When we went on holiday my dad would have a bag of books — his maximum quota from Knutsford library. Science fiction, the sea, thrillers, anything to do with the war. I had a similar back from the children’s library. My sister must have had the same. My mother had books in German and a dictionary and her letter-writing stuff.

Fire for reading beside

When we went on holiday my dad would have a bag of books — his maximum quota from Knutsford library. Science fiction, the sea, thrillers, anything to do with the war. I had a similar bag from the children’s library. My sister, who was also reading fit to bust, must have had the same. My mother had books in German and a dictionary and her letter-writing stuff.

We stayed in rented holiday cottages, self-catering. They always had a fire and places to read, which was just as well because quite apart from the fact that we were all voracious readers, it rains a lot in Wales and the Lake District, which is where we went. Anyway, even if it was sunny, we took the books to the beach.

We took several tins of cake too. My mother baked for a couple of days before we left and there was a fruit cake and sometimes more than one tin of flapjack. We ate a lot of flapjack. As I read my way through the complete works of Enid Blyton, I munched, and my mother’s baking turned into the slabs of fruitcake in the Blyton pages.

These cottages had no televisions. One had a toilet which was outside. The beds were cosy. We had hot water bottles. One of them had an amazing shelf of green Penguin murder mysteries over the fire place — which was a big open hearth. It stretched from one wall to another. It’s where I met Agatha Christie, Edmund Crispin (who also wrote poetry, by the way, and who liked Ruth Pitter), Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers. It was a feast. I never got to the end of them, though we went there several years and I probably read least two books a day. I can’t read that fast now.

I learned a painful book lesson in that cottage. It was in a remote situation in Pembrokeshire.  But the bloke who looked after (and perhaps owned) our cottage was on the other side of the bridge with his young family, and we played sometimes with those two children. The older girl was a bit older than me. Their house was pretty primitive inside: dark and messy and musty. You didn’t really feel comfortable there, but you went anyway because when you’re on holiday sometimes you want some kids to mess about with.

My birthday fell towards the end of that holiday and among my presents I got a new Puffin by Patricia Lynch. I’d adoredThe Grey Goose of Kilnevin and I was dying to read this one, but I kept it for later, like you keep good chocolate, a treat for after the holiday was over.

When we got home, I couldn’t find it anywhere. The birthday spoils were intact but the book had vanished. Mystified, I wrote to my friend Carol from across the bridge and asked her to ransack the cottage in case I had left it somewhere. No book was reported.

The following year we went back. Playing one day in Carol’s bedroom, I spotted my missing book. It was on her bookshelf. She had nicked it, presumably. I can’t remember whether I confronted her. I think I may have done because I seem to remember her telling me it was hers. And after that we weren’t friends any more.

You learn. When I was twelve I went to school with a large bar of chocolate in the top pocket of my blazer. Stupidly I forgot it was there and left it in the cloakroom instead of stashing it in my desk. I shot back after assembly to get it, and needless to say, it was gone. My form teacher, Mrs Yorke, who taught Biology and Religious Education, told me I should be consoled by the thought that some hungry child had had no breakfast and so my chocolate had gone to a good home. I was not consoled.

In the holiday book bag last week (we were away near Kingussie, reading most of the week beside a log fire), I had Stephen Fry’s Moab is my Washpot. Good read. He was one of the thieves, the boys who went through other boys’ blazers for the spoils. He wasn’t hungry, or not physically. He just wanted stuff, like we all do, but somehow he overcame the thing that stops us taking it. Like my friend did. I don’t think she was especially happy. She was tall and gangly and growing fast, and living in the middle of nowhere.

Anyway, I read a lot of stuff last week, not much of it poetry, and it was good. Kingussie is bucking the trend and has extended its second-hand bookshop. It now has rooms with open beams and carpets and lamps, and its £1.00 for a paperback and £2.00 for a hardback. Another reason to go back.

So I haven’t bought my Kindle yet. I should, I know I should. But the holiday bookbag is part of my brain. I wouldn’t know what to do without more books than I can carry. I can do without the cake, I can do without the chocolate. But not the books.

Fire for reading beside
Fire for reading beside

2 thoughts on “THE HOLIDAY BOOKBAG”

  1. Lovely holiday reading recollections, Nell, and apparently a global phenomenon amongst those fortunate enough to have a holiday cottage and love of literature. The closest I got to this kind of bliss was also the closest I ever got to the kinship/friendship holiday feeling of what I now have found is characteristic of many parts of the UK. It was a self-catering cottage on the sandy edge of a gentle blue bay on tiny Beaver Island in Michigan’s (USA) Upper Peninsula. An Irish-American family of 13 handsome children were my and my sister’s playmates. The parents owned the cottages and nearby pub (a phenomenon I’d never known: families enjoying one another, the food, and ale! Nothing at all like the “bars” in the USA). These infinite joys didn’t slow my reading, though, with my “nose in a book,” as my mother used to say.

  2. Oh YES! Patricia Lynch: ‘The turf-cutter’s donkey’, etc. How I loved those books. One of the great advantages of having a husband who won’t fly is that we always go on hols by car which allows lots more books than I can ever hope to read. But the fear of running out is ENORMOUS.
    Our family holidays were every two years in a jerry-built bungalow on the Merionedd coast. We went by train and Mum packed a trunk with clothes, books and tins of corned beef and fruit (it was late ’40s, early ’50s), which was sent on ahead to be picked up from the station by Jones the Coal and delivered to us.
    It was sad to read of your betrayal, though.

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