There are a lot of books in our house. I have no idea how many, but thousands, certainly. That is what happens when two academics marry and when they read a lot outside their subject. Our books are a kind of biography, marking different points in our lives when we bought them and when we read them. Peter tended not to use book marks, but instead would use whatever was to hand: a train ticket, maybe, a flyer for some event. So sometimes I am ambushed when I open a book and find evidence of when or where Peter read it.
The other day I was gazing absentmindedly at a shelf of books, when I realised I was looking at a copy of Antarctic Adventure by Sir Vivian Fuchs. I was surprised because I was nearing the end of the second draft of my new novel set in Antarctica and I had no idea that I had a source so close to hand. Peter must have forgotten all about it. Inside it was a gift tag: To Peter Wishing You a Happy Christmas from Auntie Maisie and Uncle George.’ Both of them are long dead. The book was published in 1959 and I imagine it would have been given to Peter not long afterwards. I felt a pang at the thought of Peter opening it on that long ago Christmas Day – and all these years later I was opening it and thinking of him. It is strange the way our books survive us.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve been ambushed. I picked Empire and Local Worlds, by Mingming Wang off the shelf. It’s a work of Chinese anthropology. In it I found an invitation to a concert in memory of our friend, David Mellor, the designer and silversmith in London in 2009. Peter must have been reading it on the train in preparation for his own book, Architecture and Ritual.
No doubt there will be more reminders. The stories of our lives in books . . . in both senses of the word.
Writing is a solitary activity, involving long periods alone and periods of distraction even when you’re not alone. Thurber’s wife used to say to him ‘Dammit, you’re writing!’ when he sat abstracted at the dinner table.
Other writers understand this. When it was one of his days for working at home, Peter and I would retreat to our own separate studies in the morning and later come out to have lunch together. Though even then he would catch me staring into space, not having heard a word he said, as I contemplated ways of murdering people.
In the early days we were both academics, but as time went on and I began to write fiction, we became very different kinds of writers. We didn’t always read what the other had written. It didn’t matter. Sometimes I would talk to him when I got stuck and couldn’t work out what should happen next. He would tell me about an interesting piece of research he was doing: for his latest book, Architecture and Ritual, I was fascinated by his work on Chinese magistrates.
Architecture and Ritual: How Buildings Shape Society was published a few days after Peter’s death, but he saw a copy before we knew how ill he was. I am grateful that he was able to enjoy that. It is the culmination of a lifetime’s work and thought and he was so pleased that Bloomsbury took it on. It’s a worthy end to a distinguished career, though I am sorry too that he didn’t live to write the book on Lethaby that he had begun researching. He would have been the perfect person for that.
We enjoyed each other successes and spurred each other on. I don’t think I could have become a novelist and short story writer if I hadn’t been married to Peter and had his support, especially at the beginning. I will miss him in so many ways, and this not the least.