Alice Taylor’s attic treasures

Heiress to generations of beloved books, Alice Taylor resolved to sort and celebrate them

 

For many years upstairs in my attic lay a collection old schoolbooks gathering dust. They lay there quietly and patiently, hoping that one day I would get around to doing what was at the back of my mind for decades.

Over the years they had crept silently up the steep, narrow stairs, gently eased open the creaking door, slipped in quietly and made themselves comfortable. These old books had come from family hoarders who had cherished and loved them for decades.

My mother was a hoarder and kept all our schoolbooks. My husband Gabriel was another hoarder who kept his schoolbooks. My cousin Con, who became part of our family, was an extreme hoarder and brought all his old books with him when he came to live in our house. So a deep drift of old schoolbooks was building up that would eventually swirl in my direction.

Alice Taylor

In the home place, my mother stored all our old schoolbooks up in a dark attic that was christened the black loft because in those pre-electricity days only faint rays of light penetrated its dusty depths under the sloping roof of our old farmhouse.

Gabriel stored his in a recess under the stairs, which he cordoned off from our destructive offspring. You entered his mini library via a handmade little door secured with a bolt above child-level access. An adult gaining entry to this literary archive then had to genuflect and go on all fours to reach the shelves in the furthest corners. Con stored his books under his bed and on shelves all around his bedroom, until the room resembled a kind of beehive of books. When these three much-loved family members climbed the library ladder to the heavenly book archives, I became custodian of all these old schoolbooks.

My sister Phil sorted our mother’s collection of a lifetime, brought them from the home place and landed a large box of books on my kitchen table with the firm instruction: “You look after these now.” We went through them with “ohs” and “ahs” of remembrance. It was a miscellaneous collection of moth-eaten, tattered and battered-looking schoolbooks.

Among them was a book that had belonged to our old neighbour Bill, who had gone to school with my father. It was uncanny that here was a reminder of Bill, who, every night during our childhood, came down from his home on the hill behind our house and taught us our lessons. He was a Hans Christian Andersen who loved children and had the patience of Job, so he was the ideal teacher and we loved him dearly. He spent long hours teaching us; one night he spent over an hour patiently trying to drum the spelling of immediately into my heedless head. All the books eventually found their way up into my attic with promises of: some day, some day!

For many years the old books remained stored away in the attic, gathering dust. Occasionally when I was up there rummaging, I would come across one. Planning just a quick peep inside, I was still there half an hour later, steeped in memories. These impromptu sessions transported me back into the world of To School through the Fields.

There and then the promise would again be made that one day all these old schoolbooks would be gathered and sorted. Unfortunately, it never happened. But lodged at the back of my mind was the uneasy thought that one day when I too would climb the golden library ladder, all these old books could well finish up in a skip! A terrible thought! But if I, who knew and loved the history of these books, did nothing with them, how could I expect someone who had no nostalgic connection with them to do what I had failed to do? But after these episodes it was back on the conveyor belt of a busy life, which flattens us all. But sometimes life has a funny way of working things out and as time evolves it comes up with its own solutions. And so it was with the collection of old schoolbooks.

On car journeys, my grand-daughter Ellie, aged seven, and I were back-seat passengers, and these journeys invariably evolved into storytelling sessions. One day I said to Ellie: “I think that I have become your Gobán Saor.” “Nana, what’s a Gobán Saor?” she inquired. Now, there are many stories about the Gobán Saor, I told her, but my favourite is that he was a great storyteller and I told her the story of the Gobán Saor from my old schoolbooks. All this led me back up to the attic where I gathered up all the old books, brought them downstairs and spread them out on the kitchen table.

It was an old school reunion. Many were tattered and torn from years of grubby-fingered thumbing and years of dusty storage. Some covers were missing and of other books there was only the cover – but even a cover can sometimes tell a story. One ragged cloth cover was stitched to a book with Bill’s name on it and was dated 1907. On another book was my father’s beautiful copperplate writing. Back in those days the books on the curriculum were seldom changed, so schoolbooks were passed down from one family member to another, one generation to another, and indeed often from neighbour to neighbour. So these books had the names of many members of the family and sometimes of old neighbours inscribed in them.

And so, after long years of wondering quite what to do with these old schoolbooks, a seed was planted and Books from the Attic began to take shape. It was a bigger project than anticipated as all these old books clambered to be included. But these books should not be lost – their stories and poems are from another time and another place and should be remembered and treasured.

Books from the Attic: Treasures from an Irish Childhood by Alice Taylor is out now. Available from your local bookshop (just phone or check their website) and from www.obrien.ie, priced €19.99

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