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.
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.
Numerous pubs across Britain are named The Royal Oak in recognition of the national importance of one large oak tree in Boscobel House, Shropshire.
On 3 September 1651 at the Battle of Worcester, Charles II, the newly-crowned King of Scotland and son of Charles I, was resoundingly beaten by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian army. Some 5,000 troops were killed or captured during the battle and 21-year-old Charles was lucky to escape with his life. Charles fled with a few of his most trusted men in an attempt to find safety.
Parliamentarian soldiers were in hot pursuit, desperate to capture Charles I’s son and prevent others flocking to the banner of the heir to the throne. By 3am on 4 September an exhausted Charles arrived at the converted priory of White Ladies where he sought refuge with the trusted Giffard family. A loyal servant named George Penderel welcomed the bedraggled Charles and soon became a vital part of his escape plans.
It was immediately obvious that Charles needed a disguise as his long flowing locks made him instantly recognisable. Thus his hair was quickly shorn and his fine clothes substituted for a rough-hewn hemp shirt, green breeches, a dirty grey hat, a leather doublet and some badly-fitting shoes – to top off the disguise the house servants dirtied the young monarch’s face with soot. Now ready to depart it was clear that Charles needed a trusted guide. George Penderel’s older brother, Richard, was recruited to lead Charles through the local countryside and hopefully on to London, and they set out into the damp night.
The pair headed for some woods and hoped to reach and cross the Severn at Madeley, but they soon discovered the area was crawling with Parliamentarian troops and they were forced to turn back. As they walked back through the woods, Richard Penderel attempted to teach Charles to walk like a farm labourer, as his majestic gait gave away his identity.
With the area so closely watched by their enemies Charles and Richard decided to head for another house owned by the Giffard family, Boscobel House, where another Penderel brother, William was in charge. They spent the day hiding in a barn before setting out at night for Boscobel. After walking in sodden clothes for many hours, the tired and hungry pair reached Boscobel House at 3am, where they discovered one of Charles’s officers, Colonel Carlis was already hiding out.
As morning broke Charles and Colonel Carlis noticed a huge, pollarded oak tree in the grounds of the house which offered a promising hiding place. They climbed high into its branches, gaining a panoramic view of the surrounding lands, safely hidden by the canopy. With a picnic of bread, cheese and beer the fugitives refuelled and slept, the tree providing a solidly secure place of refuge. Thirty years later, when Charles was King Charles II he recounted the story of his escape to the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys, who recorded the decision to hide in the tree thus:
‘he [Carlis] told me that it would be very dangerous either to stay in the house or go into the wood (there being a great wood hard by Boscobel) and he knew but one way how to pass all the next day and that was to get up into a great oak in a pretty plain place where we could see round about us for they would certainly search all the wood for people that had made their escape. … [We] got up into a great oak that had been lopped some 3 or 4 years before and so was grown out very bushy and thick not to be seen through. And there we sat all the day.’
At one point some Roundhead soldiers searching the grounds of Boscobel House passed directly under the oak in which Charles was stowed, but they failed to look up and notice their quarry above them. That such an important person as Charles chose to shelter in an oak tree was perhaps pure chance – oaks are England’s most common native tree and so would have been plentiful in the landscape. Oaks are also large trees with generous sprawling branches and abundant foliage, which would provide obvious comfort and coverage for any fugitive. Yet oaks, then and now, have a cultural significance as an enduring symbol of England. Ancient oaks were often used during the seventeenth century as places where couples would wed and traditionally celebratory Yule logs were supplied from the oak tree. Indeed it is with some irony that it can be noted that Charles’s father, Charles I was later tried and convicted in the beautifully oak-clad chamber of the Houses of Parliament – the tree of England the most obvious choice to hug the walls of the chamber of power at the heart of our nation.
