I hate to part with books, but recently had to have a long overdue clear out (my blog name Hoarder of Babylon being dangerously close to the truth!) and realised that some of my childhood treasures are just too far gone to be saved, and have now gone to the great recycling centre in the sky. I did however take the opportunity to reacquaint myself with some old friends in the process, to see if they had stood the test of time any better than some cringeworthy examples from the mid-20th century that I could name. I was pleasantly surprised.
My favourite childhood author was Monica Edwards, whose stories of adventurous children and their ponies from Punchbowl Farm and Romney Marsh I always sought out at the local library. Re-reading No Mistaking Corker today, the first in the Punchbowl Farm series (published in 1947) , was reassuring. Although the Thornton children may be fairly typical of the plucky posh kids found in most children’s literature of the time (their absent-minded artist father simply writes a cheque when they get into trouble with the law, and all is right with the world), the cast of supporting characters make for refreshing reading. The children befriend a travelling fair community, and rather than being portrayed as “dirty tinkers” as they often would have been in those days, the travellers are kind and generous and adhere to strict moral codes. Perhaps this portrayal is overly sentimental, but it’s a great story. It resonated with me partly because the story concerns the Thornton family’s holiday in a horse-drawn gypsy caravan, just like the one my own family enjoyed in Ireland in 1970 (but with added horse-thieving villains). The line illustrations by Anne Bullen remind me of my dad’s sketches from that trip:My copy of No Mistaking Corker is covered in mould now so can’t be kept, and all the others I read came from Castelnau library, but I may be seeking out more of these stories in second hand bookshops and online so I can read them all again. Punchbowl Farm was set near the Devil’s Punchbowl in Surrey, which we often visited as children during our holidays at Churt.
Another casualty of my poor conservation skills is the Puffin edition of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson-Burnett, pictured above. Falling apart, the pages brown with age, this copy has also gone to be pulped. But I have saved the slip of paper I found inside it, a memento of my childhood and a signifier of things to come:
The book must have been bought second hand, probably at a jumble sale or summer fair, as I don’t know who the inscribed “Georgina Bates” was. But I do recognise the home-made library due-date slip, the glue long since dried and loosened from the page. A reminder of the “B & S library” that I and my best friend next door, Briony, created from our book collections and lent to family and friends, documented in a previous post. I was pleased to find this evidence in the archives, just after I attended the national libraries and museums demonstration in London on 5th November. As a librarian and activist (and one of the people who occupied our local library when the council closed it last March), I had to be there. I don’t want to see our precious public libraries run for private profit – especially, in the case of my local one, as a gym – so I wouldn’t condone private libraries as such. But this reminder of my attempts at running a library aged 10 made me smile.
I have just returned from a work trip to Ethiopia, where I attended the opening ceremonies of 2 public libraries supported by the charity I work for. The irony is not lost on me: in my day job I help to develop libraries in some of the poorest countries in the world, while here in one of the richest, they are being closed down.
My career as a librarian, though I didn’t know it then, started way back in 1972 with the B & S library. Who could have foreseen that one day it would take me to such exotic places?