I came across this picture of Holland House Library the other day. It was taken a day or two after it was bombed in a German air raid on 22 October 1940. I don’t know the identities of the three splendidly be-hatted men but if I had been around at the time I suspect that I too would not have been able to resist clambering over the wreckage to see what books had survived.
When I showed her this image, my friend Sue Hollingsworth from the International School of Storytelling reminded me of a story that she once told me and which we now both tell: The Philosophers Stone, which begins with the destruction of the ancient library at Alexandria in 48 BCE. In the story, a single fragment of papyrus survives the flames. On it is written the arcane secret of the philosopher’s stone that turns base metals to gold.
“What do you see when you look at the picture?” she asked me.
“Lots of things,” I replied. “The casual damage of war; the miraculous survival of the books; the curious detachment of the three men. It makes me think of my mother’s stories of living in London during the blitz. It reminds me that the fate of each of us hangs by a thread. What do you see?”
“It’s more what I don’t see,” said Sue. “There is no relationship between the men: they have no interest in each other, just the books. And there are no women in the picture. I wonder where they are? Clearing up the mess, probably.”
She was right, of course.
But I cannot help being fascinated by the books themselves. I like to think that books have lives of their own. They are conceived in the author’s imagination, are mid-wifed by the publisher and brought into the world by the printer. Some become hugely popular. Many sit on shelves unread. A precious few become companions for our whole lives. I still have a well-thumbed copy of E.B. White’s Stuart Little, given to me by my mother when I was 7 years old.
The image of Stuart Little, heading north in his car, not knowing if he would ever find his love Margalo but travelling with hope, has encouraged and sustained me for as long as I can remember. It is the one book I would hope to pull from the wreckage.
It is in a very real sense my philosopher’s stone.
What is yours, I wonder?
Mine is Jane Eyre. I loved the fact that she was so small and plain and ordinary – how I felt as a child – but that she was so passionate, had such strong principles and was so strong. Her journey from being an unloved orphan to finally achieving what she wanted in life (though some might question her choice of Rochester) with kindness and never by trampling on others, has served as my inspiration, though sadly I lack her self discipline.