It seems destined that such a tree should play a pivotal part in the rescue of the nation’s future monarch. Oaks have become so entwined with England, their solid beauty a cipher for the strength of the nation. Indeed oak trees played a vital role in Britain’s colonial success, providing the wood from which many great ships – for exploration and war – were hewn and proffering the oak charcoal required to smelt iron during the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. In 1664, John Evelyn, a fellow of the Royal Society published Silva or a Discourse on Forest-Trees, the first known book to express the theory that Britain’s success and resultant riches were founded on the back of the nation’s abundant oak forests. Evelyn’s great tome was to inspire recognition and respect for the power of the oak tree and encouraged in later years many wealthy landowners to plant huge forests of oak trees – most notably Colonel Thomas Johnes who in the period 1795–1801 planted some 922,000 oak saplings – to assure the future of the nation’s oak forests and thus its fortunes.
After spending all day in the safety of the tree, Charles and Colonel Carlis returned to Boscobel House where they rested for the night hidden in a priest hole before making their escape across country. Charles ultimately spent six weeks on the run before he reached the coast at Shoreham beach, where they set sail for the Isle of Wight and later landed in France, where Charles waited out Cromwell’s rule in European exile. In 1660 with Cromwell finally dead, Charles was able to sail back to Britain and reclaim the throne, restoring the British monarchy.
And so the safe haven of Charles and his companion, Colonel Carlis, became celebrated as the Royal Oak – the exciting tale of the king’s daring escape capturing the public imagination. Numerous pubs were named in its honour, and the tradition of oak-apple day was created, whereby on 29 May (Charles’ birthday) each year from 1660 the restoration of the monarchy was celebrated. A national holiday was granted and people wore sprigs of oak leaves pinned to their lapels to demonstrate their loyalty and support for their monarch and to recognise the part played by the oak tree in Charles’s escape and survival.
The Boscobel oak itself became a place of pilgrimage and sadly souvenir hunters were soon hacking off branches and tearing out sections of bark. By 1680 the tree had been so damaged a wall was built around its trunk for protection, but the effort was in vain and by 1712 the tree was reported to be in grave danger. Some traces of the original tree have survived, including a number of items which were fashioned from the wood cut from the Royal Oak, including a salver which today resides in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, a Royalist stronghold during the Civil War. Additionally, the link between the Penderel and Carlis families to the famous tree was forever cemented by the creation of new Coats of Arms which depicted the Royal Oak and three royal crowns.
Today visitors can see the Royal Oak at Boscobel, but it is not the original tree, which sadly fell victim to over-zealous souvenir hunters in the seventeenth century. Instead the 200–300-year-old tree which today stands in its place is known as Son of Royal Oak as it was planted from an acorn of the original tree. In 2000, Son of Royal Oak was badly damaged during a storm, losing many of its large branches and in 2010 huge cracks were noticed in its trunk and the tree was fenced off for the safety of visitors. The importance and survival of the tree have been ensured by the planting of many saplings grown from the acorns of Son of Royal Oak (making them grand-children of the original tree) including a number planted near Boscobel House, such as one in 1951 planted by the fifth Earl of Bradford to commemorate the tercentenary of Charles’ escape. This ongoing link with the original Royal Oak ensures the oak still looms large in the nation’s collective memory as a symbol of the strength of the English monarchy.
When meeting new people there is always a question I dread. The most innocuous of polite questions: ‘What do you do?’ The reason I dread it? The reasons are legion.
1) I am not a fiction writer
When I say I am a writer some people get quite excited. However, when I explain I write non-fiction the conversation falters, their face visibly falling as they realise I am not J. K. Rowling. Fiction has a gloss that non-fiction does not, people aspire to write fiction, people understand fiction, people want to meet glossy, aspirational fiction writers. Alas, that is not me. So when I ruin the tone by mentioning the ‘non’ word, the conversation generally returns to the weather.
2) Non-fiction is so hard to define
I really struggle to sum up my niche. Non-fiction is such a huge genre, ranging from academic textbooks, through self-help bibles and narrative non-fiction, to biography. If I wrote in a neat sub-genre it might be easier, but explaining my books in one easy sentence is no mean feat. I usually resort to describing them as ‘gift books’ or worse, books you read on the loo (which when I’m feeling crass I might call ‘shiterature’). But really that doesn’t characterise what I do, it makes it sound too easy, like I just pluck any old thing off the internet, when in fact most of my books are the result of hours of research in the library. I think the problem is I always try and sum up my diverse body of work in a tidy blurb, which inevitably fails. I think from now on I am just going to describe the book I am currently working on, instead of trying to squash my work into a genre which doesn’t exist.
