I’m a book pusher. No bones about it. I am the kind of person who can be standing in a bookshop and if you are umming and ahhing about which book to buy I will, unashamedly and without introduction, tell you which one to buy or offer suggestions about the two choices already in your hand and then pick up another volume and offer that. Like a book overdose. That is who I am. There is only one drug rightly called ‘Ecstasy’ for me and that, my dears, is Book.
Books are addictive. I cannot give them up. I have to admit I’ve not actually had any other drugs, except alcohol and so I’m not really an expert on the more chemically based narcotic side of this argument. I have been too busy reading and then writing books so, when it comes to the papery chaptery side of the discussion I am the Empress. I get a rush from a book. I like to get lost in the pages, to roll around in the words, to let the images flicker and flash inside my head. Sherlock Holmes and Jonathan Strange loom out of the darkness, Anne Elliot follows behind looking anxious.
It started small. Literally, with the Beatrix Potter books and their exquisite beauty and hint of darkness. The sandy-whiskered gentleman of Jemima Puddleduck was the first storybook villain that I encountered and he was intriguing. Jemima is stupid. Kep is clever. Nature might wear a tweed jacket in a grove of foxgloves but it is red in tooth and claw here. There is blood and guts in Puddleduck along with poke bonnets.
At school there was the 1970s reading scheme which included the epic that was ‘Old Dog Tom’ a tale I remember nothing about now except that it was a book I needed to read, it was another step, a better story, more words. More. More. Give me more words. Longer words. Let me have some syllables. A paragraph. Give them to me.
The books grew thicker and filled with magic and trees, tapped from the typewriter of Ms Enid Blyton. Who doesn’t believe in fairies when they have spent a third of their childhood in the branches of the Magic Faraway Tree? There IS magic. It’s printed onto this page and this, and all of these.
I am not a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory girl, I am a Danny the Champion of the World supporter. My words and my imagination began to outstrip my physical and emotional age. I reached into the Grown Up Word with To Kill a Mockingbird. My mum was also a book pusher in that she would leave tempting tomes lying about open, a page here, a chapter glimpsed there and I was hooked. I stepped up to the much harder drugs of Edna O’Brien.
With book pushing in mind we often trekked into the centre of Manchester where my parents indulged their own book habit by taking me to Willshaw’s on John Dalton Street. Long before Waterstone’s existed this was my teenaged opium den of literature. Room after room it seemed to me, shelf after shelf striped with book after book. Up a little staircase here to find Louise Erdrich and The Beet Queen, down a little staircase there to encounter Carson McCullers and The Ballad of the Sad Café and in those high and far off times O best Beloved, the books were caught in the net book agreement and my pocket money ran to three or four books at a time, more at Christmas and birthdays.
I travelled through Space with Kurt Vonnegut and Time with Charles Dickens. I visited the Jazz Age with Fitzgerald and Loos. The words whispered to me, come here, come over here, this one, pick me, I will change your mind. I will bend your life.
I wanted to be part of that and so I began to collect the words in my head and rearrange them into stories. I began with imitation, telling stories that drew my imagination but I had no ownership of, tales of the Southern Gothic, sweaty with hanging moss until one afternoon in Willshaw’s, Alan Sillitoe whispered The Ragman’s Daughter and I realised where the stories were, my true stories, they were behind me all the time. Waiting.
In the library system here in Wiltshire, in which I am a small and greasy cog, the corporate term for our Borrowers is not actually Borrowers, it is in fact, wait for this, ‘library users’. Yes. Users. Like drug users. Like the lady who said “This Val McDermid is terrible. Really gory and frightening. It gave me nightmares…Have you got any more?” and because I’m a Pusher I led her to the shelf with the white writing, the red writing, the black writing and let her choose her very own poison. Give me more. I want more.We are all in it for the rush of words, the hot spoon of story making our imaginations shimmer. If you approach the counter and I am there, know this, you WILL leave with a book. It might not be the book you came in for. It is the book you were meant to leave with.
There is a maxim that you shouldn’t look into a woman’s handbag. I think originally it had to do with some kind of sacred ‘woman space’ into which no unsuspecting man need glance for fear of catching embroidery or a compulsion to make scones.
In my childhood the bags belonging to my various female relatives remained unmolested, sitting with some gravitas on rug and carpet, in the manner of peevish lapdogs that might bite if approached by anyone but their owner. It was always a revelation to see inside, the sound of the zip or the popper unleashing a particular kind of bag magic.
My maternal grandma, Ellen, favoured a bag that was styled something like a Mulberry Bayswater before they existed. It had a fold over flap and stout handles and was made from something that was nobbled to look like crocodile. She always carried a supply of Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls and spare tights along with a small gold(ique) powder compact. The mint sweets had a particular treacly pepperminty aroma that permeated the air once the tin was opened. Yes, a tin. Like the kind they make collections in and bearing a logo of the overly jolly Uncle Joe himself.
