My grandmother was born, I think, in 1890. She was among the first in her family to benefit from Forster’s 1870 Universal Education Act, just as I, two generations later, was the first to benefit from Butler’s 1944 Education Act. Her own grandmother probably belonged to that semi-literate mass of women who could read fluently, but not write or ‘figure’. Historically, reading has been something that mothers from all but the very lowest classes taught their children, even their daughters. Since writing and numbering were marketable skills, they were taught at school and, for most of the 19th century, were the exclusive property of men. In her late twenties my mother became (thanks to the Pitman School) a shorthand typist. Sewing, knitting (without bothering to look down) and silently obeying male voices (‘taking dictation’) were perfect preparation for the girl typist. Exit Bob Cratchit with his goosequill, enter Miss Jones with her 100 wpm. As it happened, my mother didn’t teach me to read, because I was evacuated from London during my early childhood. Later on, she taught me five-finger touch-typing, for which I am every day grateful.

My grandmother wrote painfully, her lips working harder than her hand, often licking the tip of the pencil (disastrous if it was an ‘indelible’). She was infinitely more dextrous with a needle or the treadle-driven sewing-machine which, like the massive mangle, had come to her, in 1909, as a wedding present. Her script was an imperfect copperplate. There was no connection between the way she spoke (or, I suspect, thought) and the way she wrote. The only letter I ever had from her – a one-page note during my National Service – was probably a replica of what she dimly recalled writing to her husband while he was at the Front in the First World War and was assembled from working-class epistolary Lego: ‘Hoping this finds you as it leaves me’ etc.

My grandfather committed suicide in 1957. A dour, uncommunicative man, reputedly with a violent temper in early life, his last recorded words were: ‘Everyone drives cars nowadays.’ He drowned himself in a millpond where, when he was young, a friend had gone under. He had often warned me of the dangers of Bourne millrun: its treacherous currents and strangling weeds. Not throwing himself under the wheels of the ubiquitous car was, presumably, a criticism of the way things had turned out.

He left no note and some mysterious relics in two locked trunks: Edwardian dandy suits; £1200 in antique banknotes; the title deeds to two houses in Farnborough. Legend had it that he was illegitimate: the son of some (probably) Jewish philanderer who left the woman he otherwise betrayed well provided for. He lost an eye in the First World War: not in combat, but from a snowball – friendly fire of a kind. His only recorded interest was angling, preferably for eels which were later boiled or pickled for the table. As a child I often went fishing with him. The Essex rivers and ponds were still teeming with eels and perch (useless for anything). Now those waters are ‘preserved’ for London angling clubs and stocked with fish (trout, grayling, carp) as alien as the sportsmen who ruthlessly scoop them out from banks where Constable once walked.

Three hundred stolen books were discovered in various cupboards, drawers and crannies when he died. All had been lifted from Fincham’s ‘twopenny library’ on Colchester’s North Hill by my grandmother. Her modus operandi was simple. A regular and trusted customer, she’d take the latest romance to the counter to be stamped (later she’d inscribe her mark on the back endpaper – she didn’t want unwittingly to take the same one out again, thus wasting her fee). In her shopping basket her swag, swiped furtively from the shelves, would be buried under the groceries. It was difficult to know what to do with these books. Isobel Barnett killed herself after being prosecuted for lifting in kleptomaniac despair a few tins from a corner shop. Barnett had a title and powerful friends. She had been a celebrity on What’s My Line? and lives on as the subject of David Bowie’s song ‘God Knows I’m Good’. God knows what the authorities would do to a hardened, inarticulate sneak thief from the lower classes. And even if the magistrates were in a forgiving mood, what about the shame? My grandmother had neither a lucid explanation nor repentance to offer.

When Faustus said ‘I’ll burn my books’ he can’t have thought how difficult that is. Books are hard to dispose of without leaving, so to speak, a paper trail. You can’t incinerate them, or not in any quantity, in a domestic grate. Bonfires are too public. They don’t sink into river water. My grandmother’s hoard – all two hundredweight of it – was finally deposited by night, batch by batch, in ditches across the deserted Essex countryside. Perhaps a few nestle to this day, mysteriously discovered booty, in attics in Tolleshunt Darcy, Great Bentley and Stratford St Mary.

A fine public library opened in Colchester not long before my grandmother’s hoard was discovered. The town was inordinately proud of it (even though there was a cash crisis and only half the planned structure was completed). The building, decommissioned and turned into a cavernous bookshop, now stands in the Culver Shopping Precinct, stolidly handsome, unlike the California-lite architecture of the depressing mall that surrounds it. The Roberts Report of 1959 and the subsequent Library and Museums Act promised ‘an efficient and comprehensive’ service to every British citizen. Colchester’s new public library rose to the challenge magnificently (i.e. better than Chelmsford – unfairly, locals thought, chosen to be Essex’s county town).

My grandmother would never have dared to join that library. Apart from anything else, its previous site – it was founded as a ‘penny library’ in the 1870s – had been in an annexe of the town hall, next to the municipal labour exchange. During the Slump years my grandmother had got up at dawn to clean the town-hall steps. During the same grim period, my grandfather was employed, at a few pence an hour, sweeping leaves in Colchester Park. The library, however attractively remodelled, would always stink to them of the dole, the means test, and the scrag end of everything.

