I live in a house which is occupied by battalions of books. My study has a wall lined with them, the living room hosts a bookcase, the landing another. Books are scattered on occasional tables and bedside cabinets, recipe books line the shelves on either side of the oven. Recently, I have acquired a new bookcase which runs along the length of the dining room. For a few years I will be able to see the spines of all my books again, and be able to find each one, many familiar friends, before a row of newcomers is added in front of them and they are obscured again.
I used to be able to boast that I had read nearly every book, that there were only a few recently purchased books whose pages were tantalizingly untouched. Now the pile of the unread seems to be growing alarmingly. It’s not just the ones I can see and touch, but the free sample chapters and downloaded books on Kindle which are making another, rapidly growing, virtual stack which irritatingly sits in the back of my mind like an ever-growing to-do list, demanding attention. One reason the unread has increased is because it is so easy to impulsively buy them on Amazon. A bad habit for many reasons, I know. I have also acquired quite a lot of books which have been the choices of others, for a reading group or for a course reading list. These have been dutifully read, sometimes with enjoyment, sometimes not. Reading them has, however, displaced the time I had for reading the books that I would choose myself. I like to be on familiar terms with the books around me, but now so many of them are still strangers.
Given the scope of my personal library it is rather odd that, when recently asked to name my favourite author or book, I was momentarily dumbstruck. I looked rather blankly and mumbled unconvincingly “War and Peace” which it truly was. Once. However, it is now so long since I read the epic that I can barely recollect the enjoyment I felt when I was an eighteen year-old. I have to confess that the images from the BBC adaptation of the book, starring Alan Dobie as Prince Andrei and Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, seem to have survived longer than those evoked by the book itself. Sadly, this loss of memory applies to another Russian masterpiece and favourite book, “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov. I savoured every page in my twenties. I tried to read it again a few years ago, but soon spurned it in favour of a new novel. There is so much to be read that it seems extravagant to re-read a book, or perhaps magical realism is just more compelling in one’s twenties.
As it is so long since I read both books I feel a fraud to claim either as a “favourite”. But which book merits that title? I decide to survey my book collection to discover which book I can open to-day with anticipation, knowing that I will savour each word, enjoy turning each page and finally put it down, eager to read more just like it.
I begin the quest to find my favourite book on the landing.
The bookcase on the landing is a memory repository. There is no need to open the books stored here and I rarely do. The title on the spines, the paintings on the dust cover trigger as many memories as the photograph albums on the bottom shelf.
Nestled between my paperbacks by the Queen of Crime – including my favourite Agatha Christie “The Seven Dials Mystery” – and my Ladybird history books is a much culled collection of childhood favourite stories. I am not sure why the Ladybird books have survived. I recall that Hans Christian Andersen’s and The Grimm brothers’ fairy tales were read far more, their gruesome, magical stories endlessly fascinating. A parent-sanctioned window into an unsafe world where untold horrors lurked and handsome princes patrolled, always on hand to save the day and provide a happy ending. I suspect the books’ spines were bent and pages torn. Too much love from a seven year-old does not longevity make, for books anyway.
The titles of the Ladybird books confound me. I had a theory that Michael Gove had based his ideas for the new history syllabus on the subjects covered by the Ladybird history series. Sure enough, there is Florence Nightingale, the First Queen Elizabeth and David Livingstone but what about Marco Polo and Alexander the Great? No, they are just not British enough. I revise my theory. The new syllabus is based only on the Ladybird books Gove has actually read.
Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore have made it though the years but not Paddington bear. The Abbey girls made it but missing are Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton’s “Mystery” books which told the adventures of the Five Find-Outers. For some reason Fattie and his friends are not as well-known as the Secret Seven or the Famous Five, although they seem to have partaken in the same amount of ice cream, lemonade and cycling around the English countryside solving mysteries. I can remember many a night turning the pages in the half-light of an open bedroom door, anxious to solve a mystery when I should have been in bed. Whatever her detractors might say about her, Blyton was very good at plotting.
The settings for the books I chose to read, although perhaps there was little choice, were not remotely like my own environment. I lived in the suburbs of a cotton town on an estate of semi-detached houses built between the wars, where everyone you knew went to either the local state school or local catholic school. The world of my childhood self was mainly populated by English fictional schoolgirls who were living in a world just as remote from mine as that of the American “Little Women” or Katie (“What Katie Did”).
These schoolgirls’ parents were often thousands of miles away in the colonies – a voluntary separation I never understood – while their children attended boarding school and were farmed out to relatives in the holidays. The girls were impetuous and resourceful with strong moral values. They entertained themselves with midnight feasts and solving mysteries, frequently breaking rules but, as the rules were set by their boarding schools, this was no defiance of parental authority. Think Harry Potter, but without the magic and with a couple of hockey-stick wielding girls in the lead roles.
