My grandad is not here to read my book, but he is irrevocably part of my story

Anna James and her Granddad

One of the greatest privileges of being a writer is creating things that exist beyond you and endure after you, says Anna James. She reflects on a defining relationship

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By Anna James on

My grandad died when I was 20, when I was only just getting to know him. As a child, you don’t conceive of your grandparents, or your parents, as anything beyond that role; you don’t understand them past their relationship to you. I knew he had worked in textiles before his retirement, but it was only at his funeral that I found out that he used to be the MD of Crombie (best known in recent years as the makers of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who coat). For me, it was regular grandparent behaviour to have friends visit from Italy and China, have boxes and boxes of fabric samples to cut up and glue together, for The Edinburgh Woollen Mill to be a common stop-off and to own a seemingly endless collection of jewel-toned cashmere jumpers. But, to me, aside from that and above all, my grandad was books.

A regular activity was walking from their village along the River Tweed to Melrose for tablet and books. The walk to Melrose was mismatched gloves and scarves, out the stable door, through the gooseberry bushes, over the gate, down the hill (avoid the cows), pause for swings, across the bridge (optional point to act out The Three Billy Goats Gruff, Grandad as the troll), along the river (avoid the sheep), pause to skim stones, through the graveyard, up the hill, and you’re there. Tablet shop, bookshop and back home to eat and read in front of the log fire. It was a less dangerous, more fudge-focused We’re Going On A Bear Hunt. But it was more than just the walk to the bookshop – my grandad collected Rupert Bear annuals and, every Christmas, we’d read the new one together. My favourite place to read as a toddler was in Grandad’s (generally off-limits) emerald velvet fireside chair. My stories were pinned up on their noticeboard and often, when we visited, there was a new book lying on my mine and my sister’s pillows. One Christmas, they took us to see The Nutcracker ballet and Grandad bought me a beautiful illustrated version of The Orchard Book Of Stories From The Ballet told by Geraldine McCaughrean, so I knew the story in advance. Books were wound up in our time with my grandparents.

I had a very happy but rather contradictory childhood. I was brought up in a fundamentalist Christian church, where women covered their heads and didn’t speak during services, that for the most part promoted a very traditional, patriarchal family structure. My parents and both sets of grandparents were part of the same church. However, alongside that, I was always encouraged by my family to excel at school, to think and, above all, to read widely and whatever I wanted. I had no limits on my reading choices and I was set free in public and school libraries, meaning I read everything, from Sweet Valley High to Austen to Agatha Christie to Sophie Kinsella (I was definitely too young to read Sophie Kinsella, although I learned a lot from her books).

So, while on the one side I was told that I should strive to be all Proverbs 31 asked of me (this is a Bible joke; I’ll try to keep them to a minimum), I was also reading books that showed me women who were independent and smart and fiercely opposed to subservience. I also was reading about women who had sex before marriage and did not die, about women who drank and were not punished, about women who were feminists and were powerful because of it. But, arguably, the woman – or, rather girl – who had the biggest effect on my perspective on the world was Lyra Belacqua, the heroine of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights books, and she was introduced to me by my grandad.

My sister and I were given many books by Grandma and Grandad over the years, but our Christmas books always came with a bit more ceremony. Every year, we’d have one book that was chosen with particular care and attention. Grandma often went for inspirational real-life stories – The Diary Of Anne Frank, Chinese Cinderella and suchlike. Grandad usually opted for fantasy and adventure. I was about 11 (there’s a photo, but my terrible haircut – it was done, bizarrely, at Toys ’R’ Us – makes it hard to date) when I was given Northern Lights, the same year he chose Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone for my little sister (those booksellers knew their stuff).

When the people we love are gone, we always miss them in an overarching sense, but every so often there are moments that are especially sharp in their grief

The Pullman trilogy was transformative for me in many ways. Firstly, they are just brilliant, life-altering and life-affirming storytelling that made me a better reader and a better writer. They also taught me a bit about how publishing works, as the third book, The Amber Spyglass, hadn’t been published yet by the time I finished the second and I hounded my local Waterstones, asking if they knew yet when it would come in; I had never before had to wait for a book I wanted and it was beautiful torture. But, more profoundly, the books started to put cracks in my acceptance of what I had been told about the world. The books follow a girl, Lyra, who finds out that the authority figures in her life have not been telling her the whole truth and sets out to discover who she really is. There are also gay angels, unveiled criticism of organised religion and it ends with God being literally killed.

Those books taught me so much about challenging authority, about standing up for what you believe to be right even when it is hard and complicated, and about following your own path. And I was introduced to them by my grandad, who believed in God and church, but also, I hope, about what I got from the book. I was also allowed to read them by my parents, even amid the controversy when the third book was published, who did not let their uneasiness about the subject stop me from reading and exploring the world and making my own mind up. While I have a lot of complicated feelings about the way I was brought up, and the church of my family, I will always be profoundly grateful to my parents and grandparents for never stopping me from reading anything. In some ways, through their encouragement of my reading and thinking for myself, they laid the path for me to leave the church, something that is brave and selfless and heart-breaking in equal measures, and something I hope they don’t regret.

When my grandad died, he was both one of the people the most familiar to me, but I also felt like I barely knew him. I was at university, still wildly self-focused in the way 20-year-olds are, and did not spend as much time as I should have talking to him. I will never really know what he thought about his faith, or why he chose the books he did for me, or which ones he would have chosen for future Christmasses for me, or for my hypothetical children. I think he would have loved Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Katherine Rundell’s books in particular. But one thing I do know, without a moment of doubt or uncertainty, is that he would have been so proud to see me have a book published.

When the people we love are gone, we always miss them in an overarching sense, but every so often there are moments that are especially sharp in their grief. I find it nearly impossible to come to terms with the fact that my grandad will never know that I have had a book published, that he will never read it, or pin up reviews on his noticeboard, or be able to go and see it in his local independent bookshop, where he bought me books for so many years. But one thing I have been able to do is to put him into the pages of my book. My heroine is an 11-year-old girl called Tilly, who lives with her grandparents in their bookshop and who does not quite know who she is yet or what she stands for. But her grandad gives her books that help her on her way and she is encouraged to be brave and curious and kind. She reads books with her grandad in front of an open fire. She is loved fiercely.

One of the greatest privileges of being a writer is creating things that exist beyond you and endure after you. My grandad is not here to see my book come out, but he is irrevocably part of my story. His kindness, and support, and love, and tendency towards giggling fits, his fondness for sweet things, and above all, his love of books are there in Tilly’s grandad. And, in some small way, he will be recommending books to 11-year-olds who need them for longer than he or I could perhaps have ever imagined.  

Pages & Co: Tilly And The Bookwanderers by Anna James is out now


Anna James and her Granddad
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