It is with great excitement that I announce my next book: The Real McCoy and 149 Other Eponyms.
Here is a taster of what to expect:
The English language is rich with eponyms – words that are named after an individual – some better known than others. This book features 150 of the most interesting and enlightening specimens, delving into the origins of the words and describing the fascinating people after whom they were named.
Eponyms are derived from numerous sources. Some are named in honour of a style icon, inventor or explorer, such as pompadour, Kalashnikov and Cadillac. Others have their roots in Greek or Roman mythology, such as panic and tantalise. A number of eponyms, however, are far from celebratory and were created to indicate a rather less positive association – into this category can be filed boycott, Molotov cocktail and sadist.
Encompassing eponyms from medicine, botany, invention, science, fashion, food and literature this book uncovers the intriguing tales of discovery, mythology, innovation and infamy behind the eponyms we use every day. The Real McCoy is the perfect addition to any wordsmith’s bookshelf.
It was my great pleasure to speak to Georgina Godwin for Sunday Brunch on Monocle 24 to share some library facts and stories from A Library Miscellany. You can take a listen here (my bit is from 25 mins 55 secs).
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) was a leading light of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which he co-founded with Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais in 1848. Rossetti was a talented painter, poet and writer but his work was not always appreciated in his lifetime. With his strong views, and tumultuous love life, Rossetti typified a romantic, idealised image of ‘the artist’.
Rossetti met budding artist and model Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62) in c.1849 and entered into a long, and sometimes tortured, love affair. Their relationship was documented in many of Rossetti’s sketches, paintings and poems, immortalising her fragile, flame-haired beauty, and forever linking her image with the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
Rossetti and Siddal’s relationship was punctuated by Siddal’s lengthy bouts of illness and eroded by Rossetti’s affairs with other women and Siddal’s addiction to laudanum. In February 1862, Siddal died from an overdose, having spiralled into a depression after the loss of her baby. Friend of the couple, Hall Caine, described Rossetti taking a book of his poems and placing them next to the cheek of his dead wife, entwining some of her celebrated red curls around them and requesting that they be buried with her. Caine here created a tender and tragic image of the distraught artist, placing his precious poetry in his muse’s coffin. This type of artistic self-sacrifice appealed to Victorian ideals and the macabre act of burying his work with his wife was also tinged with the Gothic.
Rossetti felt enormous guilt over the death of Elizabeth and his mental health began to suffer but as time passed his guilt was surpassed by a yearning for his lost poetry. By 1869 his agent Charles Augustus Howell gently encouraged Rossetti to put an exhumation in motion so as to retrieve the poems from the grave. Howell was perhaps motivated by his own hopes of financial gain but also wished to alleviate Rossetti’s considerable mental anguish.
Permission for the exhumation was swiftly granted as Rossetti knew the then Home Secretary Henry A. Bruce and was able to circumvent the usual rules which would have required his gaining the consent of his mother to desecrate the family plot. Rossetti clearly knew how badly the exhumation would reflect on him were it to come out and keeping it from his mother likely helped him to keep away from awkward questions regarding his motivations.
Rossetti, keen for the literary fame the publication of the lost poems could offer him, yet crushed by the desecration the retrieval required, was not present at the exhumation, and in fact kept himself at one remove by signing power of attorney over to Howell on this matter.
The exhumation went ahead on 5 October 1869, during the dead of night so as to avoid offending any mourners at the cemetery. A large bonfire was built at the graveside to light the way and provide warmth. A lawyer, Tebbs was present to ensure no foul play took place and Dr Llewelyn Williams was engaged to receive the ghastly book and disinfect it to prevent any germs from the dead spreading to the living.
Howell was also present and reported, in what can only be a figment of his imagination, that when the coffin lid was removed Siddal was found ‘quite perfect’ – a myth which later grew to include reports that her golden hair had continued to grow until it filled the coffin.
Howell’s retelling puts a Gothic, supernatural spin on the exhumation but the reality soon unravels his storified version when we consider that the manuscript was quite sodden and had to be taken away to be disinfected. When Rossetti was finally reunited with the book two weeks later, it reeked of disinfectant and decay and had a number of large worm-holes obscuring some of the text. One can only imagine the very vivid illustration this offered of the reality of where the book had lain for the past seven years, and it is telling that once the poems were transcribed, Rossetti had the manuscript destroyed.
