Sunday, December 12, 2010

An old friend rediscovered

Have you ever spent years, on and off, looking for something, becoming convinced that a malevolent guest has nicked it, or that you somehow never had it in your house in the first place, and then discovered it lurking in plain view on the bookshelf where it ought to have been all along? No. Must just be me then. The book in the picture has eluded me for ages, and now there it lies. And why would you care, do I hear you ask? Therein lies my tale - or part of it anyway.

I grew up reading this book, this very edition. It's old (published in 1937), the cloth and card cover is frayed and faded, the pages yellowing at the edges. It has a Glasgow Corporation Education Department stamp in it, but I never took it from a school - it must have been one of the many books brought home by my father to meet my insatiable demands for reading material in the days when I was always ill (and therefore stuck in bed) and devoured print voraciously. My most vivid memory is of lying propped up on one arm in bed in the tiny maid's room where I used to sleep (see post about winter, below) early on a Sunday morning, reading this and eating Pontefract Cakes. (I know - liquorice before breakfast. But it pins it down as a Sunday, for I was only allowed to buy sweets on a Saturday) The room in which I was reading means I was not yet 10 years old, for we moved house when I was 10.

So here I am, reading Conan Doyle's Sir Nigel and its prequel, The White Company (set in the period after Sir Nigel but written first) not once, but several times, in my childhood. My relatively early childhood - probably eight at the first reading. I remember that I found Sir Nigel an easier read, but that may have been the size of the print - my copy of The White Company belonged to my mother, and was printed in 1930. But having just found it, I'm reading Sir Nigel again - and marvelling. For a start, I realise how much historical knowledge I picked up from these books - and the reader isn't spared the details, or the long description, or the mediaeval ballad sung by the hero. But the main boggle is reserved for the language. Here's a wee sample:
"I am no subject of yours, proud Abbot!" he cried at last. "My house has ever been vavasor to the king. I deny the power of you and your court to lay sentence upon me. Punish these your own monks, who whimper at your frown, but do not dare to lay your hand upon him who fears you not, for he is a free man, and the peer of any save only the king himself."

No wonder I grew up with a grasp of English that I never found in my pupils. "These your own monks"! Wow! And the complexity of the syntax - and I never questioned, never faltered, for I was caught up in the story and had already fallen for Nigel - and I'm only on page 54. And randomly, from page 307, I find the sentence: "Then it was he that I heard behind us". Not much chance of mixing up subjects and objects and the anomaly of the verb "to be" after that lot, was there?

I could go on, but life calls. I must just point out that what sent me looking for this was a summer holiday in the early '90s, in Benodet on the coast of Brittany. A wet day sent us driving inland in search of the sun. We found it - in Josselin. And the name tweaked at my memory, and sent me to the Michelin guide. Sure enough, the monument to the Bataille des Trentes - if you've looked up the first link, to Wikipedia, you'll find out about this - was close by. Actually it took some finding, being stuck between two bits of motorway down a narrow lane, but it was there, and I had never really known it was real. We looked, we came home, and I went hunting the book. I couldn't find it. I don't know why or how it has returned to my shelves, but I am glad to see it.

Right glad, in fact - the language is getting to me.


  1. It is not you. It is inanimate objects: they are nothing of the kind. They move mysteriously from place to place, and have the power to become invisible when you look for them.

    I once spent four months looking for a large pile of photographs, only to find them where I had first looked. They had not been there the first time. I know it. They had moved silently while I was searching, keeping one pile ahead of me, then moving back to where I had already been.

    I'm not paranoid, you know. Teaspoons do the same: there is always one left in the basin after you have washed and dried the rest. Items of underwear, too, have the power to turn themselves inside out in the washing machine. Books, as you have found, move about during the night and end up where they have no right to be. Where is my vocal score of Finian's Rainbow, for example. I know I've had it since 1982. Where is it now? I appeal to it to reveal itself.

    This is getting too much for me.....

  2. Catalogue them with their location and keep it updated!!