Sometimes, things just come together and make life a little better.
You meet and fall in love with someone, and get a chance to move to the other side of the world. You’re a bit useless at sport, skip school during gym, find the local library is warm and dry, and accidentally discover a lifelong love of books. Or inherit a rather smelly, very noisy cat that likes to wake the house at 5am but won’t share the house with the other cats.
Some people are just lucky.
Okay, these things were all me.
In 2016, Fergus McDurgus, a sixteen year old cat, came into my life. She was technically already my wife, Naomi’s, cat. Naomi had brought her home as a kitten in 2000. Then in 2002, Naomi went to England for a six months overseas expedition, leaving Fergus in the company of her parents. That six months became seven years, and in 2009 Naomi returned to Melbourne with a husband, yours truly.
We built a home, and I began to enjoy the pleasures of Melbourne’s then extensive selection of secondhand book shops. I’d always been a book lover, since those early days at the warm, dry library in Worthing, England. But I was a working-class kid, university was never on the cards. Books were a hobby, an escape, a guilty pleasure, sometimes, amongst a cohort for whom reading wasn’t exactly a regular pass-time. I arrived here with about 500 books I’d collected over the years. But getting a great job in construction, and more space, meant my book buying habits went through the roof. As time passed, I started to get to a point where I could actually call that room at the front of the house a library. Filled with IKEA Billys, the bookshelf of choice for those with a passion for uniformity but a certain budget, I collected a vast range of material.
Even though I was trying to read as much as I could, I was amassing more books than I could keep up with. So I set myself one rule, which I’ve pretty much always managed to stick to. I only buy a book I want to read. I may not get around to doing so, but I won’t buy a book based on looks, or zeitgeist or anything other than I want to read it. That’s my golden rule. And so, the library, my library, gradually took shape.
Whilst the library developed, the other hobby in our lives was also gradually building. When we built our house, we put a gate in the back fence to access the paddock beyond, with dreams of getting a couple of little dogs. For reasons we still cannot fathom, we adopted a couple of cats instead. Then a couple more. One more here, one more there. We couldn’t resist a waif or stray.
Then, one day in 2014, Naomi’s parents retired back to New Zealand and a certain Fergus McDurgus was looking for a home. There was an obvious answer. She moved in and pretty quickly her need for personal space became fairly obvious. I placed a folding screen across the front hall, and the library, and my study became defacto ‘Fergus Only’ territory. A sort of Checkpoint Charlie for felines.
The library grew bigger, more extensive. I started to focus mostly on history books, crime and espionage fiction. I began to cover, catalogue and label all my books. I took all the gateway steps book collectors will be familiar with. Then I began to store them in chronological order by event … a little quirky, I know, but it works for me with my love of history and timelines, and enables me to contextualise fiction to time periods and get an understanding of the passage of time and events. You do it your way, I’ll do it mine! Right?
Fergus was my constant companion. Always there, lazing on the only other chair in the library. Getting older, a little slower, a little smellier and, as she went deaf, a little noisier in her meowing for breakfast at 5am.
By December of 2021, Fergus McDurgus, the library cat, had reached twenty-one years of age! We went through most of 2022 anxiously watching her. She was definitely getting slower, greyer, smellier. By September this year, Fergus was calling time. She’d had more than the proverbial ‘good innings’. Failing health meant we had to help the poor old thing into the big library in the sky. (We can only hope, right?)
The sad end of Fergus’s life meant a few things beyond the understandable mourning the loss of a furry friend. The library itself was suddenly considerably less in need of regular vacuuming, and various cat trees and feeding stations were no longer useful (as well as being unwelcome tugs at the emotional heartstrings). There was an opportunity to rearrange things. Move some shelves into the library from the study and finally get all those chronologically organised books into one space!
The Fergus McDurgus Library Project or @FergusMcDurgus was born.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been posting some updates on the Twitter feed, a step-by-step nerd-out of a booklover with a home library.
But here’s the hook. Libraries are amazing spaces. At least, they always have been in my life. Having a home library is both a privilege (not everyone has the chance to build one), and a pleasure. It’s a wonderfully absorbing and educating hobby. I love books; really, genuinely love them. As much as I loved Fergus.
Because, like a cuddle from a smelly old cat friend, my home library is my happy place. My safe space. My mental health support.
Steve Williams is a mental health support worker, book and cat lover, and sometimes sweary political commentator on Twitter.
For the sweary politics, follow @Stevie1666
For just the book stuff (and a little cat stuff) follow @FergusMcDurgus