Our blog has a new home! You can now read about all our latest discoveries at the Tower Project blog
Where is today’s Friday feature? you ask. (I hope we’ve become as indispensable to your Friday mornings as coffee and Friday cake)
Sadly, we’ve become so popular that WordPress has added adverts to our site, which isn’t a look that we’re keen on. We could get an upgrade, but we’ve decided to move the blog to the tender care of the University Library domain instead. Please be patient for a week while we get ourselves organised: updates will appear on this blog so please please don’t forget us! We would really miss you!
It’s that time of year again, spring is nearly sprung, and we are beginning to feel a change in the air, that breath of optimism, inspiring us to look ahead to new beginnings, sloughing off the torpid despond of the dark winter months, well, something like that, anyway. The other day I picked up a book to catalogue and realised I’d found the very volume I needed to galvanise me into a seasonal surge of energy, written by George H. Knox, founder of the wonderfully named Knox Institute of Individual Efficiency.
We tend to forget that all those self-improvement books that dominate our bookshops, enjoining us to diet, get fit, practise meditation, improve our memories, be successful and generally stop being so pathetic, are part of a trend that started in the 19th century with Samuel Smiles’ book “Self-help,” published by John Murray in 1859. By 1904, the year of his death, Smiles’ book had sold over a quarter of a million copies. We all know its opening line:
“Heaven helps those who help themselves.”
Smiles’ emphasis was on the education and improvement of ordinary working people, and the importance of character as a driving force to success. This tells us something about the cultural context in which Smiles wrote, and the impact of his upbringing, influenced as it was by many and various radical people and beliefs, including the Cameronians, the Anti-Burghers, Calvinism and Unitarianism. In a speech to a Mutual Improvement Society in Leeds in 1845, entitled “The education of the working classes,” he said:
“Every human being has a great mission to perform, noble faculties to cultivate, a vast destiny to accomplish. He should have the means of education, and of exerting freely all the powers of his godlike nature.”
My book by George H. Knox, entitled “The new education,” was published in 1920 in Los Angeles, California, and there is a definite change in tone from that of the Victorian self-help literature that preceded it. Knox’s book bears the hallmark of an unfailing faith in human progress:
“The history of the world is the history of man’s progress from ignorance, fear, poverty and despair to the dawn of a new civilization.”
“It is everyone’s privilege as well as duty to live in the sunlight of Twentieth Century achievement.”
Knox’s use of “Twentieth Century” (capitalised for emphasis)as a positive value makes clear his intention that readers must break free from the oppressive confines of the 19th century and forge ahead into the bright new future of the 20th century, where possibilities and self-realisation are readily attainable.
There are slogans scattered all over the covers of the book: “You can if you will,” “Business Leadership,” Personal Power,” “ Twentieth Century Ability,” “Inefficiency is the most expensive thing in the world.”
Much of the typeface in “The new education” is capitalised and in bold, paragraphs have headings such as “Any man can be superior,” “No patent on progress,” and “No limit.” This book is bursting with boundless optimism and snappy aphorisms:
“Man is worth three dollars a day from his chin down, but he may be worth a thousand dollars a day from his chin up.”
“Turn on the switch. Start the machinery of the mind. Do a little prospecting.”
And my personal favourite:
“Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!”
Knox’s main argument is that most of us seriously under-use our brain capacity:
“It is said that the great American desert is not located in New Mexico, and Arizona, but under the average man’s hat.”
His imagery is drawn from the New World: ranches in Cripple Creek, rolling hills in South Africa, boulders in Australia filled with hidden gold, likening the potential of the human brain to undiscovered terrain rich in natural resources:
“The desert of the mind is a Paradise of possibilities.”
This gives us a sense of expanding horizons and the merit of hard work and determination, that pioneering, can-do spirit that helped settlers carve out a life for themselves in exacting circumstances.
I soon realised though that “The new education,” while full of pithy maxims and sweeping statements, wasn’t actually going to tell me how to increase my brain capacity, and that in order to do so you had to join a course (advertised at the back of the book) at the Knox Institute of Individual Efficiency for proper training:
“The Knox Institute of Individual Efficiency is helping men and women to find their gold mine.”
and as far as I am aware, this laudable institution no longer exists.
