upon that ‘stiff flat thing’, we must consciously remove ourselves to another place, generally a place of repose. We need to go, ‘off the grid’ as Will Schwalbe stipulates in, ‘Books for Living: a Reader’s Guide to Life’, (2016).We can’t interrupt books he says, we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them.

Doing just that and totally immersing ourselves in the act of reading may be more difficult for some. Leonard Lowe, who had contracted Encephalitis Lethargica (sleeping sickness) at the age of eleven in 1921, was an avid reader.

Leonard Lowe

Leonard’s life history is featured in Oliver Sacks’ medical memoir, ‘Awakenings’ (1973). Speechless and without voluntary motion (except for minute movements of one hand), Leonard became the hospital librarian and composed monthly book reviews for the hospital magazine. In 1969, the neurologist Oliver Sacks administered a new ‘wonder drug’, L-DOPA (also known as levodopa and levodihydroxyphenylalanine), and as a consequence, Leonard’s reading became more difficult than ever – Sacks tells us how the drug’s adverse side effects compelled Leonard to read faster and faster, without regard for the sense or syntax. He would have to shut the book with a snap after each sentence or paragraph, so he could digest its sense before rushing ahead.

Leonard Lowe’s story is incredibly moving. Sacks writes that Leonard, along with his other patients, taught him what it means to be a human being who survives, and fully, in the face of such affliction and terrible odds. (Leonard is played by Robert De Niro in the 1990 movie, Awakenings.)

Miriam H., another patient treated by Sacks, had a strange intermittent compulsion to count, described as a form of arithmomania that signalled her need to order, disorder and reorder. She read omnivorously with great speed and intentness. Using her eidetic or photographic memory, Miriam could remember the exact number of words counted on every page. She could read AND count at the same time.

Sacks’ account is heart wrenching. The social scientist and bioethicist Tom Shakespeare once described Sacks as the man who mistook his patients for a literary career (echoing Sacks’ most famous title, ‘The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat’), but I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn from Sacks’ writing.

I’m often reminded at book club sessions that our encounters with books and our simulated realities are altogether unique. I enjoy the Louth U3A Reading Group sessions, and I’m grateful to Amanda Watts who organises and facilitates the new Louth Book Club which meets at The Priory. At these convivial sessions we acknowledge our different perspectives by agreeing to disagree and we come away enriched by the communal act of reflection.

David Ulin in, ‘The Lost Art of Reading: WHY BOOKS MATTER IN A DISTRACTED TIME’ (2010), tells us that as ‘deep’ readers, we’re asked to ‘slip inside’ a text. Ulin contrasts deep or meditative reading with, for example, our propensity these days to skim the surface of each subject as we fail to concentrate, to pursue a line of thought or tolerate a conflicting point of view (whatever that view may be – another topic for another day).

Books and labyrinths

Reading a book is never a passive experience – for any of us – and the same may be said for threading a labyrinth, however we may choose to engage with it. A labyrinth may be encountered in many different ways; contemplated, traced, drawn, painted, carved, planted, sewn, worn, walked, and danced. And our experience is often transformative.

Charlotte Higgins, in her intriguing exploration of the idea of the labyrinth, ‘Red Thread: On Mazes & Labyrinths’ (2018), tells that on entering a labyrinth, humans, ‘spin thread, they tell stories, they build structures … there is meaning to be made, meaning to be excavated.’

Like reading, the labyrinth experience and the meaning it creates is different for every person. I’m reminded of Dr Margaret Rainbird who took a year-long “Labyrinths for Life” world tour in 2017 and describes labyrinths as being a bit like people. She says,

“There are some that I feel an immediate emotional connection with and others where there is no chemistry at all.”

Higgins refers to writers of the Middle Ages who speculated upon the etymology for the Latin for labyrinth, connecting the word, ‘laborintus’ with the phrase, ‘labor intus’, meaning ‘labour inside’. She says the labyrinth became a proxy for the labour of life, ‘the work of knowing the self; and the struggle to read the labyrinth of the world.’

