On writing

My Father’s Bookshelf: how Rob Cowen’s dad influenced his writing

The author explores how his father’s love of literature influenced his own writing, and recalls the books they have shared over the years as father and son

As far back as I can remember my dad always had a book in his hand. Reading has always been his world. Even when we’d be out walking up fells somewhere as a family the rucksack would be weighed down with maps and guides, and at every rest stop dad would have his nose in one, endeavouring to deepen his understanding of wherever we were, to enrich our experience of being there.

This passion for words meant my brother and I never worried about getting lost as kids. We knew that should we become separated from our parents, we just needed to ask for directions to the nearest second-hand bookshop and we’d find dad browsing the aisles, entranced, deaf to our attempts to drag him out. And it was the same at home. If we couldn’t find him, he’d be in his office, reclining in a chair, carefully leafing through a book, smoothing his fingers up and down its centre to mark his place and occasionally – if he thought no one was looking – lifting it to his face to breathe in that smell of a new page.

Books and discussions around them provided a useful foil too. They were a legitimate way to bring up subjects that might otherwise be sensitive and troublesome between a man and his two teenage boys; a reliable and regular way of expressing emotions that all three were perhaps incapable of talking about otherwise. Every Christmas Eve we’d read out M. R. James ghost stories together – The Ash TreeA Warning to the CuriousView From A Hill, Lost Hearts, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad – delighting in the way they terrified, intrigued and revealed portals between past and present, layering the British landscape with eeriness and thrilling history – all of which became instrumental in my writing.

Growing older I began to appreciate the root of his obsession. For dad, reading really was about freedom, and not just in a vague, artistic sense. He explained to me how books – and the time to discuss them – was a gift given to him by a teacher at primary school; how this was a profound turning point in his life, lighting the touch paper for a love of literature and, by extension, the wider world, providing him with the tools and the inspiration to escape a tough, claustrophobic childhood in 1950's working class North London and attend university, becoming the first of his family to do so.

On the bookshelves in our house in-depth archaeological studies rubbed shoulders with the selected works of Ted Hughes, TS Eliot and Tony Harrison; there’d be Hardy novels, Folio editions of Conrad, Hemingway, Shakespeare plays and Collins bird guides. Dad would occasionally pick out titles and insist my brother and I read what he believed to be indispensable ‘classics’ – Waterland by Graham Swift, The Peregrine and The Hill of Summer by JA Baker – and he’d hungrily seek out new writing too. Dad was the first to switch me on to Robert Macfarlane, Jonathan Franzen and Donna Tartt. For Christmas ten years ago, he bought me a first edition of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, pressing it into my hands saying it was the finest novel in a generation. I believed him then, and still trust his judgement.

Through dad I came to love and understand how words can work; how a sentence – written right – can break you into pieces; how a single line of poetry can sum up a world, a moment or an unutterable feeling within with unforgettable precision and beauty. I also learned to be bold and unafraid of doing something new, like mixing history, memoir, nature writing and novel together when I was writing Common Ground. In fact, I spoke to my father regularly during the writing of the book and gave him whole sections to read, knowing that if I could create in him the kinds of reaction his collections of books did in me, I had to be doing something right.

One of the major themes in the book is becoming a father, going through that great tectonic shift in life where we suddenly are forced to lose our illusions and work out who we are, how we got here and where we’re going. In Common Ground I wanted to explore and investigate that space between human and nature, between place and person, to shine a light on moments that constitute what it is to be alive. I know dad found the section recounting the joy-trauma of my son’s birth extremely powerful and affecting; I know too that I would never have been able to write it had I not had access to his bookshelves. And, of course, it was dad who asked if I was aware that I’d perhaps written the first account of a birth from a man’s perspective since Anna Karenina.

Once a book nerd, always a book nerd, I suppose.

Common Ground author Rob Cowen

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