After a while, I did start to feel a trifle inadequate and, quite simply, tired, after reading all these exhortations, so I leave it to you to ponder whether you are using your brain capacity to its fullest potential as you read George H. Knox’s inspiring (or hectoring, according to your temperament) prose:
“What have you to offer? Are you offering your best, your next best, or your worst? Are you really wanted on your job or suffered to stay? Could the firm get along just as well without you? Would your resignation make a hole in the concern hard to fill; or are there twenty men ready to fill it just as well as you can?”
The new education/ by George H. Knox Classmark 1920.9.180
Note the heads either side of the word “Phrenologists” above the door, and the slogan “Advice On Health” on the roof, between two particularly striking hands, palms facing outwards, in front of the chimneypots. Clearly the Ellis family, Ida, Albert and Frank, were successful enough to operate from a solid building rather than a beach hut. The 1911 census records that Albert and Ida Ellis (husband and wife), Frank Ellis (brother) and Annie Edwards (domestic servant) occupied a house with 11 rooms, not counting, as instructed on the census form, “scullery, landing, lobby, closet, bathroom, nor warehouse, office, shop.” Looking at the illustration of their promenade premises (81/82 Central Beach, Blackpool) it is likely that the consulting rooms were on the ground floor and they lived in 11 rooms above on two further floors – quite an establishment. Albert originated from Canterbury, and Ida from Suffolk, but when they first arrived in Blackpool I could not discover. Blackpool, as a popular seaside resort, offered excellent opportunities for a business such as theirs. Albert and Ida were 42 and 43 respectively at the time of this census, and had been married for 21 years. All three Ellises give their occupation as Palmist/Phrenologist and record that they work “at home.”
Each family member specialised in their own particular skill: Frank in physiognomy, Albert in graphology and phrenology, Ida in palmistry, crystal gazing, automatic writing and psychometry. When customers consulted the Ellis family they would receive a booklet described as a “chart,” published by the Ellises themselves, packed full of information, with blank spaces in which a personal reading would be inscribed, with appropriate advice.
Even babies could be taken to a consultation and have their own chart filled in with their potential characteristics, personality, skills and so forth.
Each chart has an index to character, so that after the initial phrenological consultation, the relevant Ellis, presumably Albert in this case, would mark in pencil numbers listed in a sort of tabular key at the front of the booklet, which the customer then relates to the characteristics correspondingly numbered in the following pages. After that there are pages with blank spaces in which the Ellises would write customised advice (for an extra fee) on your health, occupation, relationships and so forth, even describing “persons likely to prove enemies.” On a page headed “Summary of mental powers” the seven options provided include “You have inherited a very inferior nature, and will not think for yourself. You are low and vulgar in your habits.”
I can’t help thinking that anyone diagnosed in this category would feel pretty hard done by, parting with ready cash only to be told they were vulgar and inferior. The Ellis family obviously didn’t pull their punches; perhaps such brutal truths bestowed an air of authenticity on their readings.
The Ellises knew that they had to keep clients coming back for more. In their “Advice worth following” on p. 23 of “Stepping stones to success” they explain:
“We would like you to consult us every year, because science is advancing so quickly that we are continually adding new features to our book. This enables our clients to obtain the latest information about themselves we can give, and also an opportunity to compare one chart with another, and thereby see what improvement has been made.”
Good idea to let your clients know that you keep up with the latest research in your field, there’s nothing so reassuring as a commitment to professional development in health practitioners.
In the lists of their books for sale at the end of their pamphlets, I noticed that the Ellises had initials (F.B.I.M.S.) after their names, which my research tells me stood for Fellow of the British Institute of Mental Science (and before you ask, no, my researches have not succeeded in tracking that particular institution down.) The Ellises are careful to qualify their claims to scientific authenticity in “Notice to clients” at the beginning of “Palmistry chart” with an ingenious explanation of why a client’s life may not unfold as read in their palm:
“It must be thoroughly understood that palmistry does not teach that things must absolutely occur, but that they possibly may unless steps are taken to hinder their occurrence. Thus it will be seen that if a voyage is marked on the hands, and efforts are made to hinder such an event, the mind will gradually register on the hands that the voyage was hindered, or the sign may fade away; whereas if events had taken their ordinary course the voyuage would have been undertaken.”
