Visitors to the UL tower most often admire the immaculate condition of the books there, particularly the children’s books. Sent straight from publisher to library, they are crisp and brightly coloured still. I find they trigger sharp memories of the books I read and loved as a child. There were a lot of them: some books were read to us in school, I borrowed others from the junior library, scavenged for them at jumble sales, got some as presents. And seeing the books in the tower brought it all back …
Learning to read in the late 1960s inevitably involved the Ladybird reading books featuring Peter and Jane, and their impossibly bright and cleanly-coloured lives. The pictures of Peter putting on his party outfit (shorts, ironed shirt and tie) were far removed from our world of casual jeans. But other books felt close to home: Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet shoes, with its London setting, and above all the contrast between everyday home life and the thrill of going to the theatre and ballet. My mum used to read it to us when we were little, we used to act out bits and made my brother play the ballet dancing prodigy Posy because he had red hair. (I’m very sorry, honestly.) And Eve Garnett’s The family from One End Street, was the one book I read as a child that seemed to be set in a familiar place (though it was in fact based on Lewes rather than London). One of the favourite places to play when I was little was the builder’s yard in our road, with its mountains of sand to climb up and slither down, and huge pipes that you could crawl inside. Joe of One End Street did so too and was carried away in the pipe:
In contrast, Arthur Ransome‘s Swallows and Amazons books were set in a landscape I could only imagine, with lakes big enough to sail across and islands you could live on and be away from streets and people. I had the complete set, very pale blue Puffin paperbacks with a sharp beaked Puffin on the spine, but the library had the older hard backed editions with those distinctive dustjackets.
You couldn’t get Enid Blyton in the library or at school because she was banned in Hounslow Borough, so oddly enough getting hold of her books provided the sort of thrill that other people got from reading Nabokov’s Lolita. I was very attached to the Malory Towers series, set in a school packed with girls, horses, a swimming pool, cliffs overlooking the sea, plus a criminal element among the girls that livened things up. I had all six books in a bewildering mixture of editions with illustrations ranging from girls in gymslips and plaits to mini-skirted 1960s teens. Needless to say this didn’t bother me any more than any other children.
So stop coveting the perfection of the books in the tower: they haven’t been taken to bed by children who can’t wait to know the ending or covered in chocolate spread. They haven’t lived!