A few weeks ago it was my mother’s birthday (she would have been 83) and in memory of her I made a donation to Oxfam to help stock a library in a school. It seemed appropriate, in part because she valued education so highly, not least because she chose to leave school at sixteen and regretted it later. She was thrilled by my educational achievements and those of my brother and came to all our degree ceremonies.
But also, she loved reading and in my mind’s eye that is how I often see her, in the sunny sitting room of her top floor flat in Scarborough. Quite a number of her crime novels were passed on by me – I used to take bagfuls when I visited and I can see her now, looking through them and exclaiming. I even remember where I bought some of them. That copy of the THE SWAYING PILLARS by Elizabeth Ferrars with the wonderfully lurid cover was bought about 20 years ago in Chiswick when I was working for the Victorian Society, for 50 pence, I note.
In my earlier blog about my mother’s books, I wrote about the difficulty of knowing what to do with them all. A couple of months after she died, I joined my brother at her flat to help him sort through her things. He was keen to get rid of as much as possible – the charity that runs the hospice where my mother died was coming to collect. What to do with all the Dick Francis novels? I had a hunch that my mother-in-law, also an avid crime-fiction reader, might like them. I rang her and she said she would. My brother decided to take the Robert B Parkers because my mother had thought he might enjoy them. I’d already taken the ones I especially wanted, either because I might read them again or because I associated them particularly with my mother. But there still remained several hundred. I did another trawl and then at my brother’s behest I bagged up all the rest in black, plastic bin lins.
On the way home I knew that I had made a mistake and I couldn’t let them go – not all of them,anyway. I rang my brother, who was still at the flat and told him so. And that is why there are boxes on my study floor containing dozens of copies of books by Elizabeth Ferrars, Anthony Gilbert, Patricia Wentworth, Sarah Woods and others. More about this another time.
It’s half-term and also I’m not well – so will be back to blogging next week. Monday probably. See you then.
I’ve written elsewhere on my web-site about independent libraries. I have always loved libraries. I treasure my membership of the London Library: it is one of my favourite places and certainly my favourite library. I’ve sometimes had a fantasy that I could secretly live there, hiding among the stacks, and emerging after closing time. The same with Cambridge University Library and there the fantasy is fuelled by the first aid room which actually has a bed in it (no sheets though, as I discovered when I was ill once and had to lie down in there). And CUL has a cafe too (used to be famous for its cakes and cheese scone). With all the open stacks, too, it would be easy to lose oneself in there. I noticed once that the regulations forbid walking bare-foot in the library (conjuring up images of long gone hippy students with flowers in their hair) but it doesn’t say anything about not spending the night there.
I’m delighted to say that I’ve just had a short story accepted by the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It’s set me thinking about the form. There are not many modern writers who devote themselves exclusively to it, though one who did, Edward D. Hoch, wrote over 900 and famously published one in every copy of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine for 34 years. Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore are best known for their short stories and there are other writers, like John Updike, who are as well regarded for their short stories as for their novels. Generally speaking though publishers are reluctant to publish collections of short stories and if it is difficult to make a living as a novelist (and it is!) then it is even harder if all you write is short stories. It didn’t use to be the case: the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were a golden age in that respect, think of the Strand Magazine and Sherlock Holmes. And it’s a pity because a well-crafted short story can be deeply satisfying for both reader and writer. It is possible to do things in a short story – for instance, write from an unusual viewpoint or sustain a particular tone – that might grow tiresome or be too difficult to pull off over length of a novel. The short story of mine that EQMM has accepted is set in the years following the Gunpowder plot in the early seventeenth century. I’ve never written any historical fiction before, but didn’t feel too daunted when it was a matter of a short sprint rather than a marathon.
The Strand has recently been revived, by the way, and is published in the US, where they seem more receptive to the short story as a form.