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A legacy of books and stories

Darrel Bristow-Bovey
A legacy of books and stories

My father would be ninety-two this month if he hadn’t died in 1981.

In the final years before he died, my father mainly did two things – or three, if you count banging his walking stick on the ceiling and shouting at the Houghton kids upstairs to turn down their music. The black rubber tip of the walking stick left small round marks on the ceiling. After his second stroke it became too much effort to lever himself up from his La-Z-Boy recliner, so he had to content himself with looking up from his large-print hardcover library-edition Louis L’Amour cowboy novel and glaring at the ceiling. I knew I should take over banging duties from him. If I stood on the back of the couch and held the stick above my head and jumped I could have made good enough contact, but I never did and afterwards I felt guilty.

The two things he mainly did were read books and tell me stories. He read many books – Louis L’Amour westerns, Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean and books set during World War II. My father couldn’t drive a car any more or go to work, but I never thought he was doing nothing. He was reading books, and to me that was a good and serious thing for a grown-up to do.

My father was a big and strong man before his stroke, with wavy hair and a moustache. In old photos he looks like a young Ernest Hemingway during the Paris years, before he grew a beard. My father read Hemingway, especially the war novels, but he thought Hemingway tried too hard to be tough. My father had been a nightclub bouncer and a boxer and a dockyard welder, and he knew what tough was.

At night I lay in bed with my head on my father’s chest and we’d listen to Springbok Radio and he would put his arms around me if it was a scary show like Squad Cars or There’s a Twist in the Tale. In those days I was sensitive to scary and afraid of the dark, but I could afford to be because my dad was there. Afterwards, he would tell me stories about his life, growing up in Depression-era Pretoria in a violent home, leaving at fifteen to join the railways. He never finished Standard Seven and he was always aware of that fact. He told me stories about loves he’d loved and about his three previous marriages before my mom. He told me that women preferred wavy hair to straight.

‘Not any more,’ I told him, thinking about Caron Priestley in my class.
‘You’ll see,’ he said.

He told me about the fights he’d had and the friendships he’d made and the times he’d let people down, and how it was when his brother killed himself. Fathers teach their sons about being men, even when that isn’t what they’re intending to do. Had he lived I would have learnt more useful things, and perhaps truer things, but all he had time to teach me was that a man is someone who tells good stories, and has good stories to tell.

Most of the stories he told me were true, some were not. Some of the best and most unbelievable were true. The made-up stories very often involved overseas travel and frequently Paris. Once he told me how during the war he had been recruited for an SOE mission that involved being parachuted into the fields of occupied France with a sten gun that could be dismantled and disguised as a metal leg brace. His mission was to infiltrate the city disguised as a French peasant with polio, render assistance to the local maquis and await instructions regarding a high-profile Nazi assassination. He had a parachute made of ultra-fine silk that could be folded to the size of a handkerchief. The parachute cords could be turned into garrottes. He had a trick with a matchstick and its matchbox that would imitate the creak of a wooden leg, in case he ever needed to pretend he had a wooden leg. He warned me against cliché: ‘The Germans expect you to be wearing a beret. Only a real Frenchman can wear a beret without looking like someone trying to look French.’

In his stories, the war always ended before he could be deployed. He never went to Paris in real life either, although he very much wished he could. He never went overseas at all.

When my father died we had to move house and all his books disappeared. My mother probably donated them to the church fête. For many years it bothered me to think of them. They were cheap paperbacks and so vulnerable, and I didn’t like to think of them separated from one another and under different roofs, alone among other books. It felt as though all those books together made a picture of him, and that being scattered they were like his ashes or the atoms of him: all the parts of him still existed in the world, but cruelly, because they could never be put back together again.

Every time I go past a church bazaar or a second-hand bookstore I open old paperbacks in the usually unconscious hope of seeing his name written in blue ballpoint on the title page. If I ever find one I will take it home and read it and keep it with me, but I know that thirty-two years later all those old paperbacks are rotted and gone. They are unbinding and un-composing in landfills, swollen in groundwater like tongues. If I had inherited them, they would still be safe. I could pick them up, holding them carefully to protect the cheap, glued spines. Perhaps I wouldn’t read them, not now, when I have so many books of my own still to read, but I would have them.

I have been thinking about my father’s books lately, because it has recently occurred to me that I will probably not have children of my own, and it makes me think: what will happen to my books when I’m gone? The books I’ve read, even if I never read them again, mean more to me than any words I’ve written. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but try as I might, I can’t bring myself to think of myself as anything more than the sum of the books I own.

Perhaps it is just as well that I have no children, because it would be a cruel legacy to leave: a library of someone else’s life that will cost you three rooms of a house if you keep them and a lifelong burden of guilt if you don’t. But I do fear for them, and sometimes I find myself thinking about the end of the world with a kind of furtive relief. If everything ends, I don’t have to worry what will happen to my books.

