Chris Hopkins’ Reading Journey, part 2: Milly-Molly-Mandy, a Giant Reading Cushion, and a Book Sale

By Chris Hopkins

Chris Hopkins is an Emeritus Professor of Sheffield Hallam University. An expert on the British novel in the first half of the twentieth century, he is the author of Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film (Liverpool University Press, 2018) and editor of the Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole web/blogsite. The first part of his reading journey is here.

In Part 1, I recalled a more-or-less specific reading memory about one time and place where I read, and about one publication, Treasure. Part 2 will range across three separate reading memories, centring more on libraries, books, and bookshops from the nineteen-sixties until the nineteen-seventies. Each memory is sharp at the centre, but fuzzy round the edges.

When I was reading Treasure, and I’m sure before, I certainly recall going often in the afternoon to East Sheen Public Library with my younger sister and mother. I recall that my younger sister liked to borrow the Milly-Molly-Mandy books by Joyce Lankester Brisley to be read from at bedtime. I also recall that this was not a favourite with my mother because she disliked having to read out the strings of cumulative repetition which are a key device in the books, and which also inevitably involve frequent readings out of Milly-Molly-Mandy’s own name. For example, in the first story (‘Milly-Molly-Mandy Goes Errands’) of the first book (Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories,1928), Milly-Molly-Mandy is asked to do more and more errands by her family all in one trip to the village, and she has to keep repeating them in her head to make sure she remembers them. After four pages of accumulation Milly-Molly-Mandy has arrived at this string:

Trowel for Farver, eggs for Muvver, string for Grandpa, red wool for Grandma, chicken-feed for Uncle, needles for Aunty, and I do hope there won’t be anything else!

Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories (1928), p.5, Macmillan Children’s Books, kindle edition.

Of course, these repetitions are the entertaining things about the story-telling in these books, and I know that many people have fond memories of them. Lucy Mangan in her own excellent reading journey article in the Guardian (15/2/2018) has indeed rightly argued that every Milly-Molly-Mandy story is a virtuoso exercise in structure and sequenced detail: My life as a bookworm: what children can teach us about how to read | Children and teenagers | The Guardian .

Nevertheless, my memory is that my mother did not enjoy reading them aloud, though generally I’m pretty certain she enjoyed reading aloud and was herself certainly a keen reader. I would much rather recall a different memory of bed-time reading, but sadly this is the only one I can find in my head. I am absolutely sure I would have had my choice of bed-time story too, but I cannot recall a single choice I made! Still, below I have a more characteristic memory of my mother and books.

I think my next reading memory is of my GIANT READING CUSHION. My elder sister bought that for me, I think because she thought my habitual lying-on-my-stomach-on-the-floor-reading-position (see my reading journey Part 1) must be uncomfortable. I’m not sure this had bothered me, but I was quickly converted to the giant reading cushion, and did most of my reading stomach-down on it for the next ten years or so. It was a square brown cushion, comfortably stuffed, measuring about three feet by three feet, and it came from Habitat. My mother thought the brown colour was a bit dull, so in a project which must have taken some time and dedication, she made it a cover of brightly coloured and patterned patchwork squares. That brightened it up (though again I don’t think I was bothered that much by the brown – oh dear was I completely aesthetically insensitive in those days? – but did appreciate the energy put into personalising my reading environment). I certainly took it to university with me, and did much of my reading on my BA (Eng. Lit, of course) on its comforting base. By the time of my MA (Eng. Lit again …), I seem to have parted company with it, but I don’t remember when or where. Perhaps it just fell apart from age and was humanely disposed of? Anyway, it wouldn’t have fitted into my MA study-bedroom, which was distinctly smaller than my undergrad ones. I wish I had a photo, but I don’t think one exists.

My third and final reading memory for this part of my reading journey is of W.H. Smith’s sales table near the front entrance in the branch in Richmond-upon-Thames (it’s still there and in business). I don’t know whether Smith’s had a permanent sale in those days (early nineteen-seventies), but in my memory there seemed to be a book-sale every time we went to Richmond. We were certainly still users of public libraries in East Sheen and Richmond, and I was a keen user of my school library, but nevertheless my mother would generally buy me my choice of book from the table – well, anything up to about 35 pence (this may not be a correct memory, but I think then that non-sale paperbacks often cost something like 50 to 75 pence).  I usually went for archaeology (before I was gratefully received into Eng. Lit, I was going to be an archaeologist – an interest I retain), though I sometimes wandered into zoology. I remember buying and reading with great pleasure a book on Przewalski’s Horse – I suspect translated from Polish. I think I would remember the cover photograph, but searches on online booksellers have not so far turned up anything I recognised (for an account of this noble creature see for starters the Wikipedia entry: Przewalski’s horse – Wikipedia).

However, I do still have on my book-shelves two books my mother kindly bought me from that Smith’s table. Here they are (both published in 1973, both hardbacks, and with a non-sale price of £1.50!). I still think they are nice books and am pleased to have kept them.

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