3) People are really patronising
I often find myself on the receiving end of some extremely patronising comments, usually from men or older people. Just this weekend I was chatting to a friend’s mum who I had not seen for a number of years. She said she’d heard I wrote books and summed it up with: ‘So you just collect together some trivia and then publish it’ and then added ‘It’s lucky your husband has a proper job so you can pay the bills’. I didn’t have the energy to explain the planning, research, thought and hard work that goes into every book. The pitches to publishers, the rejections, the revisions, the edits on the long road to publication.
4) I am not a man
Sometimes I think if I were a man and I said I was a writer it would be different. People would perhaps instantly picture someone of substance, writing a serious book. I accept that some of the problem lies with myself, I am naturally self-depreciating and as I mentioned in point 2, I do struggle to describe what I do in a short sentence. However, there are many occasions where I feel like people react to me differently because I am a woman, especially a woman with three children. It’s as if the fact that I have kids instantly makes any endeavour a sideline to my actual real job of ‘being a parent’. That writing is just something I do with my spare time while waiting for my children to get home from school, not a real job at all.
5) Everyone is an expert
I write quite a lot of articles for Mental Floss, often fun lists such as 6 of the World’s Most Mysterious Standing Stones or 5 of the Shortest Reigns in History. Readers often track me down on Twitter to berate me for my ignorance. Irate reader: ‘You didn’t include the mystic stone of Slough [not an actual stone] in your list of mysterious stones!’ Me: ‘That is because I only had room to do six, the article is not called ‘The Definitive List of All Mysterious Standing Stones Ever’ but ‘6 of the World’s Most Mysterious Standing Stones’. Reader: ‘Yes, but the mystic stone of Slough is clearly the most important mystic stone ever! You don’t know anything, the whole article is now null and void.’ Me: block.
It’s like this at parties. I might say I am writing a book about the Golden Age of the Garden and the person I am speaking to will then talk to me at length about that time they went to Chatsworth and fell in the fountain. Or I might say I am writing about the history of the Bodleian Library and I’ll get an anecdote about their time as a student at Oxford. Obviously it’s lovely to hear people’s personal stories but sometimes it feel like people don’t expect me to actually know anything about my subject.
7) It’s not a real job
If I were an accountant or a doctor or a hairdresser people would instantly have a picture in their mind of what my job entails. Say writer and people imagine a fiction writer. Say non-fiction writer and the frame of reference is lost.
Saying all this I have recently discovered that being a writer is actually a real job. A friend asked me to sign the back of her photos for her passport. I expressed doubts that I was eligible, after all I think you have to be a professional to qualify. My friend threw caution to the wind and got me to do it anyway, and in the space where I had to put profession, I wrote ‘writer’. Two weeks later she got her new passport and with that I realised at least someone, somewhere thought I had a real job.
Exciting news, in September 2017 my next book will be published by Bodleian Library Publishing. I wanted to share here the gorgeous cover art and some more details:
Ever wondered how ink is made? Or what is the bestselling book of all time? Or which are the oldest known books in the world? Highbrow to lowbrow, all aspects of the book are celebrated and explored in The Book Lovers’ Miscellany.
From a list of unfinished novels, a short history of the comic, the story behind Mills and Boon and an entry on books printed with mistakes to a guide to the colours of Penguin paperback jackets and a list of the most influential academic books of all time.
Between these pages you will discover the history of paper, binding, printing and dust jackets; which books have faced bans; which are the longest established literary families; and which bestsellers were initially rejected. You can explore the output of the most prolific writers and marvel at the youth of the youngest published authors; learn which natural pigments were used to decorate a medieval bible; and what animal is needed for the making of vellum.
The ideal gift for every bibliophile, The Book Lovers’ Miscellany is full of fun facts, potted histories and curious lists, perfect for dipping into and sharing.
It was so much fun writing and researching this book as it allowed me to combine my love of history with my book-wormish tendencies. I really hope readers will be equally delighted by delving into its depths and I look forward to hearing your feedback!
