A WILD October morning. Bottengoms is calm in the front and
tempestuous at the rear, where the trees I planted a lifetime ago
meet the sky. Leaves race past. Birds protest. Or maybe they are
simply exultant as they are blown about.
Tidying a bookshelf, trying not to read, I am taken back by the
scent of an ancient volume to Archbishop Samuel Harsnett - that
local boy made good. In a niche in Colchester Town Hall I sometimes
look up to him as an autocratic priest who takes his place among
our worthies, but for me was little more than a Proustian odour,
until I decided to find out why he was there, high above us in his
robes and Lambeth hat.
The closest I got to this Archbishop of York was polishing his
books. They had been buried in tea chests during the war in case
Hitler got hold of them and became an Anglican. There were some 800
volumes, including Caxton's edition of Boethius's Consolation
of Philosophy, and their leather covers had to be rubbed with
a foul preservative that the British Museum had recommended. Some
of these books had belonged to Luther and other Reformers.
So I sat, day after day, in the Harsnett library, polishing them
up, now and then catching some spidery hand, perhaps of the
Archbishop himself, as it descended in the margin. And now, in my
old house, a tumble of books releases this preservative smell.
Who was this Harsnett - apart from being the owner of these
volumes? Who was he, apart from being a famous local boy? Just up
the road, in Ipswich, another local boy had become Cardinal Wolsey,
and he an Ipswich tradesman's son. Wolsey loved a bit of pomp. He
built Hampton Court Palace, and was very nearly Pope.
Alas, it all tumbled down - not Hampton Court, but the dizzy
height itself. Wolsey was on the road when he heard of it, sick,
perched on a mule, glad to be taken in by monks. "Had I but served
my God with half the zeal I served my King . . .", he murmured. And
what of the college that would bear his illustrious name, in
Ipswich? It would get no further than the gate.
Archbishop Harsnett and Cardinal Wolsey, now a stack of sticky
books, and another local boy polishing away. All that vellum -
calfskin; all those frontispieces on which the deity shared space
with lordly churchmen.
But I have become fond of Harsnett. He was not an easy person.
He founded Chigwell School, which continues to grow apace. But,
although he himself had abandoned what he called the painful trade
of teaching, he licensed books for the press. Once, he licensed a
book without reading it. But if it was anything like some of the
books in his own library, whose slippery covers I was polishing, I
These days, a new book smells good. Often, when I buy one, I
open it at random, outside the bookshop - a novel, perhaps, or a
collection of poems - and the essence of what is in it reaches my
nose before it finds its way to my brain.
The great publishing houses have hardbacks that possess a
distinctive scent. Not so with paperbacks, although those that one
can buy in church porches reek a little of abandonment, of never
being loved. The other day, a pressed flower that I had picked in
Scotland fell out of a book. I returned it to its tomb in Dylan
Thomas's poems, where it marked no particular place, but had left a
Now we have put the clocks back, and brought reading forward. I
bank up leaves in the garden. They are mountainous, but they will
rot down, blacken, smoulder, given a chance. Below them, a cold
stream hurries to the river without a pause, brighter than any old
book could ever be.