The truth of the exhumation did not come out to the public until after Rossetti’s death in 1882. Caine Hall recalled that Rossetti regretted the exhumation, citing rather damningly his ‘weakness of yielding to the importunity of friends, and the impulse of literary ambition’. Ultimately however, the vivid Gothic imagery of an uncorrupted Siddal over-shadowed the grim reality of the act and instead of damning Rossetti it fed into the myth surrounding this truly Victorian couple.
 Hall Caine, Recollections of Rossetti, (London: Cassell & Company, Ltd, 1928) p.42
 Lucinda Hawksley, Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, (London: André Deutsch, 2004)
 Jan Marsh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter and Poet, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999)
At the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852, the enormous hearse was pulled by twelve black horses, each sporting a dramatic plume of prime black ostrich feathers. The feathers harked back to traditional medieval baronial funerals and their inclusion in the spectacular parade, which was witnessed by 1.5 million people, was hugely influential on Victorian funereal customs. The fashion for ostrich feathers ultimately dripping down through the classes, becoming an essential element of ‘respectable’ Victorian funerals.
Before the 1860s all of the ostrich feathers that reached Britain were taken from wild birds, slaughtered during a hunt. Across the Sahara and in South Africa where the birds were common, riders on horseback would hunt down the birds, kill them and pluck their feathers. These feathers would then be bundled up, transported by camel caravan to North Africa and then shipped into France or Italy and then on to London where they would be sold.
The demand for feathers was so high that concerns were raised that ostriches would be hunted to extinction, like the dodo before it. This scarcity only served to make ostrich feathers yet more desirable.
It was not only for funerals that ostrich feathers were required, a number of military regiments also used the feathers in their uniforms but by far the biggest market for ostrich feathers was the fashion trade.
In the 1860s the French Court began to wear ostrich feathers on hats, as trim on dresses, as jackets and boas. The feathers could be dyed any colour of the rainbow and added exoticism and luxury to any outfit. Naturally where Paris went, the world followed and soon the demand for ostrich feathers outstripped supply, lending them yet further cache.
Due to the value of ostrich feathers some canny colonial farmers at the Cape in South Africa saw an opportunity. If the ostrich could be domesticated and farmed they would have a ready supply of feathers which could be plucked from the bird without harming it and regrow anew. The first experiments began in the region of Oudtshoorn and by 1865 they had found some success with 80 domesticated birds.
The problem was the safe rearing of ostrich chicks — the ostriches tended to get spooked and destroy their own eggs, or simply fail to incubate them properly, leading to a difficulty in expanding the number of domesticated ostriches. This problem was solved in 1869 when Arthur Douglass, a pioneering ostrich farmer and the first to list ostrich farming as his sole occupation, invented the ostrich incubator.
This technological leap allowed farmers to safely hatch numerous chicks, greatly expanding their flocks and by 1875, there were 20,000 domesticated ostriches in the Oudtshoorn region alone.
After the success of these early farmers many colonists at the Cape switched from sheep farming to ostrich farming, the returns at this point seemingly much better and the conditions in South Africa proving ideal. By the 1880s ostrich feathers had become South Africa’s fourth largest export after gold, diamonds and wool.
Each ostrich could provide two crops of a feathers a year, the feathers being plucked or cut from the birds would then regrow. Each bird gives 1 lb of feathers on plucking — 50 quill feathers (with about four fancy-coloured in each wing), plus 75 to 100 feathers in the tail and 6 ounces of drabs.
Port Elizabeth flourished with the new trade, as the money raised from taxes levied on the export of the feathers allowed new municipal buildings to be constructed. Many made their fortune from the trade and they built huge, luxurious houses, known as ‘feather palaces’ with the spoils.
London was the hub of the ostrich feather trade. Huge crates of sorted feathers would arrive each week from the Cape plus a smaller number still traded up the caravan routes from wild Saharan birds.
