Years ago, I saw a picture of Richard Burton sitting on a sunlit step at his house in Switzerland, reading. There was none of the posing of Insta-friendly celeb photos. He wore a warm, soft, creamy cardigan and his attitude was one of complete absorption in the book held loosely in one hand.
Alongside that photo was another, of a room filled with books and comfortable seating. It was the library in his home, that house whose step he was sitting on in Celigny. Possibly Liz Taylor was elsewhere, in another room, showering, gabbing on the phone to her agent.
I saw those pictures when I was in my twenties, the decade in which I did my formative reading, when my life and thoughts were filled with books all the time, when I read the book reviews in the Sunday Times religiously, went to Books etc. or Foyles on Charing Cross Road on my days off, and spent my paltry wage on bags of crisp paperbacks.
Those images of Burton and his book-filled room and life spoke directly to me of the love of books. And they made me want a room of my own like that – a library.
Cut to years later. I’m no longer living in rented accommodation in London. I’ve got a family and a home, the house which both my husband and I have lived in for longer than any other. At one end of our living room is a thoroughfare, a place you walk through to get from downstairs to upstairs. It’s hard to know what to do with this part of the room.
Soon after we move in, I get my husband to build bookshelves and drawers on the long, bare wall there. Over the years, I fill them up with books and objects that are precious to us: pottery my husband has made; books I want to keep, the ones that have meant something to me, or are so good I want to own a copy: the Chatwins, the Irvings, the Wintersons and the Mantels.
The thoroughfare remains devoid of seating. When the children are young, it’s occupied by cardboard boxes made into cubby houses, or extravagantly coloured plastic climbing frames, or play tables with lego cascading from them. A walk through the thoroughfare in the dark of night can be a crippling experience if you stand on one of those sharp-cornered bricks.
The rest of the living room is hard to arrange. For years, the TV is in the corner and the sofas form a bank, their backs to the rest of the room, corralling the family in. The wood-burning fire is further along the wall, ignored. The room feels badly arranged, haphazard. We have people over to eat and they stay resolutely at the dining table. Desperate for a comfy seat after a day in the kitchen, I desert them and sit on the sofas, a distant, long figure on the other side of the room.
Finally, we emerge from several years of running a punishing farm business. There is more time for furniture arranging, for curating and getting the mix right, so that we might live more comfortably, and more decoratively.
I buy two second hand sofas from an impeccably dressed, retired lady. They are from an ante-room in her house, poor relations to the plush leather creations in her proper living room. I place them at right angles in front of our TV. Two-seaters, they are not long enough for lying on, and not comfortable without multiple cushions to pad out the lower back. Everyone howls when I relegate the monolithic velour recliner sofa, which we can all four fit on at a pinch, to a back wall. Covered in greasy smears from young children’s fingers, it is hideously ugly but feels like sitting on a billowy cloud. Everyone misses it, except me.
Soon I’m outvoted. The two-seaters are beaten into retreat opposite the bookshelves. The billowy cloud is steam-cleaned with a contraption from the supermarket, and returns to the TV area.
A brainwave. Can a TV be wall-mounted? It can. We move ours to the wall beside the wood-burner – not so close that it will spontaneously combust during House Rules. We can now watch TV and be corralled around the fire, as House Rules tells us we must. I purchase two more individual recliners from a second hand forum. They join the billowy cloud in a new formation and finally there is seating for all in a new, open and inviting arrangement. Fourteen years after moving in, we’re finally getting the living room right.
We have people over. They remain at the dining table, around the candles, the food and the wine, but I swivel a recliner to face them and and am closer to the conversation and the fire.
The children grow up, the Lego gets put away. I clear the thoroughfare of cardboard boxes and reclaim the cheap coffee table bought to service the kids’ needs. The drawers are full of plastic dinosaurs and felt-tip pens, but the top surface houses plants and books. One of my children rearranges his room to be more about motorbikes and less about transformers, and this results in a spare set of cube shelves, which I place behind the sofas. I add a standard lamp from that second hand forum, for a pool of light on the book I’m holding.
I take to lying there in the afternoons, my short form comfortably housed on the two-seaters. The cat joins me, and I add blankets for him to moult onto, throws for me to wrap in, and cushions to lounge on. Sunlight floods in through the west-facing windows in the afternoons. It’s cosy in winter, bright in summer. And full of books.
I throw myself a birthday party, moving all the furniture into big, open areas to entice people in. On a sunny winter’s afternoon, some stay outside to enjoy the sunshine. Some gather around the finger food in the dining area. A few find quiet spots on the billowy cloud and around the fire. Nobody ventures into the thoroughfare with its two-seaters, books and throws.
After the party, I go and lounge on one of my reading sofas.
‘Still can’t get anyone to sit up my end of the room!’ I call to my husband, who is watching The Durrells with our son and daughter. Crochet work spills off her lap, my son is swathed in his favourite blanket, feet up.
I look at the bookshelves opposite, the angle-poise lamp behind me, the cubes with my to-be-read pile, books I’ve picked up at the second hand shop, books borrowed the library. The cat preens himself on his blanket beside me. I pull a cashmere wrap around me and pick up my novel from the coffee table. I’ve finally got my library.
Fiona Stocker is the author of Apple Island Wife, a humorous memoir about moving to the country in Australia. She is enrolled in the MA in Writing and Literature at Deakin University. She offers Manuscript Assessment services for other writers of short stories, nonfiction and the opening chapters of longer works. Find more about her at www.fionastocker.com