One of my favourite Terry Pratchett books is ‘Going Postal’. It’s one of several books I wish I’d written (I could list all of them for you but that would take a long time and only make me feel miserable in the doing, so I won’t.) But if you haven’t already read ‘Going Postal’, my advice to you is find the time. Neatly tucked away in its plot is Stanley Howler – a man who is obsessive about pins. He knows everything about them, wears a T-shirt emblazoned “Ask me about Pins” and has a habit of leaning towards the sunlight like a thin houseplant. I like Stanley a lot. But it was yesterday as I stooped towards the pavement to add yet another washer to my increasingly large Lost Washer Collection (see post of 23rd April), that I realised that I’m in danger of becoming a washer based Stanley Howler.
The Feathered Man comes out in paperback edition on the 4th September. One of the treats for an author is the arrival of a box of books just before the publication date, and bang on time a box of brand shiny-new copies of The Feathered Man has arrived on my doorstep. I love the smell of new books. I think bookshops should pump it out onto the street like supermarkets do with the smell of baking bread. But the arrival of the box marks nearly the end of the summer holidays, which isn’t so good. There was a definite autumn feel to the day when I got up this morning – spiders’ webs in the dew, that sort of thing – and I realised that the warm days are numbered. I’m not sure I’d like to live somewhere that was hot all the time and didn’t have an Autumn or a Winter or a Spring, but I can’t help feeling a bit down that Summer is nearly done.
But the end of the summer does have one consolation where I live – The Shepton Show. It’s only a small agricultural show, but there are tents full of cakes and jams, flower shows, honey and cheese stands, booths where you can win a stuffed toy the size of Belgium if you knock all the tins off a shelf, pens full of sheep and goats and cows, and best of all – best of all by far ...
Amongst my favourite things are old photographs – photos of people rather than places are best, but hey, I’ll take anything. I like them as much for the small details they reveal as for the large ones. A trawl through some family photos the other day produced this gem which I had never seen before. My wife’s great aunt was a school teacher in a small Dorset village. This is her aunt with the infant’s class in April 1926. It’s nothing so very different to school pictures today – everyone lined up, some on the bench, some standing, everyone told to keep still and look at the camera. It must have been about midday because their shadows are right beneath them. Here they are, village children from eighty-five years ago. It’s a poignant picture in many ways – not least of which being that all these children would have just turned eighteen at the start of the Second World War and would have fought in it. But what makes this picture so wonderful is the little girl on the very left of the front row – just in front of great aunt Margaret. What she’s doing is looking stolidly at the camera and sticking her tongue out at the photographer. Maybe she wasn’t allowed to sit on the bench – or maybe it was just too good a chance for her to pass up – but whatever the reason, the shutter went ‘click’ and the moment was preserved for ever.
It’s not just old photos though, I’ll wade through any amount of old papers, letters and diaries given the time. One small book that I’ve been saving up to look at for a while is this one. It’s French, made from cloth paper and dates from 1785. Several different people have used it over at least sixty years and it’s been part filled in, turned around and started again from the other end, then someone else has partly written in the middle. It’s an account or record book and what makes it difficult to read is not just that it’s almost indecipherably written with a quill pen in French, but that it’s French spoken best part of three hundred years ago, which is a teency bit trickier still. The whole thing is wrapped in vellum even older than the book. The vellum must have come from another document which instead of being thrown away was cut up and used to make a cover. It’s another of those wonderful time machines – sometime in 1785 someone sat down with a brand new book and dipping a quill pen into an ink pot wrote up the things they wanted to keep count of and remember. I wonder who they were? The least I can do for them is try to work out what it is they wrote.