In other words, anything could happen.
The allusion to science is a canny ploy by the Ellis family – phrenology occupied a curious position in the public imagination during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, peddled on the one hand by fairground quacks, while being the subject of genuine academic research by respected thinkers on the other. Significant British phrenologists included the Scottish brothers George and Andrew Combe, who established the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh in 1820. This group included such well-respected luminaries as the publisher/author Robert Chambers, the astronomer John Pringle Nichol, the botanist Hewett Cottrell Watson and psychiatrist and asylum reformer William A.F. Browne (who took part in debates at the Plinian Society, of which Charles Darwin was a member). However, phrenology enjoyed a chequered career as a serious academic discipline, was rejected by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and was eventually designated a pseudoscience.
We may scoff at the Ellis family’s methods, but aren’t they just cashing in on that enduring human need – to be listened to? Clients could enjoy the time and undivided attention of Albert, Ida or Frank at a consultation. What, after all, are psychiatrists and counsellors, if not people who will listen and dispense advice, for a price? And a much higher price than the Ellis family’s fees. Perhaps we should see the Ellis family as the poor man’s psychoanalysts, the working class alternative to the psychiatrist’s couch?People then, as now, were hungry for the promise of self-improvement, success, personal happiness. and fulfilment.
As for Albert, Ida and Frank, the bumps on their heads would surely have denoted sharp business brains. It feels a bit like booking with a certain budget airline, reading Ellis family booklets – you’re forever coming across extra charges.
“If at any time you require a more complete guide to success, you should send this book by post to the address on the cover, and enclose ten shillings.”
“We shall be pleased to fill up any portions of this book at any time from your photo or handwriting or impressions of hands. Our fee for doing so through the post is one shilling for each part.”
“Palmistry by post or by personal interview. If by post it is necessary for the client first to send 6d. for a bottle of Transferine, a liquid composition for the purpose of making impressions of hands. Fees according to length and detail of description.”
I can’t help wondering what the ingredients of Transferine were. No doubt the entrepreneurial Ellises concocted it themselves in a back room of their headquarters.
The Ellises were careful to preserve their intellectual property, too. On the first page of all their publications is the following warning:
“This chart is copyright, and legal proceedings will be taken against any person or persons who publish any portion of it without the written consent of the publishers, who have obtained an injunction and costs against a character reader who infringed the copyright of one of their charts.”
In other words, look out, any other “mental scientists” out there, and make sure you don’t impinge on the Ellis family turf.
- Aids to self improvement. Classmark 1916.8.483
- Guide to fame and fortune. Classmark 1916.8.572
- Guide to health. Classmark 1916.8.484
- Guide to success. Classmark 1916.8.509
- Palmistry chart. Classmark 1916.8.617
- Stepping stones to success. Classmark 1916.8.508
- What baby is likely to become. Classmark 1916.8.621
We have all kinds of fortune-telling books in the Tower collection, but this one in particular captured our attention for its dramatic boldness and lack of positive spin as is popular in modern fortune telling, where we are always told that great things will happen to us. In the Tower Project office some of us were left quite perturbed by our predicted fate, whilst others could sit back and take it easy as Mrs Croft had predicted wonderful things for them! As we read each other’s fortune aloud there were a few gasps of dismay when we heard what was in store for us, not to mention quite a few laughs.
In the book the fortune for each birthday begins with an overarching symbol for that day, from which Mrs Crofts then elucidates further in the longer description below. This symbol supposedly describes the characteristics of the day of those born under it. These symbols in themselves are extremely bizarre. I quite like mine, which is “A party of men dining sumptuously” – I like to think that bodes well for a good fortune (how wrong I would be). Whilst a Tower Project colleague’s is “A man caning the hand of a boy.” She was not impressed. If you were born on December 5 it doesn’t look too promising either: “A man beating his head against a closed door”, and June 7 has to be the weirdest symbol: “A man shaving a poodle”. What can you make of that? These cryptic symbols had us in stitches, and we were impatient to find out more about our destiny …
The full description of one’s fate proved just as intriguing. Apparently I lead “a very irregular life, in private such a one will be a “law unto himself”” and “would succeed best in a foreign land”. That really made my day. A colleague was similarly disappointed with their fortune, although it does describe their job role of cataloguing books rather accurately: “You will only excel in copying or perfecting the work, views, ideas, or dress of others.” Although none of us took the predictions particularly seriously, they do crop up in conversation from time to time, so we haven’t quite forgotten them. And at least if things start to look a bit rough I could always go and try my luck in a foreign land.
