The lines may be slightly Promethean, but here, in a press that has, for almost a century, somehow survived a World War, severe budget constraints and diminished staff, they ring lyrical and true. Within these rooms there is great resilience, and it shows in the books they’ve produced – finely bound and beautifully illustrated, each one is a patient work of art. I’m taken around the press by the assistant printer, a friendly fellow named Gerard. He asks me whether I’m there for the doctor’s conference, and I reply, no, I’m a writer – “Perhaps then you would like to see these,” he says, and pulls open drawer after drawer filled with tiny metal alphabets. I let them slide through my fingers like sand. Perhaps because we now mostly use only computers, we fail to appreciate the delicacy of fonts, their actual, physical weight, shape and size. Everywhere were letters, parchment and printing blocks. Around the corner, before a flight of narrow stairs, hung a small poster – “With twenty-six soldiers of lead, I shall conquer the world.”
It’s my last afternoon at Gregynog Hall and I decide to put my laptop away and finish the book I’ve been reading – Susan Hill’s “Howard’s End is on the Landing.” I’d picked it up at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre about a week ago, and had decided to bring it along for the trip. Every time someone recommends I buy a Kindle or download ebooks, I tell them that, for me, books are travelling companions – chosen carefully for each occasion. Plath for Paris, Pessoa for Lisbon, Berger for the London tube. They keep me company and like with all relationships, sometimes there’s a fit and sometimes there isn’t. This time, though, it was perfect. Hill’s book is all about writers and reading – “a year-long voyage through her books, in order to get to know her collection again.” The doctors are in the conference hall, and I slip into one of the library reading rooms, which has a set of comfortable chairs and a piano in the corner. It’s late afternoon, the air is heavy and quiet, and sunshine slants in through an open window. I enjoy Hill’s journey as much as she does – Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Charles Causley, Thomas Hardy, Bruce Chatwin, TS Eliot, Roald Dahl, Virginia Woolf, and many, many others I haven’t heard of, yet am determined to now find and read. While she talks of how these writers shaped her life, I realise how much they have shaped mine. How much my love of the written word has sprung from the books and poems they created in centuries well before mine. It’s one of those afternoons when a book I’m reading consumes me entirely. When everything around me – the room, the house, the world – ceases to exist or to matter.
There’s a particularly poignant paragraph in the latter half of “Howard’s End is on the Landing” –
“…I noticed a paperback half-hanging out of a shelf and found, as I started to push it back, that it was an alphabet book…I opened [it] and read. Or rather looked.