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I had friends for lunch yesterday and one of them mentioned looking for old Chalet School books in the few secondhand bookshops which are left in Dublin. It was a bit shaming to admit that I still had my collection – not only that but they weren’t lurking in an old Tayto box in the attic but actually on a shelf two feet away from my desk, along with the Jill pony books, the Trebizon series and my Noel Streatfeilds. Sentimental? Moi?

 
In many ways the Chalet School books don’t really stand up to an adult reading, but that wouldn’t stop me relaxing in a warm Radox bath with one. I learnt my first German words from them, who the Nazis were, what the Anschluss was, and that if you’ve eaten too many sweets and cakes you make yourself sick and earn a jorum of castor oil. People in the Chalet School books are always blushing furiously, stalking out of rooms, coming to an understanding of their own faults and devising their own punishments. They tend to be characterised by a single personality trait – perhaps they are hot-headed, stolid, delicate, or naturally blunt – which haunts their behaviour through the books. Flicking through them yesterday I remembered immediately the haughty Prussian girl, scorned for eating smoked bacon, the plainspoken American who used cloves of garlic instead of cloves in her apple pie, the oversensitive French girl whipping up an omelette aux fines herbes, the reasonable German with flaxen plaits forever making peace between others, and of course Joey Bettany, always doing things wholesale and given to multiple births: once she’d married her doctor (every Chaletian’s happy ending) she never stopped having triplets and twins for the rest of the series, while maintaining her girlish figure, producing a couple of bestselling books a year, living in a succession of houses filled with fresh flowers and pretty chintzes, windows flung open for the invigorating mountain air, and adopting every passing child with domestic difficulties.
 
The Chalet School was a fine idea, an addictive series and a schoolchild’s dream, offering the perfect mix of risk and adventure (hikes going wrong, casualties on a frozen lake, life-threatening coughs, opportunities to blow up the chemistry lab) against a background of an exotic kind of consistency (Kaffee und Kuchen would be served in the Speisesaal come flood, fire or World War II). And the Armada paperbacks (editions which I think are scoffed at by true followers) were lovely matching ones in bright colours, which helped. Although I’m not a proper book collector in the sense of tracking down first editions and shunning reprints, I’m a shallow sucker for a row of shining-spined Grantas, the muted elegance of the Dublin Review, or the massed banded covers of the old Penguins. Books are a comfort, even if (gasp) you don’t read them, and because you’ve a book in the shopping bag you think your careless shopping is unimpeachable, somehow, a habit no-one could criticise. But half the time I think the books are a buffer, masking something else, fragments I am shoring against my ruin, and all that jazz.
 
 
I’ve certainly destroyed this nice hardbacked copy of Peggy with my massive sticker. Not even a discreet, tastefully engraved Ex Libris, oh no. I’m shocked to see it cost 40p a good 25 years ago. I paid 50c for The Shorter Pepys in a fat Penguin Classic last weekend. Wassap with that?

 


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