Saturday 13 July 2019

The Charm of Old Friends -- even when they're scruffy

Not an especially careful child 

Paul May’s lovely post about Jane Gardam last week struck a real chord with me. Partly because I’ve always loved Jane Gardam, and A Long Way From Verona one of my all-time favourite books, but also because of Paul’s celebration of the paperback Puffin. Like him, I grew up with those books, and my bookcases are full of them, often in deplorable condition: I was not an especially careful child, and my books were read over and over again. 

tatty but special 

Take Noel Streatfeild’s A Vicarage Family, for example. It’s tatty; in fact the back cover is detached from the rest of it. I’ve replaced it with a lovely, mint-condition hardback. Well, not exactly replaced… When I had a recent clear-out, my paperback of A Vicarage Family survived the cull when many a book was moved on to the Oxfam Bookshop.

Why? Because it was the copy I had as a child, the one I reread often, the one whose pages absorbed my tears when cousin John was killed in the war. Every time. It’s my copy in a way that the lovely new one will never be. Yes, the Shirley Hughes cover illustration has a charm the hardback lacks, but that was never the point.

ALWFV with some pals 
I’m not a serious book collector – any aspirations for a complete set of first edition Chalet School hardbacks in dust wrappers were set aside the day I left my sensible job to be a fulltime writer; but I do have hundreds of old children’s books, many with beautiful covers, and sturdy and fresh despite their age, because they were built for endurance.

Still, I often find myself drawn to a dog-eared 1970s Malory Towers ‘Dragon’ paperback for exactly the same reason I couldn’t get rid of A Vicarage Family. Nostalgia. I have to restrain myself sometimes from buying up all the 1970s paperback pony books in charity shops. The covers are often dreadful, and bear no relation to the ponies of the story, but they call to me like old friends.

Much of my childhood reading was courtesy of the local library, so the books I owned were very special to me – though the specialness didn’t prevent my reading them in the bath and up trees, hence the sorry state they ended up in. I had hardly any hardbacks, and those I’ve collected as an adult are often ex-library copies, which have the merit of being identical to the editions I borrowed but could never have owned as a child. More old friends, but the posher kind. 

older and built to last

My old paperbacks weren’t built to last — especially not when you read them in the bath — but I’ll always have a soft spot for the book covers of my youth.


Lynne Benton said...

I do agree, Sheena - some of the old/original covers had a magic that shiny new paperbacks lack. I still remember how devastated I was when I came home from school one day and found my mother had thrown out my copy of E. Nesbit's "Harding's Luck" because it had lost it's front cover! That hadn't bothered me - I'd found it in a jumble sale - but it was mine! I don't think I ever really forgave her.

Enid Richemont said...

Oh so many ancient book friends acquired via a great-aunt, but also my parents' and grandparents' school prizes? Black and white illustrations, often behind tissue paper, so they always felt special. Were any of you captivated by the strange, and very detailed descriptions in "Scenes in Fairyland", of which I believed every word? And "The Hill That Fell Down" with its girl (me, of course) and her amazingly erudite aged uncle in an amazingly ancient house who seemed to spend most of his time correcting proofs and allowing his young niece to engage in activities that would make any current Elf'nSafety expert blanch (at the time I had no idea what a 'proof' might even be.) And the strange foreign girl in a boarding school who had terrifying nightmares, and it turned out she was a refugee from an aristocratic Russian family during the Revolution...