A FULL MAN
Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.
Francis Bacon ‘Of Studies’
How on earth was I going to transport my library of over a hundred books to Birmingham? My dad had the answer. He always did. Up in the attic was his old army chest. A large wooden box with metal brackets reinforcing the four corners and two sturdy rope handles. With a lick of green paint and a lining of newspapers, it became the solution to my immediate problem. My dad was a resourceful individual. Nothing was impossible for him. So I filled it up to the brim with my books before he secured the plywood lid with panel pins. Once we’d hefted it into the boot of his car – it was a two-man job – we took it to Bank Top railway station.
Instead of becoming a university student, which was admittedly an implausible option for someone from his social class, joining the army was my father’s route to self-determination. When he walked out of the Forge in 1940, aged only fifteen, the bowler-hatted foreman bawled after him, ‘Where the hell are you going, Jarvie?’ My dad turned round to confront him and said, ‘To fight for my country. So why don’t you just fuck off.’ He always had a way with words – eloquent in his own unique way.
Like many others of his generation, he lied about his age so that he could enlist in the British army. In Operation Neptune he came ashore on Sword beach with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, as part of a Bren gun two-man crew. Inland, near Caen, his thigh was sliced open by the jagged shrapnel from a German mortar shell.
Recuperating later in a Scottish hospital, penicillin saved his leg from amputation. More importantly, it saved his life. After he was discharged, he had the opportunity to go to university, but he was always wary of the written word because of his limited formal education – he left school at fourteen – so one can understand why he didn’t pursue that particular course of action.
Not wanting the same old cunts in charge – certainly not Churchill and his cronies – this man of the left would naturally have voted for Attlee in the Labour landslide of 1945. Despite lying about his age to serve his country, I have the distinct impression that he was actually disenfranchised during the subsequent general election. Old enough to fight, but not old enough to vote, seems to have been his lot, since in those days the voting age was twenty-one.
One thing he certainly never did at any time in his life was to vote Conservative. When discussing working-class Tory voters he’d typically describe them as being, ‘thick in the head as shit in a bottle’. Considering that simile now, I find it apposite, and wonder how shit could ever find its way inside a bottle.
Growing up in a working-class household, books didn’t have the importance that they hold for me now. Although my dad had bought on a whim a gaudy copy of Macaulay’s History of England with one of those faux red leather bindings and gold lettering I don’t think he realised that this work, despite its title, covers a period of only seventeen years, chronicling the so-called Glorious Revolution. He would also have been oblivious of the fact that Marx characterised Macaulay in Das Kapital as, ‘a systematic falsifier of history’. Apart from this multi-volume tome the only other books in our house belonged to my mother, including a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, which I seem to remember was one of those cheap volumes published by the Book Club Associates.
Prior to commencing my degree, I worked for six months in Darlington Local History Room, part of the Victorian building in Crown Street that had served as a public library since 1885. My job involved cutting out articles from The Northern Echo newspaper and pasting them into folders, as well as viewing microfilmed copies of the same publication for any items of local interest. It was one of those YOP programmes instigated by the Tories before they embarked on their systematic wrecking spree of the manufacturing sector.
Preparing for my forthcoming undergraduate studies, I regularly raided this wonderful old library’s resources. To begin with I borrowed an eight-volume edition of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Given my voracious appetite for the written word, it was also natural to explore beyond the confines of the reading list: Samuel Beckett’s No’s Knife, Raymond Queneau’s The Bark Tree and Robert Pinget’s Recurrent Melody were but three of the titles that I eagerly plucked from the shelves.
A few days after we’d dropped off the box at the station, I was on board a train bound for Birmingham. Unable to find a seat, I was forced to sit on the floor in the corridor. This was a few years before the electrification of the East Coast mainline. Consequently, there were no high-speed trains in service yet, only the familiar blunt-nosed Deltics, with their yellow and blue livery. These diesel locomotives were named after famous racehorses as well as regiments in the British army – including my dad’s former regiment, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.
My trainspotting days were by now a distant memory. Even so, I recalled one particular abortive trip to Crewe, in the depths of winter, when I’d borrowed my dad’s old haversack so that I could take with me a thermos flask of Heinz vegetable soup. By the time I got to the station the contents of the flask had leaked. When I opened the flap of the haversack the chunks of carrot and potato looked as if someone had thrown up inside the canvas interior.
Trainspotting was a straightjacket from which I had managed to extricate myself. In many ways the business of actually going to the railway embankment or the distant marshalling yard was more exciting than that short-lived moment of seeing the locomotive itself and noting down its number. Books, however, belonged to a very different order of reality. Once I started to collect them I bought them from a shop called Dressers on High Row in Darlington. New arrivals were kept in a specific place in the upstairs book department and I would regularly check to see if my orders had been delivered.
Disembarking at New Street Station, I made straight for the exit to catch a cab off the rank. In the concourse, Rasta men wandered about, some with flowing dreadlocks, others wearing crocheted hats on their heads that were striped with alternating colours of black, green, red and gold. When they spoke they uttered an earthy patois that was rich and ancient like the language of Shakespeare, the texture of their vocabulary as smoky as a city centre pub on a busy Saturday night.
The black cab was probably one of the first taxis I’d ever travelled in. That brief journey from the city centre took me and my heavy suitcase along Broad Street, up to Five Ways, then left into Calthorpe Road before finally arriving at Westbourne Road. The Halls of Residence were in well-to-do Edgbaston, home of the famous cricket club and just over the road from the splendid Botanical Gardens. The local MP was, alas, a Tory – Dame Jill Knight to be precise.
When I entered the foyer I was overjoyed to see the green box waiting for me. A fellow student called Saghir, who was in the room next to mine, helped me lug it upstairs. I later discovered that my neighbour would religiously spend his evenings meticulously covering his recently purchased paperbacks with a layer of protective laminate. His Arden editions of Shakespeare were consequently in pristine condition and, I suspect, largely unread. He was also obsessed with hygiene and would wash himself repeatedly, even wiping the germ-laden earpiece of a public payphone with his handkerchief before using it.
Although the phrase obsessive compulsive disorder didn’t exist in those days, it should be clear from my anecdotal evidence that the medical condition which it describes most certainly did. Not surprisingly, Saghir failed his first year exams and was kicked off the course.
As for me, I simply loved books, whatever their condition, whether they happened to be new or secondhand. In my eyes the ones with sunned or cocked spines, or those with torn dustjackets and dog-eared pages had lost none of their lustre since it was what was on the inside that counted, not the exterior trappings.
With the lid removed, I started to unpack my library and soon realised that there was still one thing missing – I needed to buy a bookcase. But that could wait until another day.