A selection of entries (apologies if your birthday falls on any of these dates!)
This book really is worth a look, and we all amused ourselves looking up family and loved ones’ fates. I certainly intend to spoil a few friends’ Christmases by writing their fortune in their Christmas card!
What information was given to children at the time of the first world war? The world had changed. “We see khaki everywhere now, because we are at war” explains the author of “The army told to the children.” (classmark 1916.6.20) No space is given to discussing the causes of the war, the book simply describes how the army works and what it does. The book’s presentation makes it clear that the book is aimed at older children. It has a text-book like clarity and focuses on the practical. The photographs are the highlight of the book for me: the trenches are shown in detail but in their newly dug, tidy state. The text coolly explains what needs to be done. Soldiers need trenches so that they can shoot at the enemy without being seen themselves. Emergency ‘shelter’ trenches, less than a foot deep with a low ridge of earth at the front, could be dug in half an hour. But each day the army stays in one place, the trenches are improved, deepened so that men can stand upright. Sandbags are used to create a barrier at the front of the trench through which the soldiers can fire. “In the present war hundreds of miles of these trenches have been made, with tunnels between them so that men can move about under cover.”
I can imagine that in war-time even children became theroretical experts about fighting battles, that some child would confidently repeat to others that “There’s danger from shells and bullets, but shells are really not so dangerous because it is difficult to judge the range and take a good shot”.
However, some of the descriptions are more graphic than I would judge suitable for children “men crouching behind a bank of earth, with showers of shrapnel bullets crashing down upon them, and high explosive shells bursting in and around the bank in front, blowing men to pieces, smothering all the front in clouds of smoke and dust and flying fragments …”
So, not suitable for children but a brilliant explanation of how the war was fought – how it was fed, supplied and armed. For most children the war was seen chiefly through fiction – to be covered next week …
In August 1913 Joseph Knowles, a 45 year old former hunting guide, went alone, nearly naked, and without tools or supplies, into the woods of northern Maine. He emerged 61 days later, leaner and fitter, clad in a bearskin.
The expedition was sponsored by the Boston Globe. Knowles wrote accounts of his stay on birchbark, and left them in caches for a reporter. The stories proved very popular, the circulation of the Globe reportedly rose by 30,000, and a massive crowd greeted Knowles on his return to Boston. He later published a full account of his adventure Alone in the wilderness – which was a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. He also featured in two motion pictures, which sadly don’t seem to have survived.
The book is a curious mixture of action and reflection. There are detailed descriptions of him trapping and killing animals with his bare hands, and also long passages on the joys of outdoor living, and the mental agonies that he suffered during his stay.
There is a good deal in the book about the government’s attitude to the wilderness, particularly the game laws. The State authorities had refused to issue him with a hunting permit for the expedition, and fined him $205 on his return for taking game out of season.
Knowles was given a full medical before and after his expedition, and the results are shown below, comparing him to the famous strongman Eugen Sandow, who was featured in this blog last year. Knowles lost 11 pounds (about 5 kilos) in weight, and increased his lung capacity by almost 20%. According to his doctor, although he could not match Sandow’s strength, he “had the staying powers of three Sandows”.
As with modern survival experts, there were many anxious to prove that Knowles was a fraud. A rival newspaper, the Boston American, owned by William Randolph Hearst, claimed that he had access to a cabin and was provided with food and clothing. Knowles naturally denied the allegations, and proposed a second trip, where he would allow a dozen “representative men” to accompany and observe him. He also proposed the establishment of a colony of men and women interested in the outdoor movement. The colony would acquire thousands of acres of land, and open a College of Nature to provide training in woodcraft.