Higgins also quotes her recent correspondence with a Mrs Sofia Grammatiki, who had many years earlier guided Higgins and her parents around the museum at Heraklion, near Knossos on the island of Crete during a family holiday. Mrs Grammatiki views the labyrinth as a symbol of the imagination, representing the manner in which humans make associations. She says that stories have this comfort in them; they have a beginning and an end. They find a way out of the labyrinth.

(I wonder if Mrs Grammatiki ever read Italo Calvino’s labyrinthine tale, ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ (1980), and if so, what she made of it. I suspect she’d give it the thumbs down, like most of my book club friends. Personally, I loved it.)

Having reflected on the comfort of books and things in my post on Finding Comfort in Still Life last year, I can see what Mrs Grammatiki is getting at, although I do appreciate that reading may at times be uncomfortable. And that is not a bad thing. It does us good to be challenged, as I found recently with David Jarrett’s profound memoir, ’33 Meditations on Death: Notes from the Wrong end of Medicine’ (2021). While the book is life affirming in many ways, I did find his unflinching chapter on, ‘Dying á la Mode’ brutal and tender in equal measures.

Books, labyrinths, and life, let’s step in and see where the path takes us.

Bookshops come and go

Do you have fond memories of brilliant bookshops that have sadly disappeared?

The Louth & District Hospice Charity Bookshop ceased trading on 31st May 2022

On 9th June 2022, Professor Sam Rayner’s fascinating inaugural UCL lecture, ‘Hidden in the bookshelves: Una Dillon and the ‘formidable’ women booksellers of London, 1930s-1960s’, featured several iconic London establishments, a few of which are still with us, most owned by Waterstones. You can watch her lecture on YouTube.

Growing up In Cambridge, we were spoilt for choice.

William Heffer, William Heffer,
Bowes and Bowes, Bowes and Bowes,
Galloway and Porter, Galloway and Porter,
Deighton Bell, Deighton Bell

This rhyme, sung to the tune of Frère Jacques, harks back to a golden age of bookselling in twentieth-century Cambridge, when the city was served by several excellent establishments, each with its own distinctive history and character.

Fifty years ago, our family Saturday morning routine included a visit to the new Heffers Children’s Bookshop, where I would spend all my pocket money on a paperback, often a Puffin or Green Knight imprint at two shillings and sixpence, or from 1971, twenty-five or thirty new pence. Every visit to Heffers was an immersive bookish experience, enhanced by the ambiance of the shop and the people you would find there.

The antiquated shop front of the Children’s Bookshop in those early days disguised the ultra-modern interior, with its turquoise carpet, low sky-blue ceiling, orange staircase lined with mirrors and plastic moulded pea-green tubs for sitting or standing on. Transcended by books in these psychedelic surroundings, seeking my good read for the week, I would now and again glimpse the carnival of stories, and of my mind, all reflected in a large distorting mirror at the top of the stairs.

Interior, Heffer’s Children’s Bookshop 1969

I can also remember the old Heffers bookshop in Petty Cury, with its bottle glass bow windows, polished wooden floors, towering bookshelves, and grand balcony.

Heffer’s Petty Cury Bookshop

For many years, this iconic bookshop was divided into several departments, all crammed with stock, as described in an early twentieth century brochure,

‘Visitors to this, our Book Shop, constantly remark to us: “How do you find your Books?” “How do you know what you have got?” The questions are not unwarranted, for, though the exterior of the shop is small, the interior – consisting of four floors each 40 feet in depth – is the reverse, and with every available space shelved and crowded with Books: with Books in portentous stacks invading the floors, the questions are very pertinent.’

In the 1960s, we would visit my great-auntie Winnie at this bookshop, where she worked as secretary to the renowned bookseller, Mr Frank Stoakley. I would sit patiently on the library steps in the dusky Antiquarian Book Department, inhaling the sweet vanilla and almond aroma of old books, as mother chatted to auntie.

