Books were always important; those received at Christmas or at birthdays were quickly read, so trips to libraries became frequent. Somerset County Council ran a mobile library that visited our village each Wednesday, but it had a limited number of volumes that interested a primary school boy with a voracious appetite for words. So trips to the library in Langport our local town became frequent, and then trips to the bigger town of Street, and then trips to Bridgwater. As an undergraduate at the London School of Economics, access to the British Library of Political and Economic Science with its millions of books and manuscripts allowed the opportunity to spend endless hours reading material entirely unrelated to anything on the curriculum – particularly microfiche copies of 19th Century newspapers. Through years of reading, books acquired an intrinsic worth; their value was beyond anything that could be expressed in cash terms.
It was reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind with its Cemetery of Forgotten Books that first created a sense that books should be with their owners, that there is something deeply sad in a much-loved book being forgotten. Finding a prayer book, that had been privately bound and annotated, amongst a pile of rubbish in a church sale on one occasion, there was a sense of delight in recognizing the name of the owner on the flyleaf. He had been a predecessor in an East Down parish who had retired in 1973 and lived into his nineties; his daughter was delighted at receiving it through the post.
Securing a half dozen railway books as a lot at a Co Laois auction, the cover of one caught the eye. It had been embossed with the crest of Saint Columba’s College in Dublin; a crest familiar from my children’s school uniforms.
Inside the cover, it became apparent that in 1923 the book ‘Model Steam Locomotives’ by Henry Greenly had been presented as the mathematics prize to a boy called R.H.S. Roe. ‘Model Steam Locomotives’ is a delightful book; it has 376 photographs, diagrams and working drawings; not that I have counted them that is what it says on the title page.
‘Model Steam Locomotives’ would have been a fine book to have received in 1923. More than that, it would have been the choice of R.H.S. Roe himself, for C.B. Armstrong, then warden of Saint Columba’s College would hardly have chosen a book on railway modelling.
Were R.H.S. Roe my grandfather, I think I should like to have a book that obviously meant much to him. There appear to be copies available on the Internet priced from £13 to £100, but only one copy exists that was the mathematics prize in 1923 . Should a descendant of R.H.S. Roe like to have the book, I shall happily send it for nothing. Since the days of the mobile library, there has been an awareness that books have a value beyond price – and that none should be forgotten.