Of all the features of bereavement, cardboard boxes are the most incongruous and the most inevitable. They help, and sometimes obstruct, the packing up and dispersing of a life. They carry possessions which have become things, in the hope that they may yet be possessions again.
My late friend Ken, a lifelong pal of my grandfather, left me his book collection, the fruits of almost a hundred years of reading. Included were the choices of his late wife, Doreen, whom I never met. Ken died in March, after a pandemic year in which we could not meet.
Thus I travelled with my grandparents in April to a funeral whose attendance was kept to a statutory limit. The deceased, we were told, was the epitome of an English gentleman — not a cliche of one. The reading was from Philippians. ‘Finally, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest’, something the reverend, a friend of decades standing, said had summed him up.
And thus I went with my father to the comfortable house in quiet Southgate in mid-May, in order to sort and pack up the remains of a life.
We were determined to be brisk and businesslike, but inevitably the mind wanders. The books were not so numerous as to be absurd; they were solid in their numbers and secure in their niches. A great mass soon broke down into well-ordered sections, and patterns began to emerge.
When we last spoke, before circumstance kept us apart, Ken had talked a little about books he especially wanted to keep close until the end. He was a great reader of George Orwell, with whose short life his long one significantly overlapped. He had every novel and every book of essays published during Orwell’s time, some of them in duplicate or triplicate. He had diaries and letters.
A few biographies or the writer, some of them recent, completed the collection. Ken had bought them and looked into them long after his eyes had begun to fail.
As young middle class during the war, I knew he liked Churchill as well, and there was a biographical study or two (including admiring wartime efforts) inside a glass-fronted cabinet otherwise filled with colourful Reprint Society novels.
We had also discussed more esoteric writers — Mill and Burke, Hayek and Popper — the latter of whom were among the great intellectuals of sixty years ago. I knew them less well than him. He had wanted to keep them, too — perhaps in an effort to remain anchored to the coming men and intellectual life of his early adulthood, when ideas were novel and exciting, and there was much to discuss.
He kept them and a volume called Lessons from My Life by Lord Vansittart, a memoir on cheap wartime paper which was largely an anti-German tract. Vansittart was ‘one of the first to go against Hitler’, I was proudly told when I had asked about the book.
Childhood was represented by Saki’s short stories, Captain Marryat, and editions of Lewis Carroll.
I was pleased to see among the shelves a work or two by C.E.M. Joad, the old rascal intellectual whose fall from grace (dodging rail fares) their purchase might have preceded.
Ken had a habit of buying more than one copy, decades apart, of books he really liked. Many of these were poetic. He had more anthologies than I was able to count. Four editions of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and several Rubaiyats.
Doreen was religious and from her there were more lives of Christ than one might have anticipated, and sufficient Books of Common Prayer, Bibles and hymnals to furnish a small chapel.
I had the sense that poetry was present in their lives in a way it rarely is now. I cannot know, but I can imagine that they had each committed — either wilfully or through the pressure of an education — rather a lot of verse to memory.
Doreen was also, I have since been told, a lover of the theatre, and kept theatrical annuals old enough to have Olivier on the cover. Memoirs of theatrical types like James Agate and W. Graham Robertson. A great stack of works by Shaw.
I wondered, as I packed things hastily into repurposed bags for life, which plays of a vanished London stage the two of them may have seen.
There was also a small shelf of books written by friends, a self-published novel and monographs on arcane academic subjects. All were warmly inscribed and carefully read.
When Ken and my grandparents and I were eating lunch once over a year ago and the subject of bequests came up, he wondered whether I really would take and read everything I said I would. Did I really want quite so many books on cricket? Was I that interested in mathematics?
I said yes, not quite explaining my reason. The two of us were friends because we had some interests as well as relatives in common. The first books Ken had given me were intended to help piecemeal with my studies in history and art. But a life is never made up just of those things we can relate most closely to.
My interest in books I would never have bought was exact that: the connection to the private solaces of a full life which I could only partially understand.
On that day in May, movement between house and car was cut off by torrential rain. It left a little time, sweating and dusty, to think. I considered what it meant to be left a library, and to become the uncertain custodian of a lifetime’s reverence for books.
Growing tired now, the pace of our work quickened. We searched cupboards and shelves for titles missed, shaking out dust in cobweb clouds. We stood on chairs and moved furniture with an exhausted lack of dexterity.
Shunting things from front door to boot, and flattened back seats, and footwells, we became quite rushed and untalkative, until interrupted by a brief and sadly-tinged conversation with a longstanding neighbour.
He missed the man from next door. His boy, now a successful young man cutting a dash through the world, had been given many encouraging books as he grew up.
The carrying continued. Later, tired but pleased, we drove away out of the spotty rain and into the sun. I can’t remember what we spoke about.
Looking through one of the books brought home, Dad found the following ode by Pope in an edition of The Golden Treasury which, having now so many, I had handed to him.
Blest, who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,
Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.
It seems appropriate.
This essay was originally published on Medium.