Her powder had a certain vanilla whiff to it. The compact was in a little velvet pochette and was embossed with a coloured picture of flowers that looked like a bird. There was often a selection of Green Cross stamps, a folded headscarf, a can of Elnett hairspray and a rolled up shopping bag complete with rubber band.
In the zip pockets were respectively, a lipstick in a gold tube and her spare knickers. She favoured long legged style pants that, in the right circumstances could have doubled as sails, parachute or emergency bivouac bag.
This spare knickers thing was passed down. My mum also never left the house without a handbag stocked with, amongst her other accoutrements, a small piece of Lancashire Crumbly cheese in waxed paper, much folded, the cheese and the paper. There was always some old orange peel in the small inside pocket, a gold(ish) powder compact containing a pat of powder that looked as if it had recently suffered an earthquake. Cracks and fissures broke through the pale pink that shifted tectonically each time it was opened. There was also her fruit knife and, as mentioned, the spare knickers.
Once, prior to my university graduation, we had gone to a quite posh restaurant in Warwickshire. The waiter came to the elegant bar to escort us to our table and as we stood up my mum reached into her bag for her glasses case only for her spare knickers to be pulled out with it. The garment (we’re talking granny here, full briefs) fluttered to the floor and everyone in the bar looked down at them. My mum, without taking a breath said “Oh, my hanky.” reached down, retrieved the pants, dabbed them to her nose, popped them back into the bag and smiled at the waiter. I don’t think he had ever seen anything like it for elegance and aplomb. It is strange which are the abiding memories we keep of our lost loved ones. This one, for me, sums up my mum for its grace and humour.
Why keep spare knickers? There are less obvious reasons folks! They are useful for dusting your fingerprints from a crime scene for instance or wiping windscreens. They can be handy for cushioning fragile items that need to be in transit within the cargo hold that is a handbag. They can be utilised in the event of a bank robbery when you wish to either commit the robbery or avoid the ire of the robbers, just tug them over your head and you are unrecognisable. People look away in fear, trust me.
This usage doubles up if you happen to find yourself in an emergency skiing situation and triples if you are recruited by ninjas at late notice.
With this heritage I am always astonished by women who have ‘organised’ their bags. Not for them the permission slip for a school trip to Berlin in 2007. I daren’t look and discover what bare minimalism they carry around. How can anyone get by without a leaflet about the Haworth Parsonage Museum?
My own bag sits on the table and simmers and now and again public health warnings are issued about it and men in biohazard suits quail at the thought of reaching for the zip which is straining against the rent in the time space continuum contained within.
The pockets are a forbidden zone. Sometimes things emerge. Furry possibly. Or wizened.
It contains ancient documents, scribbled shopping lists for shops long since taken by Administrators into receivership. There are pebbles, pine cones, an assortment of found owl feathers in a plastic bag along with some seeds snatched from a hedgerow, five green acorns and two driftwood sticks. There is a torch so that I can read The Observer Book of Birds if I happen to become trapped in a dark place. There is a pocket flint firestarter from the camping shop for that emergency firelighting situation. The Fisher Space Pen and three notebooks, two thin, one fat ensure that I am always ready to write. The doorkeys are always at the bottom, sinking through the flotsam and jetsam like an old wreck. The lipstick is worn down and is in a favoured colour long discontinued. There are metro tickets from Paris and Rome in the seams, along with crumbs from carrot cake eaten in Dolgellau. How the crumbs got in there I do not know as the bag was on the floor of the café and was zipped up at the time. Should you require a timetable for the ferry across the River Shannon I have one that might prove very useful for time travellers heading back into 1999. What else? A blister pack of St John’s Wort tablets, a tide table for Cornwall in 2009 and, of course, there are spare knickers. Another example of the usefulness of emergency lingerie; my bike was parked outside the library and on finishing my shift I found the seat was wet with rain. The knickers made a useful and dry seat cover for my brief (sic) commute home.
My bag does not contain mints but it does hold my purse and its veritable Marseilles deck of reward cards along with a Samuel Johnson fifty pence piece that I keep as a talisman. There is a wooden bead, not legal tender anywhere, zipped into the change purse. A much folded map of a lovely Weymouth walk we did some months ago has almost become part of the lining. A ticket for the Welsh Highland Railway, third class, might get you to Caernarfon if you kept your finger on the clipped bit and smiled with some confidence.
Most would tidy these bits and pieces out and tut at the cluttered tat, representative of a jumbled mind. Others might relish the practicality of the emergency items, the requisites for stranding in any urban environment. I think Bear Grylls probably has several uses for a stray shoelace and an old mascara brush.
Did I mention my Swiss Army Knife? And the binoculars?