“A good book on your shelf is a friend that turns its back on you and remains a friend.” ~Author Unknown
I am surrounded by books, I have shelves stuffed to overflowing both here and still and my parents’ house. I grew up surrounded by books and the highlight of my week was heading into the village to go to the library clutching mine and my brother’s tickets and read my way through it. Books are friends, a really good one you’ll go back to again and again, never tiring of it and always finding something new in it. Whilst there’s something so fresh and exciting about a new book – that smell, that unbroken spine – there’s something else all together about an old friend of a book with its slightly dog-eared corners, it’s fragile spine and its own distinctive smell. More than anything, however, I find myself drawn time and again back to those favourite, now fragile, books of childhood – Enid Blyton, Susan Cooper, Arthur Ransome, Jill Murphy, Alan Garner, Roald Dahl and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer.
I was eight or so when I was given a 3-in-1 edition of Brent-Dyer’s first Chalet School books as a Christmas present. I remember trying them, not finding them as exciting as Enid Blyton and eschewing them for a few months until devouring all three sitting in the boot of my father’s red Vauxhall Astra estate on a fishing trip in the school holidays when I’d grown bored of the fishing. I was gratified to discover a short while later on a shopping expedition that there were more in the series. And not just your average more, not half a dozen à la Blyton, oh no. There were 62 or 58, it depends if you’re using the paperback or the hardback numbering. Last year, after over twenty years, I completed my collection and I felt… bereft. I know there are fill-ins and I can upgrade my existing collection if I so wish but… never again would I feel that tiny surge of excitement at holding a new Chalet School title in my grubby paws. I slid that last book (Redheads, if you’re interested) on to the shelf and, momentarily, my completist soul was placated.
I’d collected a dozen or so titles across the series by the time I was eleven/twelve or so at which point my parents decided I was too old for them. For some reason I never questioned this. I still remember the last title I bought – Challenge, because I had a preference for the melodramatics and was sucked in by the description of Miss Ferrars’ collapsing with appendicitis in the blurb. I confess, this was how I chose most of the titles I acquired as a child – any mention of drama, accidents (the bus crash in Gay for example) and the like, I was in there. Several years later, in my first year at university I wandered into the children’s section of the second hand book shop bored of scouring for texts for French Literature. My eyes lighted upon a slim, green spined, almost pristine copy of And Jo. Something within me stirred and I instinctively reached for it, at a mere fifty pence I wasn’t arguing, added it to the top of the pile of Racine and Molière and stalked to the till to pay. I spent that evening rudely ignoring my housemates, curled up with my new acquisition as comfortably as one could get in our common room chairs and reacquainted myself with Madge and Joey and the Robin and all the other early characters. I felt safe and, frankly, the fact I had an Italian exam in a couple of days time was no longer here nor there: I was back in the Tyrol with the characters I’d loved so much as a child.
It was a downhill slope from there really. My collection multiplied rapidly thanks to discovering Ebay (oops, poor student!) and the gaps in my knowledge were slowly but surely being filled: fleeting references I’d never wholly understood but always seemed to cause gales of laughter to the characters began to make sense. By the end of my first year, I had books stacked on the floor as they no longer fitted on the meagre shelf space university thought we could manage with. And I still wanted to go to the Chalet School, I didn’t care that I was nineteen by this stage, I still wanted to go. I guess I still do sometimes, just like I’m still waiting for my Hogwarts letter.
The Chalet School is my comfort blanket of reading. Sure, the later titles are completely ridiculous (Summer Term, anyone?) – definitely quality not quantity but that’s more than made up for by the brilliance of the earlier titles. The early Tyrol books are pure escapism – you can’t beat that gorgeous Innsbruck Christmas for the ultimate comfort read. But I’m more inclined to pull the grittier war years books from the shelf when I want something to lose myself in, the ones that are Brent-Dyer at her absolute most incredible with the heart wrenching scene in Spartz with the Goldmanns, when Vater Johan saves them and that flight from Austria. For Brent-Dyer, the war wasn’t as black and white as it was often painted and she was brave enough to show those shades of grey in her writing.
I’m probably overdue a reread of some sort, refamiliarising myself with those old friends who’ve been a constant in my life. The stack of duplicates I’ve been meaning to charity shop for about three years are sitting on my floor looking at me, saying ‘come on, you know you want to read me once you’ve finished your Le Carré’. Maybe I will, I see there’s a paperback copy of Exile there. Maybe I’ll read that before the Le Carré, I’m sure the spy can wait to come in from the cold a little longer…
[This post brought to you courtesy of The Girls’ Own Blog Carnival]