Warehouses at Cutler Street and Billiter Street in East London displayed the sorted feathers for merchants to inspect before they were sold at monthly auctions in commercial sale rooms in Mincing Lane.
The feathers were sorted and washed at the Cape before being transported and would be displayed at the warehouses divided into classes of feathers. Some of the feather classes included:
Prime Whites — the largest most valuable feathers from the wings of male birds
Feminas — wing feathers from female birds with soft flowing hairs extending from the central quill
Spadones — lower grade wing feathers, less full in look.
Blacks — body feathers from male ostriches
Drabs — shorter body feathers used for feather dusters and such like
Merchants would inspect the feathers before the sale and then bid for the lots of their choice. These merchants would then sell on their feathers to manufacturers where they were dyed, curled and layered up and sewn together to create plumes. The industry supported not just the farmers at the Cape but the merchants plus numerous artisanal trades people (often young women) who processed the feathers before they reached the retailers.
Boom and Bust
Initially prices remained high with a one sale in October 1882 seeing Prime Whites go for between £22 and £26 per lb, however before long as ostrich farming grew in popularity, the market began to get flooded with feathers and as a result profits fell.
The fashion for wearing feathers continued and between 1870 and c.1885 London was the very profitable hub of this burgeoning industry, selling feathers on to France, Germany and America.
However the glut in feathers began to tell after 1885 and prices began to drop as this once scarce and exotic commodity became plentiful. Many ostrich farmers went out of business and numerous speculators out in the Cape who had invested in the new craze went bust. Some farmers battled on but the industry heard its death knell in 1914.
The over-supply of feathers, the changing fashion, the introduction of the automobile which meant flamboyant headresses were no longer practical, and the outbreak of World War One all played their part. Farmers were suddenly faced with huge flocks of ostriches with no discernible value. Many were slaughtered for pet food and efforts were made to market the meat for human consumption and the leather as a fashionable alternative to traditional leathers, and this met some success.
Ultimately however the ostrich feather had fallen out of fashion and the days of the enormous ostrich farms of the Cape, the monthly auctions and the inflated prices were over. The majority of ostrich farms went back to sheep or goat farming, the provision of wool and mohair seemingly less subject to the fickle fancy of fashion.
I am very excited to announce that I shall be embarking on a blog tour for the release of A Library Miscellany in February 2018.
What is a blog tour? Good question. I had not heard of them myself until I saw a poster for a fellow author’s tour on Twitter and it piqued my interest. I went and had a look and discovered it was a chance to share a fresh extract or guest blog on a different book blog each day for a week or more. It sounded like such a fun idea and a great way to share a new book with a fresh audience so I immediately set to work organising one for A Library Miscellany.
Most blog tours take place for fiction so I tried to identify bloggers who also had an interest in non-fiction and I got such a lovely response. My tour will take in nine stops encompassing a wonderful selection of bloggers who have kindly agreed to host an extract or guest blog about the world’s wonderful libraries, their treasures and the people behind the collections. See below for the poster showing all the stops on the tour:
I hope you will enjoy following the tour and getting a glimpse inside A Library Miscellany.
As I was searching for local folklore for my customary dive into #FolkloreThursday on Twitter I came across the wonderful Enid Porter collection of local Cambridgeshire folklore, and it was here I discovered the wonderful story of the stone lions of the Fitzwilliam Museum.
That tweet seemed to capture the imagination of many people and I received some fascinating replies telling me about folktales of other stone lions or statues around the country which are said to come to life at night, and so I thought I should explore the legends further in a blog post.
The Fitzwilliam Lions
These four beautiful stone lions were carved by William Grinsell Nicholl (1796–1871) in 1839 with two adorning the south steps and two looking out over the north steps of the museum building. Lion statues are a familiar motif on public buildings, their majestic and powerful figures seen as worthy beasts to guard entrances.
Legend has it that at the stroke of midnight, the lions awake from their slumber, stretch and then pad down from their pedestals to take a drink from the guttering (flowing from Hobson’s Conduit further up the street) which runs along Trumpington Street. The lions might then take a stroll through the museum, letting out the odd roar, before settling back onto their perches ready to welcome visitors in the morning.