My family clocked up one hundred and twenty years of service for Heffers, starting with great-grandfather Frederick Anstee, employed as an errand boy by William Heffer in 1896, when he opened the Petty Cury shop. Frederick’s two daughters, Lilian (my grandmother) and Winifred (great-auntie Winnie), also worked for the firm. We do not know the exact circumstances in which Frederick was taken on, but in a 1952 biography of his father, William, Sidney Heffer wrote, ‘The increase in the business necessitated employing an errand boy. One lad was anything but a bright specimen–practically uneducated and from a miserable home.’ That lad was Frederick.

William undertook to educate Frederick, insisting he write in a copy book and work out simple sums each night, bringing the results to work the next morning. Frederick thrived by this ‘strange tuition’, and eventually became head of the Science Department at the Petty Cury bookshop.

Amongst great-auntie Winnie’s papers is this portrait of an earnest boy with tight curls, sporting a smart knitted buttoned-up suit, captured at Ralph Starr’s photographic studio in Fitzroy Street, Cambridge. It was taken in 1892 and the boy is Frederick, aged nine years. At the time, his future benefactors were still living above the shop, just a few doors up from the studio. It is likely that the Heffer family arranged and paid for this portrait, as Frederick’s mother, a ‘Barnwell Lady’, would not have had the funds or indeed, the wherewithal, to do so.

In 2015, I combined my love of the past and of books, by researching and writing a history of Heffers. It was a project close to my heart. There were many quiet moments when I thought about Frederick and the other family members who had worked for the firm. It may sound whimsical, but I sensed their approval of the legacy I was trying to create, and it gave me an inner confidence. It was, and still is, a nice feeling.

Published Oct 2016

’This Book is About Heffers’, won a Cambridgeshire Association for Local History Award, and I’ve given dozens of illustrated talks on the topic to a wide range of groups and societies, and to students. I enjoy meeting people and hearing about their own memories of the firm, so many interesting stories. Sometimes I had repeat visits. An elderly gentleman who had long since retired from Heffers Printers, attended two talks and in tears, expressed his gratitude for my book that had prompted many precious memories. Two ladies who had together attended a Heffers talk, then came to one of my history of mazes talks. My husband, Trevor, went to introduce me to them as they arrived and they exclaimed there was no need, as not only had they already met Julie Bounford, but they had also brought some Heffers memorabilia I might like to keep.

I was especially pleased to meet people who had worked with members of my family. At one talk, a lady took out her album to show me snaps of her Heffers friends and colleagues. Inside was a photograph of her standing with great-auntie Winnie on the balcony at the front of the Sidney Street shop in Cambridge. The Heffers book is dedicated to auntie.

Winifred Anstee at the Petty Cury bookshop, with Frank Stoakley and bookselling colleagues.

When bookshops close

In September 1970, Heffers relocated the Petty Cury bookshop to new premises at 20 Trinity Street, Cambridge, where they remain to this day. While retaining the historic Georgian façade above ground level, the architects designed a wide shopfront in bronze and plate glass for the new premises, providing a, ‘simple and elegant showcase onto the street’, and internally, everything was altered in a radical new concept in bookshop design.

Lord Butler, Master of Trinity College, who officially opened the new bookshop, described the design as ingenious and attractive, combining great spaciousness with a, “superabundance of cosy private nooks where book lovers can tuck themselves away for hours on end perusing their favourite volumes”.

Trinity Street bookshop

The movement of stock from Petty Cury to Trinity Street was a major operation, carried out by the removal firm Bullens. It took six and a half days, night and day, to transfer more than 80,000 books.

Reuben Heffer, grandson of William and a third generation Heffers director, welcomed the closure of the Petty Cury bookshop, stating at the time that the shop had become almost unworkable, “it was so Dickensian”, he said. But that was what we loved about it.

Despite the generally positive reception amongst staff and customers, the new premises at Trinity Street did not suit everyone. Many employees and customers remember Petty Cury as a more intimate shop. Claire Brown, who had also worked at Blackwell’s in Oxford, was particularly sorry to swap Petty Cury’s polished oak for carpets and chrome,

“It was a great pity that Heffers didn’t adopt the sensible Blackwell’s policy, which was, and is, to keep it looking exactly as it did in the nineteenth century. Heffers, when it left Petty Cury, in the passionate urge to be new and up to date … What Cambridge and Oxford had to sell was the past. The fact that there is a modern business going on is beside the point … They did lose a lot when they left the Petty Cury.”