Was Knowles a fake? Some of the events in the book are not entirely convincing, but there is no doubt that many were inspired by his actions, and became interested in the outdoor life.
A modern reprint of Alone in the wilderness is available from all good booksellers, as is a recent biography of Knowles, Naked in the woods : Joseph Knowles and the legacy of frontier fakery by Jim Motavalli.
One of the challenges of our job on the Tower Project is to find the Library of Congress subject heading that best expresses what a particular book is about. On the whole this is enjoyable and instructive. Some books make it easy, others require considerable pondering before that “mot juste” springs to mind.
When I plucked a pamphlet entitled “An exposition of the polypantoglyphograph” by Thomas Tyldesley from my trolley, I thought “Hmmm, this is obviously about something of which I know nothing, what an opportunity to learn something new” – well, something along those lines, anyway. Now I pride myself on my grasp of the English language, I consider myself moderately well read, and will tackle pieces of literature that require more than a passing moment’s concentration, but after scanning a few pages of Mr. Tyldesley’s publication I began to feel confused. I flicked through looking for fresh paragraphs to attempt, each time failing to grasp the meaning of the text before me:
“M– An eMbleM of coM-Munication by analogy between the OWL(e)’s and Man’s Sense of household habits, and the whole WORLD’S Light by coM-Munion from SOPH-I-VAU with his dog (re dog and GOD, in series 5), and the love of Man through All the dead-men’s skulls to THOX-I-TAU, and the workings of that LeVER and fulcrum … ”
By the time I’d worked my way through that paragraph I had a headache.
I did a quick search on the author’s name and chased up other publications of his in the hope of clarifying my thoughts. I retrieved a number of pamphlets, all self-published, in a series entitled “For truth’s sake.” After failing to grapple with “Ex-shæphoenominology, or, The science of letters” I started to browse “The ressus(c)itation of the revælation and ‘natural’ meanings of letters, which were sought by Plato and his compeers,” but got a bit bogged down, to be honest. Determined not to be beaten, I decided to tackle “The original meaning of K” but fell at the first hurdle with:
”All abstracts of thought have tails, and, like comets, the quicker they move the longer their tails become; and I fear that the majority of all classes of our literati, from the lorey occupant of the professor’s chair to the standard-fixed multitudes in our common schools (the latter being battered by strifeful contending Ismst, and fettered by the circumfused fickle curriculum of a co-deified power, emanating from a consanguineous body of clannish richly-paid officials) are more attracted to the tail (tales and stories) than to the body – substance – nucleus – root – ORI, not pri-ORI.”
Now I was beginning to feel decidedly cross. It is hard to explain the sensation of reading something in your own language and not having a clue as to its meaning – vexatious, perhaps? Mr. Tyldesley obviously enjoyed language, and I have managed to glean from his ramblings that he believed the shape of letters to be crucial to their meaning, which explains his predilection for peppering his prose with capital letters and symbols:
And to be fair, I did learn something new. In my ignorance I had never heard of the Sator Square, which is a satisfying palindrome of ancient origin and various interpretations, suitably obscure for Thomas Tyldesley, but a genuine phenomenon in the real world:
His overarching obsession was a mystical interpretation of the alphabet, upon which he built a complex, and frankly baffling, theory of language, which I am sorry to say I have failed to get to grips with. I’m obviously not alone in my bewilderment, as he frequently complains of having his articles and letters rejected by the various papers to which he sent them, and even quotes a baffled individual to whom he had shown his work: “Put your books in our language, and then we can understand you.” Undeterred, Mr. Tyldesley continued his pursuit of the truth with zeal:
“The rejection of newspaper editors to publish my letters on this subject … constrains me to publish this additional paper; although great and severe has been my financial loss up to the present …”
He claims to have left school at 6½ “to wind bobbins and learn to weave,” in which case perhaps he belongs to that admirable tradition of the autodidact. It would be interesting to know where he gained access to the information he used in his pamphlets, what, or who, set him on his path of discovery. I got the feeling, as I struggled to interpret his convoluted prose, that his mind was teeming to bursting point with arcane occult concepts, hieroglyphs, symbols and quasi-religious concepts, but however eccentric or bizarre we may think him, Thomas Tyldesley was evidently happy inhabiting his peculiar world view:
“The unspeakable joy which I possess is begot of my communion with words true to nature, by inception, conception, and comprehension of her mæanderings and the commingling of forces, within the power of order and design, radiating, refracting, and reflecting each clearer ray of light, by which the knowledge of the celestial and the terrestrial becomes fused into matter, mannas for the mind, through a knowledge of visible form, cosmical movement, and invisible but thinkable shape, the steps to higher planes upon which the sublimity of the mind can solve supernal problems. The reality of this rare and lasting pleasure renders me imperious and impervious to all acrimonious attacks of human ignorance and infelicity, and subdues my loss to the value of dross in the smelting furnace of the soul.”
