One day in the late 1980s I had a call from my Aunt Freda. It came completely out of the blue, for although Freda had been my favourite godmother throughout my childhood, I had hardly exchanged a word with her – save the odd Christmas card – for what must have been twenty years. The purpose of her call was to tell me she had a box of books to give me and would I like to pick them up from my parents’ house in Sheffield, where she would drop them off on her next visit. ‘There’s a complete Shakespeare, Churchill’s Island Race and an encyclopaedia,’ she said by way of brief explanation.
Books were not the first thing I associated with Freda, a thoroughgoing countrywoman, a horse-rider and dog-breeder, who farmed a few acres in the wilds of North Yorkshire. Her reading matter was more likely to be Horse & Hound and Bantam Breeder’s Weekly than The Good Companions or even Wuthering Heights. Nevertheless, she had been a godparent nonpareil for a compelling reason: her Christmas presents were in a league of their own. So spurred partly by duty and partly by her track record as a present-giver, I gladly accepted the books and drove up to Sheffield to collect them. As soon as I looked in the box, I realized that Freda had lost none of her class in the gift department. The Island Race was a large-format edition with lavish illustrations; the Shakespeare was a facsimile First Folio; and the encyclopaedia was the 24-volume, half-leatherbound, gilt top-edged 14th (1929) edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica! While Shakespeare and The Island Race had been on the bookshelves in one form or another when I was young, this would be the first time I had shared living-space with a Britannica. From childhood I remembered the Pears Cyclopaedia – cyclopaedia, incidentally, being ‘an etymologically meaningless word,
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