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Robin Ince: My Dad is gone, but our shared love of books remains

Books were how Robin Ince and his father communicated. Sorting the books left behind after his death, he's grateful for the hints of a life in those pages

Robin Ince's bookmarks

All the bookmarks I have so far liberated from my dad’s books. Image: Robin Ince

How do you explain death to a dog? Coming back from the hospital without my dad, there was something achingly sad at seeing his dog’s expectation that he would be with us too. She slept next to my dad’s bed and always stayed by his side. This morning she heard a recording of his voice and has seemed confused ever since. We project emotions onto pets, but why not, when sometimes we find it so hard to express ourselves, concealing our emotions for fear they will trip us up or make us look foolish.

My dad was not one to talk of love, but we were all fortunate to know that what was unsaid was nevertheless present in thoughts and deeds. Last month, when he was still as healthy as any 92-year-old can hope to be, we started sorting through some of the mountains of books, birthday cards and ephemera that surrounded us. 

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I boxed up outdated reference books and novels that he had no great fondness for. I found a frayed hardback – Angelique and the King. It is the story of a “courageous, green-eyed heroine who came from an impoverished noble family in remote Poitou to conquer the brilliant, wicked Paris of Louis XIV”. 

He wouldn’t want to keep this bodice unbuttoner (not quite a bodice ripper) I reckoned, but then I looked at the first page. On it was inscribed “My Darling Pam, for 365 of the happiest days of my life, Nigel”. This was his first anniversary gift to my mother. Its journey to the charity shop was swiftly ended. 

Books were how we communicated. Whenever I was on tour, I would browse for my dad in between browsing for myself. At each bookshop destination I would give him a call when I found things I thought he might like. 

“Are you interested in a memoir of working with Joan Littlewood’s progressive theatre in Stratford East?”

Or… 

“Would you like an anthology of ghosts stories set around The Somme?”

He couldn’t get to the bookshops any more, so I could do that for him.

Now, I know what the final book was. I rang him from the magnificent, bulging bookshop, Bookends, in
Carlisle. I had found a biography of the actor Robert Donat, best known for starring in Goodbye Mr Chips and Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, films we watched together many times. He didn’t have it and I knew he would want it. I delivered it on my way back from that week’s touring and he dived straight into it. 

The last letter he received before he went to hospital was from a publisher, Fleece Press, thanking him for his support. In his final year, he would often tell me that he was going to stop buying books now, he was too old to buy more. Then, I would hear the thud of parcel and see that his intentions had been thwarted by seeing something wonderful in a book catalogue. 

Next to his armchair is the last book he bought. A book about stamp design. Though increasing tiredness hampered it towards the end, he never stopped being curious. 

People offer their condolences and speak of our great sadness that he is gone, but oddly, I am not as melancholy as I imagined I would be. I am fortunate in not believing there was unresolved business. He had a good death. Four grandchildren and two children around his bed, and those who could not be there due to distance joined too, thanks to technology. 

As his breaths became more shallow and more rapid, we read his favourite books to him, Tarka the Otter and The Hobbit, and I played him the opening scenes from A Matter of Life and Death, a film we watched many times. 

Then, there was silence. 

Despite the number of times he told us to shush or shut up when we visited him because we were an interruption to Foyle’s War or Antiques Road Trip, this did not dent our love for this frequently grumpy man. 

Over the last few days, I have started sorting my dad’s books. Checking each one for inscriptions and hints of a life. There are many. Leave some of yourself in the books you read. Those you leave behind will be glad of the stories they find of you in marginalia. 

Someone said to me that browsing will be sad for me now whenever I find a book for him; I think quite the opposite. Like those who find comfort in finding a white feather, I will delight in his appearance when I find a book of engravings of Cotswold farm machinery, or an MR James anthology of stories of haunted amateur archaeologists. 

Robin Ince’s book Bibliomaniac (Atlantic Books, £16.99) is out now. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income

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