The story inspired Michael Rosen to write a poem called The Listening Lions in which he imagined what the lions might see and do when they awoke every night.
The British Museum Lions
These gorgeous Art Deco lions guard the lesser-used north entrance of the British Museum on Montague Place. At midnight they too are rumoured to have a stretch, yawn and take a drink of water, before settling back into position.
The lions were carved by Sir George Frampton RA in 1914, he is also famous for the Edith Cavell memorial outside the National Portrait Gallery.
The Landseer Lions
These four enormous bronze lions at the base of Nelson’s Column were designed by Sir Edwin Landseer. The Column was erected in 1843 and the fountains added in 1845, but there was some delay over the lions. The original commission went to Thomas Milnes but his four stone lions were not thought to be grand enough for the great memorial to Nelson and so they were sold to Sir Titus Salt who installed them outside the former factory school in Saltaire near Bedford, where they sit to this day.
Landseer, a renowned artist, took over the commission in 1858 and immediately began sketching the lions at London Zoo and he also took delivery (via a cab!) of a dead specimen from the zoo. Landseer was particularly thorough and the press began to complain that his research was taking overly long.
The lions were finally put in place in 1867, some nine years after Landseer had received the commission. The Spectator has this rather sniffy report about their unveiling (2 February, 1867):
Sir Edwin Landseer’s lions, so long ordered for the base of Nelson’s Monument, were uncovered on Thursday without any official fuss. The popular verdict upon them seems singularly uncertain, and the artistic one has yet to be pronounced.
The statues may look identical but if you look closely you can see that they are all slightly different. The paws on the lions have been criticised for not being very lifelike, resembling the paws of a normal cat rather than a lion, it is thought this is because the lion corpse he used to model from may have begun to decompose by the time he got them and so the paws were not in great condition.
These iconic statues are rumoured to come to life should Big Ben ever strike thirteen. Incidentally, it is also said that should Big Ben strike thirteen times then there would be a death in the Royal family.
Statue of King William III
Lion statues are not the only statues said to come to life, there is statue of King William III, in Hull, which is known affectionately as ‘King Billy’. This gilded statue of King William siting astride his horse was erected in 1734 and was created by Dutch sculptor, Peter Scheemaker.
The statue stands on the Market Square and it is said that when the church clock of Holy Trinity strikes midnight, King Billy gets off his horse and pops into the pub for a pint. If the clock ever strikes thirteen locals expect to see the horse also join them for a drink!
Do you know of any other examples of folklore of statues coming to life? If so, please do share in the comments below.
What can be found in the Vatican’s Secret Archive? How many books did Charles Darwin’s library aboard the Beagle hold? Which library is home to a colony of bats?
Bursting with potted histories, quirky facts and enlightening lists, this book explores every aspect of the library, celebrating not only these remarkable institutions but also the individuals behind their awe-inspiring collections.
From the ancient library at Alexandria to the Library of Congress in Washington DC, A Library Miscellany explores institutions both old and new, from the university library to that of the humble village. It opens the door to unusual collections such as herbaria, art libraries, magic libraries and even the library of smells, and charts the difficulties of cataloguing subversive, heretical, libellous or obscene books.
Packed with unusual facts and statistics, this is the perfect volume for library enthusiasts, bibliophiles and readers everywhere.
A Library Miscellany will be published in February 2018 by the wonderful Bodleian Library Publishing. Please pre-order your copy here.
Zui haui literally translates as ‘the guilty pagoda tree’ and it was so-named as it was from this tree that the last ruler of the Ming Dynasty, Chongzhen, was said to have hung himself in 1644. The tree was thence considered guilty for allowing the death of the emperor.
Zhu Youjian (1611–44) known as the Chongzhen Emperor, was the last emperor of the great Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). He came to power aged just sixteen after the death of his brother, the Tianqui Emperor, who had ruled from 1620 to 1627. Chongzhen inherited an empire in disarray and decline, and Tianqui was in part responsible.