I wish I could say that after grappling with Thomas Tyldesley of Bolton I could agree with Dr. Seuss, who said “I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells.” I’m afraid I had to do as the gravedigger in Hamlet advises his baffled companion, who is struggling with a riddle, to do: “Cudgel thy brains no more about it” and assign the best subject headings I could muster, and move on to more mundane, but blessedly comprehensible, works.
- An exposition of the polypantoglyphograph … / by Thomas Tyldesley. Classmark 1913.8.768
- Ex-shæphœnominology, or, The science of letters … / by Thomas Tyldesley. Classmark 1906.8.920
- The resuss(c)itation of the revælation and “natural” meanings of letters, which were sought by Plato and his compeers. Classmark 1906.9.355
- The original meaning of K … Classmark 1906.9.352.
I recently came across the official programmes for Blackpool Aviation Week 1909 and 1910. The covers were beautiful and the amazing photographs inside reminded me of a cross between crazy birdman events and the red bull air races. Yet despite their dramatic appearance these events were both serious and important in UK aviation history.
The 1909 Blackpool Aviation Week, suggested by Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of the Daily Mail and taken up by Blackpool Corporation, was the first public and ‘official’ air display in the UK. Doncaster had hoped to run a show concurrently but the ‘scarcity of prominent aviators’, like the fine gentlemen below, led to the Aero Club (now Royal Aero club) withdrawing its approval for the rival event. Blackpool’s show, following the rules of the Federation Aeronautical Internationale and being the sole event verified was now the place to be.
The show was by all accounts a massive success, with over 200,000 paying spectators welcomed. Organisers rushed the grounds ready and booked out whole hotels to put up competing teams. Prizes were funded by the Daily Mail and numerous local companies, and were issued to pilots of monoplanes, bi-planes and tri-planes for achievements in long distance, altitude, carrying of passengers, speed and slowness. A signalling system was worked out for achievements but also for messages such as ‘bad start’, ‘record beaten’ or ‘machine has fallen, aviator unhurt’ nothing for ‘aviator hurt’ I noticed.
Amongst the competitors was one of the biggest names in aviation at the time. Sir Alliott Verdon-Roe, a Manchester man who claimed to be the first Englishman to make a powered flight (June 1908) attended. Though his attempt to be first to fly the course was scuppered by his machine failing to leave the ground and instead this glory was snatched up by Frenchman Henri Farman. Other competitors included M.M. Rougier, Dufour, Defiers, Baratoux and more. Click here for some great pictures of Sir Alliott Verdon-Roe at the aviation week.
A second carnival was held in 1910. Rules were tightened: passing on the inside was not allowed, nor interfering with others flight courses, a great development I would have thought. Pilot’s certificates were also required by all competitors this time! Obviously not a system firmly in place at this time, especially if amateur aviators were only learning to fly when they bought their first plane as the advert below suggests.
In 1911 the competitions ended for the site had become a race course. During the 1st World War it housed a convalescence home for soldiers. Yet in 1919 it’s aviation history caught up with it as A.V. Roe’s company began to fly from it again and in 1927 the site was recommended for the Blackpool Municipal Aerodrome. It has since become Blackpool International. The annual air shows held there now are certainly smoother, as display teams such as the Red Arrows do their thing. Still, I don’t believe that our modern shows can detract from past events, which though appearing shambolic, were in a way even more spectacular for their technological achievements of the time.
For movies of the 1909 show try the British Pathe.
Other Information sourced from:
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!