Mais où se trouve la bibliothèque?

Continuing website editor Val Hewson’s reading journey

In the late 1970s, I spent a year in France as part of my university course. I was the English assistant in a school, the Collège Jules Ferry, in the small town of Montluçon.

Montlucon and its château (Creative Commons)

If you look at a map of France, Montluçon is just about in the centre, near Vichy. It is at heart a medieval town, with a castle on the top of the hill, a 12th century church below and narrow streets twisting around. The castle was home to a hurdy-gurdy museum (the only one in the world, they told me). Around the historic centre is the newer town, with some beautiful 19th century houses, modern apartment buildings and, across the River Cher, a Dunlop factory. The school where I worked is based in a former convent near the centre. For a few weeks I lived there, before I moved to a tiny flat on the banks of the Cher.

Narrow streets twisting around (Free Art Licence)

Detail of the old town (Free Art Licence)

I must have taken books to France with me. I would never have gone so far away for so long without cramming as many as I could into my trunk. But I don’t remember titles. Fiction rather than non-fiction, I think, for relaxation. Catch 22 is a possibility, as I read and re-read it then. Loyalty oaths, the soldier in white and Major Major promoted by an IBM machine with a sense of humour. Almost certainly I packed at least one of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond novels, as I was devoted to these long, intricate tales of a 16th century adventurer. Maybe there was a Georgette Heyer – Frederica, at a guess. Filled with good intentions, I might have put in set texts like Madame Bovary and Germinal. No, never Germinal, which I hated.

At all events, these books would not have lasted me long. Clearly I needed to find other sources of reading material. If there was a school library, I never found it. There was a bookshop in town, with lots of Gallimard, Garnier Flammarion and Livre de Poche paperbacks. I used to go to a newsagent, for the local newspaper, La Montagne, and for magazines like L’Express or the occasional Paris Match for celebrity news. I remember a story in Paris Match that the Duke of Edinburgh was mysteriously ill, and a teacher begged me to ask my mother if this was known about ‘chez vous, en Angleterre’. I also used to buy the International Herald Tribune, where I discovered Doonesbury.

Livres de Poche

Some books came through the radio. BBC Radio 4 on long wave gave me Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, read by Robert Powell. ‘Midnight Orgy at Number 10!’ and Agatha Runcible saying ‘too, too sick-making’ (a phrase I still use). And I learned the Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

At some point, I realised that Montluçon had a public library. I think I had to pay a small subscription. I embarrassed myself at the registration desk by using the verb ‘joindre’ [‘to attach’] than ‘s’inscrire’ [‘to enrol’], and was glared at by the librarian. In hindsight, ‘attach’ perhaps better describes my feeling about libraries. I suppose I did read some original French novels but mostly I borrowed English and American detective stories in translation. There was one about a woman being told that one of her aunts – she had seven? – had murdered her husband and trying to work out which one. I would love to know the title. Anyone?

Just before Christmas, the grumbling appendix I’d had for some years finally had enough and I ended up in the Centre Hospitalier, having an emergency operation for peritonitis. I spent the next ten days there. (As the first ever English patient, I was a sensation and staff came from all over to see if I was the same as the much more familiar French patient. One nurse looked at my freckles and informed me that I could probably have them surgically removed. Perhaps it was a joke.) Lots of my students, their parents and the teachers visited me. Most brought marrons glacées and the like, which was nice, but someone – one of the English teachers? the headmaster’s wife? – thoughtfully arrived with two books. She had bought, she said, the only English books in the local bookshop. This was, for someone twitchy if there was no book within a foot or so, the best thing she could have done.

The books were by Agatha Christie. There was her autobiography and a Miss Marple story, Sleeping Murder. I remember Fontana paperbacks, with distinctive covers. I rationed them carefully, as I didn’t know where my next book would come from. Christie’s autobiography was, helpfully, very long, although it failed to explain her famous disappearance in 1926.  Sleeping Murder is the rather creepy story of a young woman who, visiting England for the first time, stays in a house she finds she remembers. I’m not a great Christie fan, but both books were wonderful distractions from stitches, glucose drips and the tea served in French hospitals.

Still in France at Christmas, I was farmed out among various kind teachers, until I was strong enough to fly home. Wanting me to enjoy my first Noël, they gave me a hand-printed silk scarf and a book, Joachim a des Ennuis [Joachim in Trouble], by Goscinny and Sempé. I still have both scarf and book, and I still laugh at the story of Nicolas being pursued about the house by his visiting Mémé [grandmother]. ‘Un bisou! Viens encore me faire un bisou!’ [‘Come and give me another kiss!’]

Delia’s Reading Journey

Delia was born on 5 October 1942 in Stannington, near Sheffield, where she grew up.  She was educated at Stannington County Primary School and, after the 11-plus, at Ecclesfield Grammar. She married and moved to Rotherham, where she had her children.  Later she went to night school to study literature. 

I just used to live in the books, you know, I was always reading, well, as I am now.

Early on in her interview, Delia comments on the impact of books – of fiction – on a child’s imagination.   As she talks, book after book, author after author, come back to her, often not thought of in years but now vivid and clear, like set pieces.

‘About the first book [Delia] can remember’ was a Christmas present about a ‘pig called Toby Twirl, and his friend, I think, was a penguin’.  Delia is right.  In these 1940s and ‘50s picture books by Sheila Hodgetts, Toby was a pig who looked rather like Rupert the Bear and had a penguin friend called Pete.

