BY THE beginning of the summer holidays, we had stockpiled a large quantity of tinned food. This was not a precaution against an unmentionable political situation, merely preparation for our planned trip: as the first part of my husband’s sabbatical, the whole family was about to live on a boat for five weeks, travelling coast to coast across the canals and rivers of England.
“We will eat out only once a week,” I had pronounced, abstemiously drawing up detailed meal plans involving beans and tuna. Somewhere in the middle of our ninth visit to a certain restaurant, while wondering whether it could actually be possible for our son to turn into a dough ball, I might have been made to eat my words — but my mouth was too full of pizza.
I should have guessed that cooking beans and sausages on a gas stove in a small floating box, in a heatwave, was too horrible to contemplate. Luckily, though, it is about to be harvest-festival season. With four churches and three schools in our benefice, we should be able to find new homes for our five weeks’ worth of tinned hope-over-experience.
There will be bread plaits and processions of small children clutching value ravioli. There is always a moment of never wanting to set eyes on another jacket potato, but I love knowing that we are heading into my favourite time of the year, when the relentless heat is over, and everything turns to gold.
I SPENT our boat trip inadvertently collecting books. My addiction to the printed word has been with me all my life: childhood holidays were spent in a camper-van, and, before we set off each summer, we were allowed to choose seven books from the library to keep us going for the whole six weeks.
One year, I read the same book a total of 14 times, turning from the back page straight to the front and beginning again immediately. Now afloat for a similar length of time, I tried hard to resist, but quirky secondhand bookshops and long summer days conspired against me.
As an author, I’m supposed to be interested in what makes people decide to buy books, and to arrange my marketing ploys accordingly; but it’s no good taking my own decision-making as an example. My reasons for purchase ranged from British embarrassment (the shop did not have the book I was looking for, but I didn’t feel that I could leave empty-handed) to brazen tourism (the Brontë Museum gift shop stamps all books with “Bought in the Brontë Parsonage”; if that isn’t a good excuse for a third copy of Jane Eyre, I don’t know what is).
I suspect, though, that part of my reason for collecting books was that the ones that I really wanted were at home. While we were away, a parcel containing advance copies of the children’s trilogy I wrote arrived at the rectory. Unpacking the box and holding the book for the first time is one of the most exciting moments of being an author — but I had to wait longingly for three weeks, separated by miles of water.
The glory of the word
WHAT does one do with excess books? There isn’t a harvest festival for them. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing, though, if it existed? Picture it: toddlers would stagger down the aisle under unread copies of War and Peace, fished from the back of the shelf and dusted off that morning. The church window-sills and the end of each pew would be decorated with lavish illustrations and illuminated manuscripts. Authors would fill the churches on their once-yearly visits to praise God that the words have again grown miraculously on the page, and that the seeds of ideas sown have blossomed and fruited. Children would learn at school that books need authors just as food needs farmers, and they would sing about their gratitude for every word — even while their reading-scheme books sat abandoned in their school bags, next to their barely touched packed lunches.
I NEVER spend long scrolling on social media before something makes me cry. Recently, it was the generosity of Joe, aged ten, who loved a book called Diary of a Disciple so much that he raised enough money for the Scripture Union to visit his school and hand out copies to all his friends.
In the video of the event, one of Joe’s classmates declares that this is the first book that he has ever owned. I look around my house, where books overflow the shelves and are stacked up on the floor, left open on the arm of the sofa, and piled on the bedside table in a teetering tsundoku (Japanese for “a pile of books waiting to be read”).
This is the strange juxtaposition of harvest: the rich ripeness of autumn next to the bare trees of winter; the results of foolish stockpiling passed to foodbanks; people who are rejoicing in their harvest remembering people who are desperate because theirs has failed. And then the example of the Joes of this world, who — instead of skimming off their excess and looking for a place to put it — share what they have for the sheer love of it, and so fill a deep need in others. I had better take a leaf out of his book.
Amy Scott Robinson is the author of this year’s Advent book for the Bible Reading Fellowship, Image of the Invisible, and of the Gladstone the Gargoyle trilogy (Palm Tree Press, Kevin Mayhew).