‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be,’ my grandfather used to say gravely. His caution wasn’t about money. It was about books. Do not lend a book you will want back and do not borrow one you will be sorry to return. Sound advice. Not that I’ve kept to it. Some books I am willing to relinquish. That makes space on my heaving shelves. The loss of others I mourn.
I lent my copy of Barbara Hepworth’s A Pictorial Autobiography to an illustrator friend who, for reasons of distance and diaries, I rarely see. We had been talking about children and creativity and whether one must necessarily restrict the other: the easel, the laptop, the pram in the hall. I said she must read Hepworth and posted her my copy. It arrived. She thanked me. After that: nothing. Nothing for months and months and a year, and for months after that. I nursed a perverse and very British grievance. I couldn’t possibly ask for it back, because that would be rude. Instead, I did the proper and polite thing of raining resentment, curses and hellfire on her head every time my eye caught the gap in the bookcase.
As the second anniversary of the lending approached, I shrugged, shuffled the shelf and wrote the book off as a loss. Then, in the way of watched pots never boiling, the book came back with a hand-painted card and a note. She was sorry she’d kept it, but she’d wanted to read it again and again. ‘Hepworth is so right,’ she wrote. I cherish my copy all the more now, like a stone that has been skimmed on the ocean and which, in defiance of time and tide, has at last come skimming back.
Barbara Hepworth was a sculptor, not a writer. Her tools weren’t pen and paper, but chisel and stone. A Pictorial Autobiography is really a scrapbook. There are family photos, school certificates, college diplomas, reproductions of works, gallery pamphlets, press cuttings and assorted archive riflings. We see the infant Barbara in a white smock become Barbar
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