Painting the Forth Bridge

In which The Author acquires yet more books

About a fortnight ago I decided to do something which I’d been toying with for ages. It was time to rearrange my extensive Lending Library into categories, rather than letting the books simply run A-Z by author.
Having them alphabetically arranged is all very well, as long you can remember the author of a particular book when you want to pick it up. The system completely breaks down otherwise. My Reference Library (in my middle room) has been organised by subject area for ages. The difference is that it contains only a couple of hundred books, as opposed to a thousand or so in the front room.
Once they hit a certain critical mass, it makes sense to group similar books together. For instance, I’ve got a load of Oxford University Press reference books with no editors’ names on the spines. They originally came as a boxed set which I found in Barnardo’s charity shop in Aberdare while it was closing down. When everything was reduced to 99p, I asked the girl behind the counter whether the set counted as one item.
I think by that stage she’d gone past caring, as she said, ‘Yes, I suppose so.’
Six virtually unused books for considerably less than the price of one? That’ll do nicely.
(Incidentally, I often used to wonder why you come across so many recent-ish dictionaries in charity shops. Then I joined Facebook and I immediately realised why. They’ve probably been bought by well-meaning parents, in the hope that their kids will eventually realise the importance of using standard English. After the books have gathered dust for a couple of years, they find their way to the nearest charity shop, and then to my house.)
I didn’t undertake the project in one go. That would have been almost impossible. I learned my lesson while rearranging sections in the shop too many times. Instead, I started at the end and worked my way forwards. While I’ve been filling my shelves steadily for the last twenty years or so, I’ve also had the foresight to leave expansion gaps. Every so often I’ve had to undertake radical surgery and offload some books onto Barbara’s shop in town. Sorting my collection out is a bit like painting the Forth Bridge; as soon as I’ve finished, I have to start all over again.
Actually moving the books is like tackling Sam Lloyd’s 15 Puzzle; you’ve always got to have one space which isn’t occupied so that you can shunt the others around. To begin with, I shoved the contents of the last shelf along and scanned the rest for anything relating to Wales. As individual books were relocated to their new homes, I could move the remaining ones into the empty spaces.
I hadn’t realised that I had so many books dealing with Wales: its history, literature, folklore, culture and society. I must have acquired most of them from Konrad. He was clearing his aunt’s house a couple of years ago, and periodically called round to my place with a carrier bag of mysterious goodies. A lot of them were concerned with Celtic mythology, and were right up my street. There were some interesting psychology books in the mix, too, and a number of oddities which I could broadly classify as Welsh Interest.
Anyway, it took me the best part of a week, working for a couple of hours every evening, to sort out my whole collection. I finally got there a few days ago, and the results are quite pleasing. I’ve got a surprising number of books under History, and an even more surprising number under Mythology, the Occult, and what booksellers loosely term Mind, Body & Spirit.
All my Popular Science books are now living together (except the ones I listed in Missing, Presumed Lost, of course). All the biographies are clustered in one place, revealing a diverse range of subjects. I’ve got a nice range of crossword books for when I get bored of reading, and maps by the dozen.
Interspersed with those are short runs of books on Astronomy, Linguistics, Travel Writing, Natural History, Philosophy, and almost every other subject imaginable. Even Sport is represented, if only by Marcus Trescothick’s autobiography Coming Back to Life. (Who saw that one coming?)
My Fiction selection is actually a lot smaller than you might imagine. My Science Fiction books occupy over twice the shelf space of the ‘straight’ fiction. There are pitifully few Classics, and a very small selection of Poetry and Drama. I suppose I was spoiled when I was younger, because Aberdare Library was very well stocked in those days. If I wanted to read a particular novel I could usually find it there. Now, I’m more likely to find it in Barbara’s shop.
I’d finished the entire reclassification exercise by the middle of last week. As if to mark the occasion, my Amazon Seller account came back to life last Tuesday evening. A guy in Walsall wanted to buy my copy of Hills and Vales of the Black Mountain District, on the Borders of Brecon, Monmouth and Hereford by Richard Baker Gabb. (I think that must have been one of the books I acquired from Konrad, as I can’t imagine where else it had come from.) My new system meant that I knew exactly where it was on my shelves at home.
I took it to the Post Office on Wednesday, and spent £1.57 on second class postage. By the time Amazon have taken their cut and Gideon Osborne has taken his cut, I’ll have made the colossal sum of twenty-one pence on the transaction. (I suppose there’s one consolation: I already had a suitable padded envelope at home, which meant I didn’t have to spend out on a new one.) I think that will be my last sale on Amazon, to be honest. Is it really worth it, when you’re not making enough money to even buy a newspaper?
Anyway, I got to the Library this morning in between dodging the downpours. Clive was already there, and he came over to my table with a bulky carrier bag.
A few months ago, Clive told me that he’d been in contact with the authorities regarding Aberdare Boys’ School. We both attended the school, at different times, and he’d kept in touch with some of our old teachers. The school building, at the foot of Cwmdare Hill, had become part of the newly-merged (and much-delayed) Aberdare High School, along with Aberdare Girls’ School (see Last Chance to See…?) and Blaengwawr Comprehensive School.
The new school building is due to take its first pupils in a couple of weeks’ time, and the sequence of delays has meant that the old schools were still in use. Clive was hoping that he’d be able to take some photos of the building we both remembered before it closed its doors for good.
As things turned out, he’d been able to take more than just photos. The education authority was also dumping a load of books which were deemed ‘surplus to requirements’ in the digital age. (The Girls’ School must have done the same thing a few months ago, as one of the charity shops in town was awash with redundant textbooks and study guides.)
Clive had already earmarked all the Shakespeare and some other poetry books. Dr Abbott, our old maths teacher, had adopted the maths books. Knowing my interests, Clive was wondering whether I could find a home for some of the science books.
What a treasure trove he’d discovered! I’ve just opened one of them at random: The Student’s Flora of the British Islands, 3rd edition, by Sir J. D. Hooker, KCSI, CB, published by Macmillan & Co of London in 1884. It’s almost perfect, without a mark on the pages inside, and with the binding only slightly loose.
Clive’s bag contained almost a dozen books on botany, zoology and entomology, all in the same condition. They must have lived on the shelves in the back room of the biology lab when my friends and I were doing our A Levels. They had probably been there long before any of us were even thought of.
As well as their value as historical documents, some of them have an added significance. They bear bookplates with the following wording:

This book has been placed in the school library by the trustees of the above fund in proud and grateful memory of those past students who gave their lives in the World War.

And they got me thinking.
I once met the well-known geneticist, author, newspaper columnist and broadcaster, Professor Steve Jones. He was giving a talk and doing a book signing (In the Blood) in Cardiff, and I shook his hand afterwards. And this is where a chain of events comes into play, like the famous ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ hypothesis.
During his time at UCL, Prof Jones must have met someone who’d been there for decades; maybe even someone who remembered the publication of Watson and Crick’s momentous paper on DNA. In turn, that person could have met someone who could recall Francis Galton’s controversial work on eugenics. Francis Galton was Charles Darwin’s cousin.
I remember wondering, after speaking to Prof Jones, how short could this hypothetical ‘chain of handshakes’ between Charles Darwin and myself, some 150 years apart, possibly become?
A few years later, through some friends, I met a guy in Aberdare whose fearsome reputation belies his good nature. This chap is a friend of Dave Courtney, a notorious London underworld figure turned celebrity DJ and author. For his part, Mr Courtney knew the surviving members of those infamous London gangs, the Krays and the Richardsons.
It was (and still is) quite bizarre to think that two handshakes have put me somewhere along a long chain of people, with Charles Darwin at one end and Reggie Kray at the other end.
By acquiring these books today, I’ve found myself at the end of yet another chain. This chain, however, links the pupils of Aberdare Boys’ School who didn’t come back from the Great War (some of whom Geoff wrote about in The Men Who Marched Away) to the present day – and beyond.
For my part, I’ve still got most of the textbooks I bought for my Applied Biology course back in 1984. I still take them off the shelves occasionally (usually while I’m working on one of AZED’s fiendish crosswords) and find what I’m looking for within a couple of minutes. I hate getting rid of books, even if they’re almost obsolete.
This afternoon I’ve found myself wondering: Who will acquire these books when my own private library is broken up, as it inevitably will be at some point in the future? Will the new owners appreciate the significance of their journey through time, and ensure their continued safe passage down the years? Will the new owners try to sell the books online, making only a few pennies at best? Or, in the worst case scenario, will these books (and all my others) just end up at the bottom of a skip, unappreciated and unloved?
On a lighter note, most of my latest acquisitions are too big to fit on the shelves in my front room. At least I won’t have to do any more shunting this evening. Instead, they’ll have to live on the bookcase on the landing. And that’s another story entirely.