My Life in a Virtual Bookcase

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need”

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Having recently downsized, I no longer have room for a permanent display of the books and other items that have meant a lot to me over the years and so instead of the bookcase they previously lived on, I have decided to construct a “virtual” bookcase where I can collect all my mementos together and enjoy them on my computer. (And, while I appreciate Cicero’s advice above, I regret to tell him that I can’t work up quite the same enthusiasm for my garden!)

In much the same way that Desert Island Discs excludes The Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare on the grounds that everyone has them, I have excluded works of classical literature from my bookcase, but in my case on the slightly firmer grounds that I don’t actually have any works of classical literature. I do however have a number of books that, whilst not being so lyrical as, say Dante’s Inferno, as erudite as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or as literate as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I have enjoyed over the years and mean a lot to me.

Glory Road, by Robert A Heinlein

Many years ago I started to read The Lord of The Rings as everyone I knew was raving about it. After a couple of days, having got as far as page 32 of the introduction, I realised that such turgid prose was not for me and abandoned my attempt. It did, however, leave me with an interest in what we now know as fantasy fiction and a desire to read more, perhaps “lighter”, examples of the genre. As it happened, my older brother had just finished a book which had recently been published and seemed to meet my requirements. That book was Glory Road by Robert A Heinlein and, looking at the cover now, I can almost hear Mrs Merton asking “So, 14-year-old Jerry F, what first attracted you to the book with the topless Warrior Princess on the cover?”.

I have reread it several times over the last 55 years and still enjoy it – it’s a rollicking, if undemanding, read. For me, it acted as a “gateway drug” to other works of science fiction including the rest of Heinlein’s work (until he got creepy), Arthur C Clarke (until he got old and repetitive), Isaac Azimov (until he got too complicated) and Robert Silverberg (until he got long-winded). Nevertheless, there’s a huge amount of good sci-fi reading from just those four.

Pictorial Guides To The Lakeland Fells
The route to Scafell Pike

I first visited the Lake District in 1980 and immediately began a lifelong love affair. I shall resist the temptation to describe this magical place as I know that many readers are familiar with the area and share my love of it.

I have been back twice a year for most of the intervening 41 years, for all but the last 15 years to spend a week walking, and drinking, with a few very good friends. More recently, as befits my advancing years, the sightseeing has been by car and the drinking has been a quiet couple of pints in the nearest pub. But no less enjoyable for that. We used to pride ourselves on drinking as many pints in the evening as we had walked miles during the day and would occasionally worry that the time would come when we wouldn’t be able to maintain that ratio as we got older and couldn’t manage the miles. Little did we realise that we wouldn’t be able to manage the pints either!

For all my trips, the essential guide has been the iconic 7-volume set of Wainwright’s Pictorial Guides To The Lakeland Fells. These are, rightly, considered to be miniature works of art and are still, decades after they were published, sufficiently accurate to be used as the basis for planning a day’s fell walking.

New Combined Indexes to A. Wainwright’s Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells
Fells by Altitude

 Being a compulsive “ticker”, this slim volume was almost as essential for me as the Wainwright Guides themselves. It consists of two lists of the 214 fells described by the great man, one in alphabetical order, the other in height order. Just right for ticking off! For the record, I managed to tick off 127, including the 26 highest peaks.

CAMRA Good Beer Guides
Sample Page showing a popular Brewery

Another opportunity for obsessive ticking is provided by CAMRA Good Beer Guides. I bought my first one in 1975 shortly after I had discovered beer (OK, I was a late developer). This proved indispensable in planning pub crawls round most of Oxfordshire, where I lived at the time, and the publication of each new edition became the source of much excitement each Autumn. I bought my last in 1994, by which time driving to pubs had become frowned upon.

The Guides were also a useful companion to CAMRA’s annual Great British Beer Festival, although there was always a danger that they would become collateral damage as the day wore on and the care with which notes were made diminished significantly with each pint sampled.

Great British Beer Festival Programmes

The risk of damage to the Guides was greatly reduced by the use of the official programme for the Festival to record the number and the quality of brews sampled throughout the day for later transcription to the Guide at a more sober time. At only around 50p a copy, and therefore disposable, it was possible to do this without feeling that you were damaging a book from your library. Me being me, however, I kept the few that survived the day intact and they now reside in my virtual bookcase.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary
Sample page showing a popular bird

In a world before the Internet, the only way of finding out the meaning of a word was to refer to a family dictionary such as Collins English Dictionary, or pay a visit to the local library (but only during opening hours) if the word was too esoteric. Clearly then it made sense to have the greatest dictionary ever produced at your fingertips in the comfort of your own home.