Illiterate and uninterested in state matters, Tianqui had neglected his official role,
instead spending all his time on his passion – woodworking. Tianqui was a great craftsman and spent many hours perfecting his art, even asking his servants to secretly and anonymously sell his carpentry at the market to see how much they would fetch. While Tianqui lavished time on his hobby, a powerful court eunuch, Wei Zongxian took control of the Imperial Court, purging all those who opposed him and promoting those loyal to him, ensuring Tianqui was but a puppet-ruler.
In the resultant power vacuum, other self-serving courtiers saw their opportunity to further themselves. One such opportunist was Madame Ke, Tianqui’s beloved childhood nurse. Madame Ke wanted to make sure she stayed in the emperor’s good graces by preventing any other women from gaining his ear. To this end she imprisoned Tianqui’s concubines, starving them to death, and she supposedly poisoned the pregnant empress causing her to miscarry, leaving Tianqui heirless. Despite these Machiavellian dealings, Tianqui would not hear a word said against Madame Ke or Wei Zongxian, he ignored the numerous complaints against them and refused to curb their power.
Under Wei Zongxian conditions in the country worsened. Not only was there widespread social unrest, but the empire was beset with countless other problems, not all of them man made. The Manchu were launching incursions into the north of China, devastating flooding caused by inclement weather and a dip in the global economy saw the silk industry collapse, which caused food prices to rise and unemployment grew. With this uncertain backdrop Wei did not improve relations with Tianqui’s subjects instead he wielded his power to execute hundreds of Donglin Confucian scholars and their supporters who had campaigned for an end to oppression.
It was against this sorry background that Chongzhen came to power. Sixteen-year-old Zhu Youjian was given the official name Chongzhen (meaning ‘lofty and auspicious’) and
at first he tried to maintain the status quo left by his brother and kept Wei as an adviser. However Wei’s excessive power and heavy-handed dealings meant that many complaints from officials came to light and Chongzen took action to have Wei arrested. Wei, learning of his imminent capture, took control of his own fate and hung himself from the rafters of the inn where he was staying. Madame Ke, meanwhile, was demoted to working in the palace laundry and before long she was found dead, having apparently been beaten to death.
Despite ridding the country of the pernicious influence of Wei Zongxian and Madame Ke, rebellions sprung up all over his empire and Chongzen was at first unable to pay or supply his army to quell the uprisings. In desperation, Chongzhen ordered his subjects to provide more conscripts and pay higher taxes. Unsurprisingly these demands on an already depressed and stretched population served only to turn more people towards rebellion. By 1644 Chongzhen had been betrayed by many of his generals and a rebel army led by Li Zicheng had begun to close in on the Forbidden City in Beijing.
A number of legends have sprung up regarding the last moments of Emperor Chongzhen, some more favourable than others. One tells that Chongzhen on seeing the advancing rebel army, fled to his palace where he rang a bell to call his ministers to his side for a council. As the bell rang out Chongzhen waited in vain for his ministers to arrive and he soon realised he had been abandoned. It being clear the rebels would soon enter the palace, Emperor Chongzhen was said to have told his family and concubines to assemble for a final banquet. But as they sat down to eat, Chongzhen appeared armed with a sword and slayed them all.
Another version has Chongzhen on realising all is lost, telling his three sons to escape to safety before exhorting his wife, the Empress Zhou, to kill herself. His consort and concubine Yuan heard his terrible request and tried to escape but Chongzhen took his sword and stabbed her in the back. Distraught, he then went to the palace of his daughters and confronted the princess, asking her how she had come to have been born into such an unfortunate family. With no answer to give, Chongzhen cut her down with his sword. His final act before fleeing the Forbidden City was to send messages to his sister-in-law and mother, telling them too to kill themselves, ensuring all but his sons were dead.
With the blood of his family on his hands Chongzhen escaped the Forbidden City as the forces of Li Zicheng closed in. In despair and disarray Chongzhen, leaving his crown behind, hiked up through the forests of Coal Hill, a man-made peak created when the moats for the Imperial Palace were excavated in the eleventh century. Chongzhen came to a Pagoda Tree and with his reign in tatters, his family slain and his support vanished, Chongzhen hung himself from its low hanging branches.
