Word from Wormingford

31 October 2014

A pungent odour takes Ronald Blythe back to his book-polishing days

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 could sympathise.

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 small stain.

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.

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