A favourite series was Jane Shaw’s “Susan” books. Susan was brought up in Glasgow where ‘the Spring, late and reluctant, had a hard job to struggle through at all’, but she was fortunate because, during the school holidays, she lived with her cousins, the Carmichaels, in a lovely picturesque village near London which was full of sunny blossom-filled orchards. We are introduced to Annabel in the first line of “Susan’s Helping Hand”.
‘When Annabel’s father and mother were killed by terrorists in Kenya’ she and her siblings are sent to live with Aunt Evelyn. There is worse to come. Annabel is told that they are expected to go to the elementary school round the corner.‘Annabel was aghast.
“But-but- Aunt Evelyn,” she stammered. “I must go back to school and get my matric_ I don’t know what they call it in English schools. I want to go to the university and be a doctor.”’ Fortunately for Annabel her aunt isn’t her aunt at all, and by the end of the book Annabel’s lies and deceit (all done for the greater good) are rewarded and she enrols at Susan’s boarding school. Phew. I must have been really pleased for her.
It does occur to me though that Maria Hutchings. the Conservative candidate for Eastleigh, has been brought up on Jane Shaw books. “William is very gifted which gives us another interesting challenge in finding the right sort of education for him – impossible in the state system. He wants to be a cardio-respiratory surgeon.”
My absolute favourite books were the Chalet School series. I would wait with excitement for the publication day of each new paperback. My mother was not fond of these books, I don’t know why. These were tales of schoolgirls set against an ever changing landscape as the school moved round the world. Austria, Switzerland, North Wales; each new location to be explored in our imaginations. Brent-Dyer’s books swept over decades including the rise of the Nazis and war. Unusually there was also a preoccupation with religion, and various characters converted to Catholicism or became nuns. The traditional schoolgirl narrative was at the heart of most books; an impetuous girl finding her mature inner soul when tested, often through severe injury or illness. There was frequently a love interest in these books, usually a doctor. Heroine Jo (Josephine) eventually married young doctor, Jack Maynard – why do I remember that after all these years? – I think he rescued her from a blizzard when she was a schoolgirl. I wonder if there was an equivalent genre for boys where the music teacher had an affair with the pupil?
Sandwiched between my photograph albums are the annuals – traditional Christmas presents – which were based on popular weekly comics. “Tina”, “Diana” and “Schoolfriend” are still intact. Children today cannot possibly imagine the excitement that a children’s magazine could create as the delivery boy dropped it though a letter box. A whole morning could be spent immersed in its stories, especially the serials which would finish on a cliff hanger to be continued the next week.
There was a continuous progression through the children’s weeklies from pre-school until we finally bought our first women’s magazine. “Jack and Jill” was my first comic, then “Diana” I think. At some point a decision would be made to turn away from familiar characters and stories to another magazine more appropriate for one’s age and interests. It must have been a volatile market. New titles would be launched with a free plastic gift, old titles would merge. I was devastated when “June” merged with “Schoolfriend”. I can’t remember now which one I was so fond of, but I do recall being a fan of the “Silent Three” which featured in the new title. This was a surprisingly hard-nosed story about three girls who were in a secret society, unusually shown as a comic strip in the annual.They wore cloaks, masks and navigated secret passages at midnight to resolve unexplained puzzles, often for the benefit of the entire nation. I always loved a good mystery.
Everyone read Jackie in the third and fourth year but, I seem to recall, that it’s reign was short-lived. I can’t recall any stories or characters. The graphic story had limited appeal and we quickly tired of the problem page which had once seemed so daring. So, on to the next popular magazine. “Fab208” was my favourite I recall, embodying all that was cool, or perhaps I should say “hip” in that era, although I don’t recall that any of us ever actually uttered that word. Fab was fabulous and, in the post-pirate radio years, paid homage to a newly-fashionable Radio Luxembourg 208. As music and fashion replaced stories of schoolgirls pitching their wits against bullies and villains, fleeing rampant bulls and surviving the icy waters of frozen ponds we gravitated to adulthood and the pages of “Nova” and “Honey” about which I remember nothing.
The mystery stories celebrating the resourcefulness and intelligence of girls captivated me, despite taking place in a world which was totally unlike anything I had experienced. Then again, girls living at home with their parents really could not have had the independence and adventures that these feisty girls enjoyed without coming to the attention of the Social Services.
Despite the fond memories it is clear that my favourite book is not in this bookcase! On to the next.