Friday, 4 August 2017

Only 5 books!

Before we left South Africa 30 years ago, my mother lobbed a grenade in my lap. I was allowed only 5 books in my hand luggage.  No that’s not a typo. How on earth was I going to curate my extensive collection gathered since I first learnt to read?

She then reminded me that where ever we’d end up in the world there’d always be a library nearby. This was small comfort as books are and always will be my only security blanket. Would 5 be enough to temporarily wrap me from neck to toe? I had my doubts. I mean, I know those pages have heaps of thermal properties but … My choices would need to cover as many of my needs as possible. So I agonised for weeks and finally decided on the following books to sustain me while I endured the wait to cross library thresholds in the Promised Land:

FIVE: With One Voice – A Hymn book for all the churches (filched from school on my last day – SORRY!)

A strange one to be sure. But you need to understand why this book was part of my collection. It was the hymnal at my secondary school, St Barnabas College. While my singing skills are none existent – no, I’m not exaggerating – I loved the exuberant singing in school chapel every day. Two of my favourites to this very day are The Lord of The Dance and The Prayer of St Francis. The end of term hymn however, was always Onward Christian Soldiers and trust me, when sung by a group of students fully aware their holiday is moments away – it is a pretty rousing affair.

FOUR: The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley (a book I seem to have owned since forever – it has my name written in it by my mother, wonderful penmanship. They knew how to scribe in days of yore.)

I can’t even remember when I first got this book. It’s a hardback abridged copy from 1974 and is in a rather sorry state. The pages have turned a sort of ochre colour. My absolute favourite thing about this book is the vibrant front cover of a little boy riding on the back of a perch.  When I flick through the pages, the scent of childhood wafts past my nostrils. It’s sweet and intangible but lingers endlessly.  This book goes back to the days when you didn’t even need a blurb to sell a book. You simply told the world it was a classic and that was that.

THREE: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (I’m on my 4th copy of this book because I let people borrow it.  They never return it. Can’t think why.)

This book is marvellous in so many ways it ridiculous to try and name them. I’ve turned to it for solace and advice more times than I can mention, including when my mum died and later when my dad did too.

TWO: Dr From Lhasa by T Lobsang Rampa (My copy is more bedraggled than The Water Babies. It doesn’t even have a cover. It seems sacrilegious to buy a new one.)

In our house back then there was no division between children’s and adults’ books. My parents put no restrictions on what I read at all. No doubt I picked up this book after I’d finished a large pile of library books. It was my introduction to karma, astral projection and all things psychic.  It is without a doubt the reason I often add many of these elements into my own writing. The tattered, aged and aromatic pages of this book are all the inspiration I need to get my writing juices flowing.

ONE: The Lord of the Rings by RR Tolkien (The entire trilogy in one tome of fabulous Fantasy goodness. This is in fact my 2nd copy because a certain Ashley Augustus borrowed the first and did not treat it very well. Shame on you Ashley!)

The main reason this is at number 1 is because it was the book which first introduced me to Fantasy, one of my all-time favourite genres. That however is not the only reason it’s top of the chart. A national newspaper was running a competition in which readers had to submit a drawing of what they thought a hobbit looked like using the description from the book. My mother’s drawing, together with my creative input, won 3rd prize. After receiving this mighty tome my mother then solemnly placed it into my hands, thereby sealing the fate of my reading tastes forever.

I've only chosen to show 3 of the 5 books I was allowed as Lord of the Rings is
so damned chunky and would have taken up the majority of the picture, while
the state of Dr From Lhasa would have my book owning licence revoked.

I'm slowly getting over the trauma the 5 book event caused and was lucky enough to find several superb libraries along the way to pull me through, one of them in particular - Carnegie Library in Herne Hill. If however, heaven forbid, you were only allowed 5 books to keep and treasure forever, which would they be and why?


  1. So interesting - awful to have to make such choices! Wonderful choices. I'd forgotten about T. Lobsang Rampa who I read in my late teens! I think you sneaked a 6th in your suitcase though.

    1. If only I could have sneaked a 6th Lindsay. My mother was eagle-eyed and supervised the packing. She knew I'd have packed all the books and not bothered with the clothing. Going to reread Lobsang as soon as I get the time. Such memories.