My mother always loved reading. I was raised in a library, and I live in it still.
There are books everywhere. I think it would be my total preoccupation, reading all the time and everything, were I to win the lottery. Which should be any day now.
Having always had this passion for books, when my mother’s eyesight started to fail, it was reading she missed the most. Thankfully, we had a local library in the nearest town which allowed people to borrow talking books. We had heard of these but never actually listened to one.
I found them exhausting. When you read, you read at your own pace, taking a moment to note a particularly powerful metaphor, or to make a mental note of which character needs a good talking-to. A talking book may be read by a wonderful actor with a beautiful voice, but it seems rather rude to press pause. Not to my mother. She loved them. And she’d hit pause on John Hurt.
She’d got through one or two talking books and really enjoyed them, but there was one opus that she’d always regretted not reading. One that she’d always said she’d make time for, and never did. It would drive her completely from her wits if she couldn’t find the talking books of A Remembrance Of Things Past. Not just any old Remembrance of Things Past, though; she wouldn’t tolerate anything but the total, unabridged, unadulterated Remembrance of Things Past.
The librarian, birdlike and rather harassed at this point, dutifully found the first unedited volume, which was eight cassettes long, and my mother rented them. At this point, I don’t think she realised that the book came in seven volumes. All told, she would wind up listening fifty-something cassettes, both sides, for lord knows how many hours.
For those who don’t know it, A Remembrance of Things Past is a vast multi-volume work by Marcel Proust. Of all our senses, the olfactory sense is by far the strongest. A particular smell can bring back long-forgotten memories. For myself, the smell of pipe smoke, wood shavings and grilled cheese would undoubtedly transport me back to my dad’s workshop. A Remembrance of Things Past is over a million words in length, and is about all the memories that come back from a single bite into a madeleine.
She listened to those tapes day and night. She had fallen for Proust in a big way.
I understand A Remembrance of Things Past is now referred to as In Search of Lost Time. When I was a child, the Celtic Queen who had led an uprising against Roman occupation was Boadicea. Now, she’s Boudica.
Maybe I’m becoming more set in my ways, but when things change, even names of historical figures or of novels, I would like a bit of warning and a reason I can comprehend. Sounding like a shut-in now. I know.
Towards the end of the first volume, one of my mother’s carers returned from a fortnight’s holiday and came to give her the afternoon’s medication. On entering the bedroom, she heard the Oscar-nominated tones of whichever actor it was, and looked puzzled.
“What’s this one about then?” she asked.
“It’s about a sponge cake,” I answered, solemnly.
“It is not about a sponge cake!” my mother exclaimed, ruefully, anguished that she’d created such an idiot-child. “It is inspired by a sponge cake.”
The look of joyful pride on her face was something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
Unless you have a fine voice and a remarkable library, it is hard to entertain visitors with books. This is where films are useful.
We had family visiting from overseas. The weather was lousy and my mother was unwell and I barely sixteen years old: neither of us could drive, so we were stuck in the house, trying to find something to enliven our guests.
Those who were visiting us at that time were of the deeply conservative side of the family. This didn’t cause any real friction in the clan, as they had long since stopped trying to teach us anything. Possibly because they had spent some time with us, they determined we were too odd to convert.
Being more of a book person than a film person, my mother only had about five films she liked.
Without any hesitation, I can promise you that there was no malice in her choice of film for our heavy-set, buttoned-down, traditionalist relatives.
She chose The Full Monty, because it was one of her favourites. She had something of a weakness for Robert Carlyle and, much as she didn’t care for strong language, she was able to overlook it, because the rest of the film was vivid, funny and dramatic. And it starred Robert Carlyle.
The family was rather nonplussed.
Change of direction. She had me eject the video and find her other favourite. A Man For All Seasons. Beautiful, sweeping, historical, heavy on religion, and not the one our family followed.
“Well,” she said, resigned, “I’ve done my best. Why don’t you two go and mow the lawn?” she asked the larger two of my cousins, thinking it would squeeze some cheese off them.
With nothing but sweet-smiling obedience, the girls went out into the light drizzle, and tried to start the petrol mower. It refused to start, because it was older than they were.
I nearly died of embarrassment. With every effort made to start the mower, my cousins, exhausted, asked a passing neighbour of mine, a perfectly nice, rather butch lady, minding her own business, to help them start it.
There is something rather transatlantic about asking a stranger for help; perhaps it comes down to the open, hopeful face, smiling up at the unknown figure – something about that brings out the maternal or avuncular, whether these traits have existed within the individual before or not.
However, it wasn’t the fact of their asking my lady-neighbour for help that near-killed me. It was that they started with, ‘Excuse me, Sir’.