A number of contemporary annals reported that the devastated emperor left a note, to the following effect, written upon the robes he wore:
I, feeble and of small virtue, have offended against Heaven; the rebels have seized my capital because my ministers deceived me.
Ashamed to face my ancestors, I die.
Removing my imperial cap and with my hair dishevelled about my face, I leave to the rebels the dismemberment of my body. Let them not harm my people!
Chongzhen was perhaps not as alone as he thought, his most faithful eunuch, Wang Cheng’ eng, followed him up the hill. On seeing his master’s lifeless body he too hung himself on a nearby tree. Wang Cheng ‘eng was not the only one to demonstrate his loyalty to his master in this way, as the rebels took hold of the city over 700 members of the Imperial household reportedly committed suicide in solidarity with their emperor.
For three days no one knew where the emperor was until a servant found his body under a pine tree on the hill. He was said to have been clothed in a blue silk robe, with red trousers and upon his robe in the emperor’s own hand were the characters ‘Tian zi’ – meaning son of heaven.
On taking control of the Forbidden City, Li Zicheng had Chongzhen and his empress quietly buried in the tomb of Chongzhen’s beloved concubine, Tian. In 1659 the new Qing dynasty, keen to imply their rule was merely a continuation of previous dynasties rather than the conquest it truly was, built a memorial to Chongzhen around the tomb. Unusually the eunuch, Wang Cheng’ eng was afforded the honour of being buried just to the east of his master’s tomb, demonstrating the value placed upon his loyalty.
The Pagoda tree and stone stela which marked the place remained as a memorial to Chongzhen’s death and the end of the Ming Dynasty, and it was said that as late as the 1900s a chain used by Chongzhen to hang himself remained visible on the branches of the diminutive tree. Unfortunately the original ancient tree was deemed an unacceptable link to feudalism by Mao’s government and it was destroyed at some point during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76).
A replacement tree was planted at the spot in 1981 and today it survives as a tourist attraction, with an explanatory history board announcing its significance.
 In Imperial China, eunuchs (men who had been castrated) were common at court as they were believed to be faithful servants because they could have no children of their own. Many poor families would have their young sons castrated in the hope of them gaining a position at the Imperial Court as a way to better the family. At the height of the Ming Dynasty some 100,000 eunuchs served the Imperial Court.
 In some versions of the story, one of Chongzhen’s daughters, Chang Ping survived the massacre despite losing her left arm as she tried to protect herself from her father’s blows.
 It was said that Chongzhen fled through the Shenwumen gate and so during the early part of the succeeding Qing Dynasty rule superstitions grew around the use of the gate and it was considered unlucky. Most people avoided using the gate, with only funerals passing through.
Tianqui Emperor: From collection in National Palace Museum
Chongzhen Emperor: He Li: Power and Glory: Court Arts of China’s Ming Dynasty, Asian
Art Museum San Francisco, 2008
Forbidden City: The Beijing Palace-City Scroll (北京宫城图), now held in the National Museum of China, Beijing. Painted in the mid-Ming Dynasty (c. 15th century), depicting figures including the chief architects of the Forbidden City.
Pagoda tree: Cyclopedia of American horticulture (1906)
Ever since I could coordinate my hands enough to clutch a book, my nose has been buried inside one. Some of my happiest childhood memories are of the long summer holidays when my sister and I were let loose in the children’s section of the library at the college where my father worked. I remember spending hours, sprawled on beanbags, poring over picture books, letting my imagination roam freely.
As I got older I ventured into chapter books but found my first true love in the form of the French comic books featuring Asterix and Tintin. I loved the humour of the Asterix books and was sucked in by the fantastic plots of Tintin’s many adventures. Throughout my childhood I returned to my Tintin collection over and over, I must have read each book hundreds of times, never tiring of the detail, the excitement or the intrigue. It gladdens my heart that my children are now enjoying the now rather dog-eared remnants of my Tintin library.
Sharing books I loved as a child with my own children has become such a pleasure. First the classic picture books, such as The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Meg & Mog and The Very Hungry Caterpillar – the words and illustrations so familiar, transporting me back to my five-year-old self. Then moving on to more complex reads as the children get older, enjoying the suspense and excitement of good children’s literature all over again.