Gardening folklore often has a basis in fact, so it is fascinating to read through some of the old traditions and superstitions surrounding plants, planting and gardening. I have always enjoyed joining in with the #FolkloreThursdayhashtag on Twitter each week, sharing snippets of folklore I come across while researching my books and articles.
For the last few weeks I have been tweeting on all things gardening to celebrate the upcoming publication on 4 May of my next book The Golden Age of the Garden and so I thought I would collate the best bits of gardening folklore to share on my blog:
Plant a single garlic clove next to your roses to protect them from flying insects, especially pesky aphids.
Water collected in the hollows of ancient oak trees was thought to be a good remedy for fever.
Traditionally if it was warm enough to sit on the bare soil with no trousers on then it was warm enough to sow seeds.
Never bring dandelions into the house, they will make you wet the bed.
Cow parsley is also known as ‘break-your-mother’s-heart’ and it is bad luck to bring into the house.
Pick blackberries before September is out as by October it is believed the devil pees on any remaining fruit!
In Appalachian folklore it is considered extremely bad luck to say thank you if someone gifts you with plants or cuttings.
Daisies keep fairies from your garden. To ensure your child is not stolen and replaced with changeling, tie a daisy chain around their neck.
Plant chives in orchards to prevent lightning strikes.
In Midwest America if a girl found a blood-red corn in among the yellow ones, she would be married within the year.
Brambles in seventeenth century England were considered magical, if you stepped under a thorny arch it could cure any ailment.
Foxgloves were considered bad omens. Sailors beware! Bringing one on board a ship was especially unlucky.
Planting and sowing of seeds should be done according to the phases of the moon:
In the moon’s first phase crops that bloom above ground, such as corn, spinach & lettuce should be planted.
The second quarter up to full moon, above-ground seed crops should be planted, such as watermelon, squash & tomatoes.
The week after full moon is time to plant below-ground plants such as carrots and potatoes.
In the final quarter of the waning moon planting should be avoided altogether, and instead weeding should be priority.
Chilli peppers will turn out more spicy if you plant them while angry.
When shelling peas if you have 9 in a pod, throw one over your shoulder for luck.
Parsley and basil will only grow well if you swear profusely as you plant it.
Old American folklore recommends that corn should be planted when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear.
Daffodils should be discarded before the head droops, a droopy daffodil is a harbinger of death!
Plant wild garlic to keep out rabbits, according to English folklore they will not pass a boundary planted with ‘ransomes’.
Parsley is especially tricky to germinate so gardeners would make 3 sowings, 2 for the devil and 1 for the gardener.
Do you know of any gardening folklore? Please share in the comments below.
I am very pleased to announce that my next book is The Golden Age of the Garden which will be published by Elliott & Thompson on 4 May, 2017.
I spent many happy hours in the rare books rooms of the British Library and Cambridge University Library searching through old gardening manuals, essays, travelogues, books and articles to find the most interesting extracts in order to tell the story of this special period of gardening history.
The book is beautifully typeset with some amazing illustrations from the period, giving the reader a real taste of the golden age of garden design.
The blurb gives a nice overview of what to expect:
The relationship between England and its gardens might be described as a love affair; gardening is one of our national passions, rooted in our history.
The eighteenth century is often called the Golden Age of English gardening. As the fashion for formal pleasure grounds for the wealthy faded, pioneers including William Kent and Capability Brown created masterpieces of landscape design, ushering in a new era of picturesque vistas inspired by nature. From these creations spring our very idea of Englishness – rolling hills, beautiful curves, aesthetic surprises and architectural delights.
Charting the transformation in our love of the garden, through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, The Golden Age of the Garden brings the voices of the past alive in newspaper reports, letters, diaries, books, essays and travelogues, offering contemporary gardening advice, principles of garden design, reflections on nature, landscape and plants, and a unique perspective on the origins of our fascination with gardens.
Exploring the different styles, techniques and innovations of the past, and the creation of many of the stunning gardens we still visit today, this is a beautiful, evocative and rewarding collection for all gardeners seeking insight, new ideas, surprises and inspiration.
I look forward to sharing more on the process of compiling this book in the lead up to publication.