Seventeen years ago in the early hours of July 1st, my mother Sylvia died. The details of her death and her life are for another time and place, but I’ve been thinking today about the influence she had on me as a reader of books.
If you’d looked at her bookshelves you might have thought her influence was a little tenuous. Musically we were cut from a very similar cloth (if that isn’t a mixed metaphor). But I don’t think I ever read one of her novels while she was alive.
Mum liked Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters; and she could devour a Dick Francis book in a day. I tried to read one of his on a train journey to Glasgow with my then-girlfriend once but I was bored to death before we reached the next stop. Perhaps the fact that we were going to watch the Rolling Stones had put me in too much of a rock and roll mood for a story about jockeys.
Long before I developed my own literary tastes, however, Mum had instilled in me a reverence for books as objects that I’ve never lost. Sometimes she would put her more expensive ones inside protective covers. When she was young, she explained, they couldn’t afford many books; so they learned to think of them as precious.
As a kid I had read a lot of pulp Westerns: the Edge series by George G. Gilman, and the Herne the Hunter books. In my late teens, though, I met Bob Dylan on the Road to Damascus and decided to become a poet. Researching him drove me to the Beat Generation.
I didn’t have a lot of money at the time, having dropped out of college. So the books of my new heroes were well beyond my reach unless located on market stalls and in charity shops. But Mum, wanting to nurture my interest, bought a beautiful hardback edition of On The Road for me; and inside—on a piece of paper, so as not to deface the book—wrote a little poem she said she’d heard on the radio. It has served me ever since as a kind of Guide to Life:
When I die
I hope it’s said
How many mothers would be fantastic enough to offer their son that sort of advice?
She bought me several books that year, as I forged a new understanding of myself as a writer. Usually they were things I’d expressed an interest in but couldn’t afford, like Joe Orton’s The Orton Diaries. There was only one occasion when she came home with something by an author I’d never heard of. She said her father-in-law had been an admirer and she thought I would like him too.
The author was Christopher Isherwood and the book was a quietly staggering novel called Goodbye to Berlin. It’s about the Nazi takeover of Germany just before World War II, the horror of which is summed up in what I consider the best last line in English literature:
“Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this has really happened . . .”
I hope nobody will think I’m being tasteless or self-indulgent when I say that seventeen years on, I still feel that way about my mother’s death.