My nine-year-old is a chip off the old block when it comes to books, never happier than when lying on his bed enjoying a good read. It has been such a joy to share more of my childhood books with him as he gets older and also to discover new books together. I have especially enjoyed reading him my copy of Philip Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke – a wonderful Victorian-set mystery – which has allowed me to experience these books in a new light, seeing them through my son’s eyes.
The teenage years
As I moved into teenagerdom I was nothing if not an eclectic reader, enjoying both the literary delights of Victorian Gothic and the more earthy delights of Jilly Cooper’s Riders. Every birthday and Christmas I requested book tokens, which I would amass with glee and set off for Blackwell’s, Oxford’s most famous bookshop, where I would take my time selecting books for my ever-growing ‘To Be Read’ pile.
One of my seminal teenage texts was S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. The book transported me from my rather staid Oxford middle-class life into the American world of greasers and socs. The characters of Pony-Boy, Soda-pop and Johnny so vividly drawn I almost felt I knew them myself, although in truth they were characters far removed from my actual peers. I remember fighting to read the words through my tears when Johnny exhorts Pony-boy to ‘Stay gold’.
My teenage years also saw the start of my obsession with the Brontës. I devoured their collective works and then further stoked my admiration for them by reading Lyn Reid Banks’ wonderful fictionalised account of their lives, The Dark Quartet. The escapism I found in their novels, with their strongly drawn female characters, helped me muddle through my teenage years and cemented the role of books in my life as a respite from reality.
Into my adult life books have remained central to my life – when I first met my future husband I gave him a fairly hefty reading list as I was so keen to share my favourite books with my now favourite person (and full credit to him, he happily read every book I slung his way and twenty years later remains my most frequent book-share buddy).
Books have a way of associating themselves with a certain time in my life. My carefree twenties working in London was a golden time for reading as I had an epic hour and a half commute from my home in south London to my job in north London. The perils of riding the underground while reading a good book are legion. It was during this time I first discovered the joys of John Irving and the perils of trying to suppress my guffaws while on public transport (tip: always have a tissue handy when reading John Irving, you will invariably need it to either dry some tears or pantomime blowing your nose as you try and disguise the snort of laughter with a faux coughing fit). I also associate this period with reading James Ellroy – getting so drawn into the intrigue of American Tabloid that I forgot to get off the tube at my stop and I actually gasped aloud when the twist of LA Confidential was revealed, much to the bafflement of my fellow passengers.
Reading associations are not always happy. I read a lot less during my early thirties as I was in the thick of child-rearing. My one reading opportunity was as I struggled to get my limpet-like daughter to detach from me and go to sleep. I sat for hours in a dim room, straining my eyes as I ploughed through John Galsworthy’s The Forsyth Saga, hoping my daughter would fall into a deep enough sleep to allow me to peel her from me and escape. I’m not sure if the frustration of this period has coloured my perception but that book became more of a chore than a pleasure.
Books = work and pleasure
For the past decade or more books have been not just my chief pleasure but also my job. Although I dream of one day writing a novel, non-fiction is my genre and I love nothing more than spending hours in the library researching my next book. In my writing career my magpie-like nature and eye for a quirky story has served me well and I am constantly reading everything from the news, blogs, literature, history books, opinion pieces – searching out curious tales, interesting histories or amusing lists to use in a book or article.
It was this miscellaneous skill which collided with my love of books to produce The Book Lovers’ Miscellany. Here I was able to put my love of books to work creating a
smorgasbord of bibliophilic delights – writing potted histories on ink, paper, book binding, comics and quills. Curating lists of best-selling books, writers who were rejected multiple times, the most prolific writers, the oldest writers to be published first time and the most influential books of all time. And telling the stories behind Penguin paperbacks, dust jackets, Mills & Boon and the Detection Club.
Writing and researching The Book Lovers’ Miscellany was like writing a love letter to books, writers, writing and reading. It is a celebration and a culmination of all the many hours I have had my nose buried in a book and I really hope it will delight my fellow bookworms, reminding us all how much pleasure we can take from a humble book.
The Book Lovers’ Miscellany is out 29 September 2017 and is available to order here.