It is my birthday this month, and also my father’s birthday and the anniversary of his death. On his birthday I will be in Paris and perhaps I’ll walk with a limp and make a creaking sound using a matchstick and a matchbox concealed in my pocket. I’ll walk up Rue Mouffetard and sit under the trees in the Place Contrescarpe where Hemingway went when he had no money and I’ll read a Louis L’Amour novel and, when I go, I’ll leave it behind because if my father is to be scattered into the world I want to be sure that some part made it there.

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User Comments:
Re: A legacy of books and stories - by LFK
April 05 2013 13:26:09

Thanks for making my mascara run while I'm at work. So true though, about being the sum of our books.

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by joanne
April 05 2013 14:18:32

Wow - awesome article. (mops eyes)

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by Rosie Fiore-Burt
April 05 2013 16:19:39

This is beautiful. Just beautiful.

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by Melanie Walker
April 05 2013 22:27:25

Your words never fail to move me.....

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by Marguerite Theron
April 05 2013 23:42:07

Thank you for a lovely story!

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by Shelagh Foster
April 06 2013 08:29:07

You make me remember - and miss - all the wonders of my own father when I was a little girl. Sitting on his lap while he read 'Tales from the Riverbank' was one of my life's sweetest memories.

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by karen
April 06 2013 18:08:33

Beautiful memory. I recently lost my Mom and find myself waking in the wee hours in a sweat dreaming my Mom is dead...and she is.

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by trivia tom
April 06 2013 22:04:43

Captivating. That Melancholy tone coursed through my synapses and left me hopeful. Thank you. Bon vacance.

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by Brendan
April 07 2013 10:57:33

Thoughts ...

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by ALF KARRIM
April 07 2013 18:05:36

Great story ... My wife loved books. As a child she hid in the toilet and read to avoid chores. Her reading led her to become an activist in the fields of democracy, aids support and rural development. Sadly, she passed on two years ago. We have gathered all her books and put it into three large bookcases. we have also started the Reading Room to promote the love of reading in her name. The project is active in Yeoville and loved by the children of Yeovile. We are also starting in Tongaat, Tembisa and elsewhere. Anyone wants to contribute books can contact me on 0832545308 or volunteer to be a reader. Tina, my wife lives on through her books, wonderful memories and the love of reading.

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by Delia Gardner
April 09 2013 10:05:01

Thank you for this marvellous column and to my daughter in law Lauren for forwarding it to me. By writing those words you have found yourself a family who have thought those thoughts and felt those feelings as deeply as you although we might not express them in such elegant prose. You are passing on a legacy to people who may not genetically be your children but who are deeply linked through our passion for books and reading. My books from childhood onwards have been my most precious possessions many inherited mostly from my mother but father as well both prodigious readers and book collectors as far as finances would allow.I have the tattered Zane Greys,the WW2 paperbacks, my mother's special books marked inside with "Wonderful story" "special book" "Don't throw out this one" "Africana" They are above me, behind me, surround me in boxes destined for the SPCA but they aren't leaving.They are my history, my life, my past and my future. My little study looks like chaos but I can put my hand on any of a thousand books and find the page with the special words that make my heart sing.

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by INGRID
April 09 2013 11:42:00

This was the most moving article I have read in a long time - thank you Darrel. I, too, live in a house "3 rooms full" of books accumulated from generations of past readers and despite the rational push to try and sell some of the older - perhaps valuable - ones, I cannot do so. It would be like giving away family, like giving away my beloved pets ... no, sorry, just can't do it!
Hope your time in Paris draws up all those memories you desire ... e buon viaggio.

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by Kim Cloete
April 17 2013 14:39:10

A beautifully told story and a lovely
tribute to your dad

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by amanda brown
May 05 2013 13:02:30

Your father's legacy is considerable - not least the inspiration for this moving and tender tribute. As I read, I was reminded of a poem I rather like. So here it is.
with love

And Yet The Books

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
We are, they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, its still a strange pageant,
Womens dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

Czeslaw Milosz

Re: Amanda Brown - by Darrel
May 06 2013 09:54:27

This is splendid, Amanda, thank you. ps Are you the Amanda Brown with whom I once drank a dry martini in the London Ritz? If so, I've lost your email address.

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by Caroline Hurry
May 08 2013 12:07:17

Such a moving piece ... I also lost my Dad in April. He was also a great reader ...who taught me my own love of reading...

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by Craig Cuyler
June 07 2013 14:34:34

What a beautIfully written column! It always astonishes me the way that words have the power to transport us into someone else's story... Thank you for sharing yours.

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by Juanella Brittle
June 08 2013 19:11:08

You awakened such lovely memories of my father who passed away in 1990. As a child I would sit near the toilet door and giggle just listening to my dads laughter as he read a PG Woodhouse book.

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by andrew
February 20 2015 11:19:24

Hi Darrel, great article.
I found a copy of Big Kill, by Mickey Spillane, at CAFDA last year. It has your name in ballpoint on the front endpaper. I have a spare copy so you're welcome to have it back! Best rgds Andrew

Re: A legacy of books and stories - by Chandu Kashiram
June 21 2015 13:19:47

A beautifully written piece thar brings out the raw emotions in the toughest of people. Thank you.

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