Sadly, this was prohibitively expensive until the entire twenty volumes that made up the Oxford English Dictionary was photographically reduced to fit in two volumes. Okay, the print was so small that the dictionary helpfully came with a stylish magnifying glass and each volume was too heavy to handle easily, but so what – this was a full list of every word in the English language complete with all possible meanings. How cool is that? It was a staple of Book Clubs in 1980 when I bought my copy for £19.99. My initial excitement quickly wore off when I realised that it didn’t bestow on me quite the kudos amongst my peers that I had hoped, and I doubt if I have opened it since about 1983. Nevertheless, it remains a treasured possession.

I was spared a similar purchase a few years later when the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I had always promised myself that I would buy one day, was digitised and given away free on CD with new PCs from Dixons.

Stanley Gibbons Stamp albums
Stamp Album Vol 1
Stamp Album Vol 2

Possibly the only items of any real – as opposed to sentimental – value in my bookcase are a couple of Stanley Gibbons “Nubian” Stamp Albums filled with a good range of British postage stamp issued between 1 May 1840 and the mid-1970s. Like many boys in the 60s I got hooked on stamp collecting and spent many Saturdays at Leicester Market where there was a particularly fine stall selling stamps, and which accounted for most of the money I’d earned from my two newspaper rounds in the preceding week.

Having very quickly moved beyond the usual job lots of colourful Continental stamps, I restricted myself to those from Britain. That made the hobby a bit more pricey but still doable and over time I managed to buy at least one example of every stamp that I could afford that was issued in that 130-year period. My high point was buying my first Penny Black for 17/6d – probably my whole week’s earnings but I felt it was worth it and it still has pride of place in my virtual book case.

Observer’s books
Sample pages showing a popular bird

Being lucky enough to be brought up in a very small village in the middle of Leicestershire in the 1950s and 60s I was very aware of being surrounded by wildlife. This ranged from seeing the first cuckoos arriving to treading on a wasp’s nest while half a mile from home (I take pride in the fact that my Mum heard me scream over that distance and came to my rescue).

Like a lot of boys at that time I took up collecting bird’s eggs – not something I’m proud of now, but it was normal sixty years ago. Fortunately, this led on to me appreciating the birds themselves and my parents (perhaps relieved I had taken up a more wholesome hobby) gave me a number of books, sadly only a few of which I still have. They are all from the excellent Observer’s Book of …. series which ceased publication in 2003. On checking, I see that the Observer’s Book of British Birds in my collection and which was given to my father at Christmas 1939 is the first in the long-running series, having been published in 1937.


 Every bookcase has photos on it.  Mine is no exception exception and there are three that are especially dear to me. The first is one which clearly shows my athletic prowess and explains why I have not been asked the question “Jerry F, why did we not see you in the recent Olympics (or, indeed, any Olympics over the last sixty years)?” It shows me on the starting line of the Egg and Spoon Race at the Sports Day of my Primary School circa 1956. I don’t have a vivid recollection of the day but, judging by my general demeanour (that’s me on the right), I didn’t go on to win.

Sports Day

The second is a picture of the first thing I remember my son (who is now 29) bringing home from Junior School. It shows a remarkable grasp of the complexity and subtlety of male/female relationships for one so young and is one of my most cherished possessions.

Dating Advice

The third picture, and the final item on my virtual bookcase, is of my aunt, my grandmother and my mother enjoying themselves on a day out at, I think, Worthing in the mid-70s. I love this picture – it is one of the last pictures of the three of them together and captures the simple joy with which they and the rest of their respective generations approached life. They are all now long gone but live on in this photo. My grandmother went on to live another twelve years after this picture was taken, dying in 1987 at the age of 102.

A Day at the Seaside

I have grouped all these images into a single folder on my computer and can see any of them at the click of a mouse. Very often just the sight of the image is enough to trigger my memories. And if it’s not, I can always dig the real thing out from whatever box I’ve stored it in.

© Jerry F 2022