‘Jack and I never had a conversation, about books or anything else, till a short time before his death’

It’s 15 years this spring since my stepfather died, and I’m remembering all over again the books he brought into the house when he arrived in our lives. I was seven or eight, the eldest child of three, and I already had a mother and a father, a family that seemed to need no supplementation, but my mother thought differently. First, Jack Mantel came as a visitor, then he moved in, and his possessions, books included, arrived by degrees from his mother’s house. The books were tattered, brown-spotted. They did not seem cared for, or read, or to have anything to do with Jack in particular. But in gleaming repair were the steel bars and weights he used to exercise. They chimed like bells when he lifted them, and his breathing – a specialised system of grunts and gasps, which helped him bear the poundage – rolled through the house and out into the street. He had a stack of magazines banded together, with black and white photographs of other men with big muscles. The magazine was called Health & Strength. Both these things were in short supply in our house.

When Jack arrived, my father Henry did not move out. Jack was not tall but he was a solid and vehement individual and my father’s body was about as thick as one of Jack’s legs. Jack occupied my mother’s bed and the back of our house, the kitchen and the glass lean-to, puffing and blowing, clanking the weights and trundling through from the street with the black, greasy parts of broken-down cars. Meanwhile, my father went meekly to his clerical job. He came home, occupied the front of the house, played his jazz records and read his library books. I read them too, whether they were suitable for me or not.

In these circumstances, a child cannot maintain loyalty unaided. It was only a matter of time before I peered into the boxes of Jack’s books. Many of them were textbooks of electrical engineering, yellow and impenetrable. Jack didn’t go to the library. It would have been unlike him to have a ticket for anything, especially a public institution revered by right-thinking people. He hated the BBC, run as it was by snivelling establishment lackeys; I thought for years that “Dimbleby” was a swear-word. He contrived an indoor aerial so that we could receive ITV programmes, or rather a screen-filling snowstorm behind which we could hear a programme crackling. My mother paraded about the room with the aerial held aloft, like the Statue of Liberty holding up her torch, and flitting human shapes would appear. “Stop! Stop there!” Jack would yell. We could have had an outdoor aerial – except that in some way we couldn’t, because that was what other people had. Cutting off your nose to spite your face was one of Jack’s areas of expertise. Over the years I grew to expect from him opinions that were ferociously contrarian, though he could always amaze me with a new one. When I was a teenager I decided to learn first aid – I always felt we might need it, in a house like ours – and Jack’s tirade against the Red Cross blew me across the room. He was a fountain of conspiracy theories. Every man’s hand was against you. “Why should I help any bugger?” he would howl, when famine appeals appeared on the TV. “No bugger helps me!”

Of Jack’s books, one in a faded cover, bleached to no colour, was called Out With Romany. My romantic mother had told me that Jack’s mother was a gypsy, and I thought this was why he had the book. It contained nature tales, mildly instructive; Romany, I find now I come to look it up, had been a radio presenter for the BBC’s Children’s Hour, with a series that ran for many years from 1932. It is difficult for me to imagine Jack listening to Children’s Hour, sitting cross-legged on the hearthrug with rapt and shining face. It is disillusioning, too, to learn that Romany was not a caravan dweller, but a Methodist minister.

A number of the books in Jack’s boxes were Sunday school prizes, awarded to unknown persons. I had learnt about Sunday school from reading Tom Sawyer. Catholics didn’t have it. I thought then, and still do, that there were nooks and crannies of the faith that the Pope didn’t want explored, though if there had been an RC version I’d have attended it faithfully till I was 18, just to get me out of the house at weekends. Jack, of course, belonged to no religion. The Holy Trinity was nothing but another scheme to fleece the man in the street.

Some of Jack’s books made it out of the boxes and on to a shelf. There was Universal Knowledge, a one-volume encyclopaedia published in the 1930s; the later parts of the alphabet had dropped out, so it was less than it claimed to be. Perhaps it was Jack who brought the disintegrating copy of Enquire Within Upon Everything, the domestic reference book published in many editions since 1856. I do not know the date of ours, but the advice had an Edwardian flavour. I dwelt for hours on the section called Etiquette and the section called Poisons. I liked best the advice on leaving visiting cards, which seemed to me mandarin-like and very particular, a distinguished thing to know; I also cherished those poisons that had no effective antidote, and inevitably led, after 48 hours of cruel and pointless suffering, to “convulsions and death”.

When I was 11, we moved away and changed our name, left my father behind and became, to outward view, a normal family. Jack even got a library ticket. He only took out science fiction, books often bound in the plain yellow covers of the Gollancz imprint. I looked into them and found the stories devoid of human interest. Unfair, I know. I have never given the genre a chance. It brings to my mind the chink of the weights and the smell of oil and grime. Jack was still a library-goer in his 60s, when a heart attack carried him off. In retirement – enforced on him early by a health crisis – he had taken to watercolour painting. His character had softened, although he became agitated and indignant when the library lady dared to recommend titles to him. His books were his private affair, and she should stamp them without intruding; that was his view.

Jack and I never had a conversation, about books or anything else, till a short time before his death. I think he read the first of my novels to be published, though none after that. It was characteristic of him that, once he started a book, he finished it, however much he despised it. He liked seeing my name in print, and I don’t think it was just because it was his name too. I think it was, perversely, because he was proved wrong: the literary career, if no other, was open to talents, and in the airy world of Dimblebies I had cut loose and floated free.

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