It seems like a lot of writers have been dying lately, or perhaps it's merely that the ones who've passed have meant something to me. Another this week. Dick Francis, jockey and mystery writer, died this week, though at least he got a lot of years and a lot of time to write a lot of books. Would that we were all so lucky.
Perhaps I'm merely in a particularly introspective (and retrospective) mood. A new baby balanced against these thoughts of writerly mortality. Now, I couldn't say that Dick Francis was one of my favourite writers, but he's tied to certain memories, tethered to certain elements of my writerly beginnings.
My parents were big fans of Francis. My Dad, particularly; he liked horse racing, and so enjoyed these murder mysteries set in that world. They had this huge old box full of Dick Francis paperbacks. It was in the basement, amidst the clutter (my mother has certain, shall we say, packrat tendencies). Occasionally there would be a slender wreath of cobwebs across the box, like tattered gauze whispering an occasional breath of dust. They were older paperbacks, books my parents had kept for years, or had snagged from the used bookshop. The pages had that dry musk of old paper. A little aged, though still in good condition. Bindings tight.
A natural find for a boy who liked exploring and who liked books. At the time, though, I was quite young. I was probably still reading mostly kids books (Hardy Boys) or those great books that blur all lines (Lord of the Rings, Watership Down, Duncton Wood). I'd read some fantasy novels, probably, that had a bit of an older audience in mind, but not by much. But these Dick Francis novels were a little different. They had these old, stark covers. The taste of that dust on the fingertips... they certainly weren't written with kids in mind, or designed to entice them. Yet something drew me in. My parents liked them... but my parents liked lots of books that didn't interest me.
They were short books. That certainly helped. Adult, but not too dense, not too intimidating. The titles caught me, too. Simple, direct. As stark as the designs of the books. I picked up one. Bolt. I read it, and quickly. And then another, and another. A bunch. I'm not sure how much it struck me then, but I think of it now as a sort of initiation, a crossing of boundaries.
My parents were fine with this, even encouraged it. They trusted me, I think, and let me read beyond my age. And I'm grateful for that gift, for that sudden shift in the scope of opportunity. It's like seeing the sea for the first time, with a distant and almost endless horizon.
On hearing the news that Dick Francis had died I immediately thought of that box. There's an almost physical connection between the name and the memory, the sense of a particular and unique history. Soft dust floating in the slanted light sliding through the basement windows. The scent of old paper. A rummage in possibility, in new opportunity.
A little strange to find all that tucked away in an old box in the basement.