Faced with the prospect of moving into a new eco-house at the bottom of our garden I have begun to realize that I must downsize my library – which is what I like to call it: a collection of many books would be more accurate. But the name doesn’t matter: the sheer number of books is the problem. I can’t resist adding to them, even though, as I am now in my late 70s, I shall never have the time to read them all; yet the thought of having to live without them is unbearable.
I grew up in a Dorset country rectory, the eldest child in a family of six. My father was hopeless at organizing himself and was always at odds with authority. At times I felt that his ideal might have been a character in one of Jane Austen’s novels – a gentle scholarly country parson with adequate private means to maintain his chosen way of life. But the tragedy was that this was completely at odds with reality: constantly short of money and doomed by his own upbringing and lack of formal education, he sought refuge in books.
He had been brought up in a Derbyshire coal-mining village; his father William, after whom I was named, was a strong, self-made man, left fatherless at an early age by an explosion in the local coal mine and thus forced to leave school at the age of 11 and make his own way in the world. So when my own father showed little sign of wanting to follow him in the family building firm, preferring instead to bury himself in a book or help out at the local parish church, he met with violent opposition.
I well remember a poignant incident he once described to me. As a young man, sitting as usual in a corner with his nose buried in a book when no doubt there were urgent household chores to be done, his father stormed up to him and tore the book from his hands, exclaiming, ‘Throw that bloody book away!’ Not that it made much difference. Forced to leave school at the usual age, for those times, of 14, he recognized early on a calling to the priesthood. Natura
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