To my right is a small stained pine bookcase. It contains, among other things, my childhood.
Stacked in muted burgundy and khaki buckram are classics like Aesop’s Fables, full of blunt aphorisms for 4-year-olds: ‘To be well prepared for war is the best guarantee of peace’. Not far away is Richard Burton’s translation of The Book of the Thousand and One Nights, with its formally phrased smut (‘he laid his hand under her left armpit, whereupon his vitals and her vitals yearned for coition’). Still read after seven decades, my mother’s octavo The Magic Faraway Tree — mystery, adventure and casual corporal punishment. I also have her Winnie the Pooh, printed the year she was born. Seventy years on, her grandson now has Eeyore days. (‘Good morning, Pooh Bear … If it is a good morning … Which I doubt.’) But most important for me, standing face out in black plastic leather and fake gold leaf, is The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes was my first literary world. Proudly bigger than anything read by my primary school peers, Conan Doyle’s 800-page tome was a prop in my performance of superiority. This archaic lump of text helped me feel special. I was more clever, said the serious serif font, than the other 11-year-olds; more intellectually brave, said the ornamental binding, than my teachers.
Sherlock Holmes was a kind of existential dress-up — an adult I tried on for size. I made our common traits a uniform: social abruptness, emotional flight, pathological…