Opinion was clearly divided and many Cambridge folk still miss that old Dickensian bookshop.

Loss of the Louth charity bookshop

After moving to Louth in Lincolnshire, I took up a volunteering opportunity, as bookselling assistant at the Louth & District Hospice Charity Bookshop. My previous retail experience had been limited and I’ve never been a natural salesman. As a young teenager, I had had a Saturday job at a greengrocer in Akeman Street, Cambridge, standing around in the freezing cold, serving customers and lugging sacks of potatoes for a heavily made-up shop keeper who spent much of the time buffing her nails in the back room. And so, in my application for this role I emphasised instead my love of books and bookshops, and an interest in the history of bookselling informed by my family history.

From February 2022, my regular shift at the Louth bookshop was half a day a week, although, along with some of the other volunteers, from mid-May I helped to cover the manager’s shifts while he volunteered elsewhere on the Polish border, assisting those displaced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Our volunteer manager was still away when we received news of the bookshop’s imminent closure on 31st May. With just a few days’ notice, we managed to notify many loyal customers, and we held a closing down sale.

Those last few days were distressing for all concerned. Especially those volunteers who had given much of their time over several years to the bookshop and the charity. As a relatively recent contributor, my emotional investment in this enterprise did not compare.

In her inaugural lecture, Sam Raynor declared that Una Dillon did for UCL, what Heffers and Blackwell’s did for Cambridge and Oxford, in establishing a flagship ‘campus’ bookshop. Dillon’s, Heffers, and Blackwell’s (owners of Heffers since 1999), have all been acquired by Waterstones. Of course, our little second-hand charity bookshop in Louth was never going to be of interest to the big W.

I understand what Ernest Heffer (son of William) meant when, in his 1933 address to young booksellers, he declared that a bookshop is a ‘microcosm of everything of importance which is happening in the world’. Although more recently, when I see our world going to hell in a handcart, a bookshop is my means of escape.

As I observed the anguish and chaos in the Louth & District Hospice Charity bookshop on that last day of trading, I felt bereft. It’s true that bookshops are close to the heart of our communities, and long may they remain so.

I never imagined that I would ever take part in closing one down.

Finding comfort in Still Life

The singer Peg Temper, in Sarah Winman’s beautifully crafted novel ‘Still Life’, sang for her life, and for yours too, ‘Because the world never turned out the way you wanted it to. It simply turned. And you hung on.’

Are you hanging on?

I hope so.

This evocative novel may well be just what the doctor ordered for these troubled times. If you’re fortunate enough to be reading it in a safe and secure space, then I hope that you will, like me, appreciate the privilege of being able to lose yourself in Winman’s intimate and, at times, comedic and uplifting tale of friendship and love.

I’m reminded of a 1939 Heffers of Cambridge advertisement featured in my history of the famous Cambridge bookseller, ‘This Book is about Heffers’ (2016).

At the time The Cambridge Review Commentator wrote,

‘Fortunately, most of us still preserve sufficient presence of mind to be able occasionally to leave war-thoughts behind and turn to our bookshelves. At the bookshops War and Peace has been in great demand from those “who have always been meaning to tackle it and have never before found the time.” At such period as this there is comfort in length. One desires a really substantial world into which to escape.’

‘Still Life’ is set mostly in quintessential post-war Florence. There’s art history and an appearance by the young Morgan Forster and his mother, to boot.

Morgan with his mother, Lily, in the late 1920s (image featured in Nicola Beauman’s 1993 biography of EM Forster).

A minor insurrection

And now? We find ourselves at perhaps the most dangerous moment in history since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It’s a worrying time.

I may have been born the year before that frightening episode, but my upbringing was strictly non-political, to such an extent that mother and father strongly expressed their concern about me becoming ‘politicised’ when I attended university in 1980.

