Former Editorial Director Sue Bradbury takes us on a tour of her bookshelves and describes how important books are to her home.
I cannot imagine living without books. They are the best company in the world. I don’t have any particularly rare or valuable books, but they are rare and valuable to me – they come with stories attached and I feel enriched by them.
My study is the one room in our house which belongs entirely to me. It’s a kind of lean-to, with a wooden roof, beams and a skylight. I put up the shelves myself – they are very basic but I was quite proud of having lugged the wood home, drilled the holes and more or less lined them up. Now that I’m retired (not that I’ve noticed yet) it gives me great pleasure to have my Folio books around me, but I’m a fairly indiscriminate book-buyer and collector so there are masses of other books as well.
The beams have spotlights along them, and they are ideal for hanging puppets from, so as you can see, the room is more like a theatre than a library. In addition to the puppets, I have a collection of metal clockwork toys. The rather mangy and anxious looking bear playing the cymbals also goes back about 50 years, though he will still play if coaxed. I’m particularly fond of the fish which has another fish inside and can be made to swallow it. I’m afraid they all offer far too many opportunities for distraction.
One of my favourite books is The Dwindling Party by Edward Gorey. This also provides endless distraction – it is a pop-up book – and it is particularly dear to me because I lost my original copy and it is now quite difficult to find. A friend spent a long time tracking one down for me, and I shall always be grateful to him. Edward Gorey was a true eccentric: he used to frequent the Gotham Book Store in New York, wearing his trademark long fur coat and baseball boots, and that is where I got most of my copies of his books. They are all darkly comic, and children are invariably coming to grief in them. In The Dwindling Party, the MacFizzet family visits a gothic mansion called Hickyacket Hall, and one by one they are picked off by monsters of various kinds. Mother gets abducted by a bat, so I like to keep my Gorey bat alongside. Another favourite Gorey is Dancing Cats and Neglected Murderesses. You get the idea.
Here are some ghost stories with a very odd pot. One of The Folio Society’s most eccentric illustrators was Charles Stewart, who had a passion for ghost stories, having been brought up as an only child in a lonely Scottish castle. He used to say: ‘Well, what can you expect from a child who slept in an attic at the top of a spiral staircase, and listened to the dungeons creaking while reading The Tale of Samuel Whiskers under the bedclothes?’ My husband and I went to visit him once in Scotland. He had swapped the castle for a beautiful low house on a river near a ruined abbey, and his garden was like a setting for ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ – all walks and pavilions and gothic arches made of old tree branches, with the hoar frost on them.
I’m not a great organiser of books, though there is some method in my madness – there’s a lot of poetry, and a big collection of books either on Spain or in Spanish or both. I have a complete set of Trollope’s novels in the tiny Oxford World Classics editions (ideal for travelling), the Temple Shakespeare (ditto), and this collection of Penguin whodunits – in the original green paperbacks where possible.
There is nothing really unusual in my collection, but there are some oddities – I became fascinated by the Spanish Civil War when I was in my teens, and discovered a riveting eye-witness account of The Defence of Madrid by Geoffrey Cox, who was the News Chronicle Correspondent in the city from October to December 1936. It gave me a taste for history written by people who were there, which was lucky as this has always been a bit of a Folio trademark: Sergeant Bourgoyne’s account of the Retreat from Moscow sticks in the mind, and Richard Barter’s Siege of Delhi, but it’s not all blood and guts – William Allingham’s diaries, which are full of anecdotes of Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Robert Browning (Allingham was something of a literary lion-hunter), are just as memorable for the domestic asides: ‘after supper we fell to drawing pigs with our eyes shut until bedtime’.
There are some books I keep with me always. They include Helen Waddell’s – Helen Waddell’s translations of Lyrics from the Chinese, with a wonderful preface by Dame Felicitas Corrigan and produced on Stanbrook Abbey’s own printing press; a tiny little 16-page booklet grandly entitled Welbourn’s Dictionary of Prelates, Parsons, Verger, Wardens, Sidesmen & Preachers, Sunday-School teachers, Hermits, Ecclesiastical Flower-arrangers, Fifth Monarchy Men and False Prophets, published by my old mate Jim (J. L.) Carr, who also wrote one of the best and most moving novels of the 20th century, A Month in the Country. I have a collection of very battered William books, which I inherited from my father, and to which I always turn in times of trouble. I read Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time every year. It is set in Manhattan and is one of a very rare breed – a compelling and witty book about good, sane, lucky people who actually get their just deserts. One critic compared it with Sense and Sensibility for charm. Finally, my desert island book is Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, in which the whole Arthurian legend is told in the most glorious language by a man who was at the time in prison for multiple violent offences. I think the most heart-rending lines in all literature are spoken by Guinevere when Lancelot comes to see her in her convent after the collapse of Arthur’s Round Table. She sends him away with the words: ‘For as much as I have loved thee, mine heart will not serve me to see thee, for through thee and me is the flower of kings and knights destroyed.’
When I was 10 or 11 I used to spend whole Saturdays in our local library – sitting in a corner and devouring books. I told my parents that if someone would pay me to read that would be as close to paradise as I could get. I have been very lucky to live among books ever since. I have seen some wonderful libraries, enviable even, but I don’t yearn to own them. I like my ramshackle and indiscriminate collection because, for better or for worse, it reflects my life and every book comes freighted with memories, reminders and emotions. That’s the best thing about them.