After Toby Delia learned to read.  She particularly enjoyed books set in the countryside, all handed down from her elder sister:

The Twins at Hillside Farm …  It was lovely, that.  It was about two children, twins, living on a farm in some country place and it would tell things about milk separators and things like that.  And there was one called Ranch on the Plain, which was about cowboys.  And The Girl from Golden [sic].  Oh, and another one that I really liked they called it A Pair of Red Polls, and it was about two red-headed children who lived on a farm.  But I couldn’t tell you any of the authors.  But that was between … I’d say I read those between five and seven years old.

Delia says she ‘used to like these books about children who lived on farms for some reason’.  Perhaps this was because the countryside was all she herself knew and so a lasting connection was made:

No, it was really countrified around Stannington in those days. I mean, not like it is now. It was very much … It seemed miles away from Sheffield, miles.  You had to go on one bus to Malin Bridge, and then catch a tram into Sheffield town centre.  So I think I must have been about five before I even went into the town centre.

And the interest in the countryside stayed with her.  In her early 20s, Delia started reading Thomas Hardy, whom she still loves: ‘I read all his books because I liked the Dorset theme to them.’

As a teenager, Delia read a book called The Secret Shore, by Lillie Le Pla.  Why she remembers this so well she doesn’t say, but 60 years later she can describe it in detail.  The images or characters in some books simply take up permanent residence.

Oh, and I remember reading one by a lady called Lillie Le Pla and it was called The Secret Shore and I think it was probably about the Channel Islands, which is somewhere that I love now.  I remember reading that one, it just came to me, it had a blue cloth back.  And it was about some … It was about a girl who would … I’m not sure if her dad had died, but they lived in this house and she found this tunnel through the cliff and there was a gate in it.  And that led up to this man’s house, and she used to go straight on and it led down to the secret shore.  And I remember this man, I think he must’ve been some connection of her mother’s because he bought her a lovely watch for her birthday.  I just remembered.  And then I think in the end there was a happy ending where they got married, where he married her mother.  I can’t remember all the circumstances, but it was about this shore that she used to go down to and be on her own and find shells and things, you know.

LePlaSecretShore

In her later teens, in the early 1960s, Delia was working her way through popular authors like Elizabeth Goudge, Anya Seton and Agatha Christie.

Anya Seton, it was Katherine, she wrote.  Yes.  I remember reading that and The Herb of Grace, Elizabeth Goudge.  And Agatha Christie of course, I used to read all the detective books.  I used to love detective books.

The mention of Anya Seton sparks something:

… Dragonwyck, that was another Anya Seton one.  Have you heard of that one?  It was a film as well, an old film.  Foxfire, that was another one.  And My Theodosia, that was another one.  Yes.

Now that she was older, Delia started getting her books from the Central Library in Sheffield, going there with a friend after work.  It was amazing, she agrees, to have that much choice after small school libraries and the like, and so she started with the familiar.

I made for the authors that I knew. I started with Elizabeth Goudge and Anya Seton in the school library and I sort of went for those books again when I went to the main library.  And then with Agatha Christie as well, they’d always got the latest one.  And I can remember one that I never read but was advertised in Sheffield Library.  It was Frank Yerby – The Old Gods Laugh.  And I used to see it advertised on the counter and, you know, I never borrowed that book and I still don’t know what it was about.

YerbyOldGodsLaugh

Asked about Frank Yerby, Delia admits she knows nothing about him.  But the image of his book  – Sheffield Libraries always did lots of displays – has for some reason stayed with her, buried deep in her memory, and has been retrieved during the interview.  ‘Came back to me when I was talking to you, you know, about Sheffield Library. I just remember that one.’  For the record, Frank Yerby (1916-1991) was the first African-American writer to become a millionaire and the first to have a book, The Foxes of Harrow, made into a movie.  Here is a review of The Old Gods Laugh, which is not encouraging.  Perhaps it is best that Delia never read it.

A little later, reading came to mean respite, with Delia borrowing books from the library in Rotherham where she now lived:

No, I’ve never dropped off reading because in 1963 I got married and immediately became pregnant with my first child and books were a wonderful escape from housework and crying babies.

The urge to read became an urge to study.  When she had had all her children, Delia ‘went to night school for English Literature’ and has now read widely among classics and older novels.  ‘Yes, I’ve read most of those classic ones.’  She readily lists: Charles Dickens (‘I liked David Copperfield’), Mrs Henry Wood (‘Victorian melodrama-type thing’), Tolstoy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Scott Fitzgerald, Mrs Gaskell, Evelyn Waugh (‘Oh, Evelyn Waugh, I love those’), Iris Murdoch (‘I can’t get on with [her]’), Gustave Flaubert, Anthony Trollope, Arnold Bennett, the Brontës (‘I liked Jane Eyre’) and Jane Austen.

But – another impression – school almost destroyed Jane Austen for Delia (as it has other authors for other people).

Pride and Prejudice we had to do at school … We did it for O level.  And, uh, the way you do it at school, you’re bored to tears by it, absolutely bored to tears by it. … Yes, we had to go back and forth over it and I got fed up with it.  But I’ve read it since and enjoyed it.  I’ve read all the others as well.

Pride and Prejudice: Mr Collins proposes

Pride and Prejudice: Mr Collins proposes

At one point in the interview, Delia is asked:

‘Were you what they describe as a bookworm?  Did you immediately take to it?’

‘Oh yes, yes,’ she replies, ‘I was one of the first in the class to do what they called silent reading.  So once I’d mastered silent reading, I just never stopped.’