Colchester’s public library served me, swot and bookworm that I was, as efficiently and comprehensively as its remote Westminster architects intended. It had an extensive reference room, where a copy of Ulysses was kept (with the offending pages razored out), and a well-stocked newspaper reading room where even the Daily Worker was available (rumour had it that a plain-clothes policeman was always on hand to see who read it). It was a major municipal asset, but the apparatus of tickets, hard-faced, uniformly aproned assistants, application forms and punitive fines was a deterrent to the uncertainly literate. And the stock of popular fiction (anything lower than, say, Denis Wheatley or Ursula Bloom) was minimal. It was, essentially, a paternalistically ‘improving’ institution with an educational mission.

Many of the books my grandmother stole from Fincham’s were quite different from the romantic tripe she borrowed. My copies of Hemingway’s Fiesta, Warwick Deeping’s Sorrell and Son and John Braine’s Room at the Top (a first edition) have the faint purple imprint of Fincham’s rubber stamp on their flyleaf. These did not go into the Essex ditches. I also toyed with keeping Forever Amber (recalling it as being ‘hot’), but let it go. I kept some Gilbert Frankau, which I threw away after sampling it (the name had struck me as somehow distinguished). The prize item in my theft from her thefts was The Naked and the Dead, which Colchester Public Library would have consigned to its ‘poison cabinet’.

I never asked my grandmother about the stolen books, although she survived for some years after their discovery. As far as the family were concerned, nothing had ever happened. But in retrospect it seems clear that the thefts were inspired by intellectual aspiration. If the celebrated Isobel Barnett’s shoplifting was a cry for help, my grandmother’s library-lifting was a mute cry for education. She would never, I think, have stolen tins of condensed milk or cabbages, even if her family were starving (as, at bad times in the 1920s, she may have feared they might). She did not need what she stole. She could not have sold the books. She couldn’t even let anyone know she had them. She couldn’t risk taking them back. All she could do, as best she could, was read the damn things.

When I knew them, she and her husband did their reading with the aid of massive magnifying glasses, swivelling like two lighthouse beams as they covered the page; she noticeably faster than him. He would have the Daily Mirror, the News of the World or the ‘Green ‘un’, the local sports paper. As her husband trawled slowly over his paper my grandmother would devour ‘her book’. God knows what she made of Hemingway or Braine. As I raked through her stolen books, for what I could steal from her, I was horribly contemptuous of her pretensions. I remember once having come on her reading a novel called Dr Chaos. She pronounced it, when I maliciously enquired, as ‘chayos’ – the ‘ch’ softened, as in ‘choose’. (The book, I now learn from the BL catalogue, was a 1933 romance, Dr Chaos and the Devil Snar’d, by George R. Preedy, the pseudonym of Gabrielle Margaret Vere Campbell.)

I mocked her mispronunciation with all the harsh intellectual superiority of the newly, but insecurely, educated. I now hate myself for that. She wanted something more than class, place and history (forces over which, unlike me, she had absolutely no power) allowed her. I once heard her boast to an awed friend: ‘I have seen both my girls at Bedford College.’ What she neglected to say was that they were there to clean the students’ rooms. My mother, one of those ‘girls’, changed her name from Violet Maud to Elizabeth and ran away to make a better life. Her sister Ivy stayed on and had a painfully limited existence. (The family was addicted to floral names: a third daughter, Daisy, got herself pregnant and was shipped off to Australia, never, as far as I know, to be heard of again.)

Fincham’s was, in Gorki’s phrase, my grandmother’s university. Not, alas, as prestigious as Bedford College. But at least it had two departments. From the street it was a genteel, obsolescent circulating library for the culturally unambitious. In the back, it was the unofficial centre of Colchester’s spiritualist activity. Together with books (licit and illicit), my grandmother would bring back from Fincham’s copies of the Veil. Spiritualism had by the 1950s declined from its grand days in the 1920s, when vast numbers attempted to make contact with loved ones lost in the Great War, but it still had followers. My grandmother read, in order of importance, tea leaves, the ‘cards’ and books (I am fairly certain she did not read palms). As a ‘good’ (i.e. unnaturally silent) child I was often present at a typical afternoon meeting. Friends – women who were going through bad times (cruel husbands, wastrel children, sickness, debt) – would drop by in that interval after domestic duties and before the men got home from work. After some gossip and ritual observations on the way of the world (days drawing in or drawing out; the price of this or the scarcity of that), the reading would come. Cups would be swirled and the dregs drained to uncover what the leaves revealed – something legible only to the tassologist. That, of course, was my grandmother, suddenly an oracular presence. I was not privy to the more dramatic readings, but it was clear that whether or not she had ‘powers’, she certainly had the tricks of an accomplished bunko artist. Her predictions with the leaves and the cards (a standard pack, thinned down to the pictures) went far beyond the platitudes of fortune-telling: meeting a man in black, crossing water, receiving a parcel. They were, on occasion, startlingly outspoken: prophesying loss, bereavement and much pain.

I was told by my mother (as prone as others in her family to gilding lilies) that my grandmother was, in her heyday, consulted by local businessmen such as the proprietor of the auction showrooms and even, it was rumoured, ‘Old Fincham’ himself. I am inclined to believe this. Whether or not she really was clairvoyant, ‘reading’, whether of books or tea leaves, was associated for her with power: it was a means of achieving some sort of control over her narrow and culturally impoverished existence. The leaves and the cards, and perhaps the books, also connected her to a world of magic. Possibly I inherited from her a primitive reverence for the book as something magical – an illusion that would have encouraged obsessive reading in early life. But I think that is common in lonely children. I probably owe as much to the Hotspur, Wizard and Rover. My grandmother perhaps did pass on a relaxed attitude to ownership where books are concerned – but lots of people are free and easy in that department. My shelves have probably been robbed from as often as I have stolen to help fill them.

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