Having joined Women’s Aid and CND as an undergraduate, I finally found the courage of my convictions and became a full-time volunteer for the Cambridge Women’s Refuge; still unapproved and despite being told I’d be disowned if I became a social worker. Then, as a postgraduate student in Sheffield, I was an active supporter of the Miner’s Strike, which infuriated mother who accused me and my ‘miner friends’ of blowing up Margaret Thatcher and her colleagues at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984.

The need for parental approval remains strong and in 2019, aged 58, when joining an Extinction Rebellion protest at a petrol station near my parents’ home, I was very apprehensive about the possibility of being spotted by father.

Earlier this month, at a Louth U3a book club session, we got onto the topic of protesting, and I was delighted to hear that my new friends had been involved in various protests over the decades, including the movement against the Vietnam War, and against the incarceration of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. We also talked about the 1984/5 Miner’s Strike, swapping stories of the impact of its policing, and the decimation of mining communities.

When I arrived home after that session, I picked up an email from the parents confirming their forthcoming trip to celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary. A stay at the Grand Hotel in Brighton.

Comfort in books and things

A more affirming aspect of my childhood was our weekly visit to Heffers Children’s Bookshop, and to the Central Library, then located upstairs at the Guildhall in Cambridge.

The writer Simone de Beauvoir viewed books – all books – as the most precious things in the world and dreamed of shutting herself away in the dusty avenues of her local circulating library. I like to think that de Beauvoir would have appreciated the way in which the Italian writer, Italo Calvino described the massing of written pages that can bind a room like the thickness of foliage in a dense wood, like stratifications of rock, slabs of slate, slivers of schist. When I look at my collection of biographies, I see reassuring layers of wisdom.

It isn’t just books, though. There is comfort to be found in all material things, as Daniel Miller discovered in his 2008 anthropological study of human values, feelings and experiences; a study that explores ways in which material culture helps people to deal with loss and change, and how the humanity of people is revealed by their material possessions. Miller observes in ‘The Comfort of Things’ that material objects are an integral and inseparable aspect of all relationships. He affirms the centrality of relationships to modern life, and the centrality of material culture to relationships.

The fabric of our lives is inter-woven with everyday objects. Miller cites the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that our orientation to everyday objects is one of the main reasons why we accept as natural and unchallenged, the routines and expectations of life.

With her Bruegel-esque narrative, Sarah Winman gives us in ‘Still Life’ what Virginia Woolf would describe as a tale filled with, ‘people going about their daily affairs, toiling, failing, succeeding, eating, hating, loving, until they die’. For Winman, the power of still life lies precisely in triviality, in a world of reliability that is symbolised by objects representing ordinary life,

‘Within these forms something powerful is retained: continuity. Memory. Family.’

Cultural devotion and destruction

Unlike Miller and Bourdieu, I’m not attempting a rigorous science of society. While it was a pleasure to revisit my own copy of Bourdieu’s masterpiece, ‘The Rules of Art’ (1996 translation), I’m simply musing upon what Miller describes as the social cosmology that helps to determine the order of those things that shape my miniscule but holistic world. For example, when helping out this week at the Louth & District Hospice Charity Bookshop in what is now my hometown, I realised what the physical presence of books means to me. How vital they are to my existence. I venerate them.

But what if your bookshops, libraries – and homes – are being blown to pieces?

As he observed the terrible destruction of Ukrainian cities by Russian forces, Nick Poole, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals, wrote a piece on protecting libraries and archives in Ukraine,

‘You disrupt and destabilise a people by disrupting their sense of self – their language, their literature, their culture.’

We know that war can destroy culture.

It’s an appalling tragedy. Hopefully, when the fighting finally stops, the Ukrainian people (those who have survived) can reclaim their homeland. And hopefully, they will, like the Italians in Sarah Winman’s magnificent novel, be able to recover many of those precious antiquities and books that define their humanity. For, as the art historian Evelyn Skinner in ‘Still Life’ declares,

‘Art versus humanity is not the question … One doesn’t exist without the other.’