Saturday, 20 January 2018

Beside the Seaside

Charmouth, December 2017

Over Christmas we were in Dorset and, as I usually do, I visited a bookshop in Bridport, one of very few remaining second-hand and antiquarian bookshops anywhere in the country. It is appropriately named Bridport Old Books, and is at 11 South Street, should you ever be down that way. It always has a wonderful stock – this time, they had a whole shelf of illustrated books by Arthur Rackham, fortunately all far too expensive for me – and I rarely come away without some unexpected treasure tucked under my arm. When the kids were small and we were on a Dorset seaside holiday, a certain Bridport toyshop was their rainy-day treat, and a visit to Bridport Old Books was mine. They may have outgrown the toyshop now – just as well, as it has recently closed – but that bookshop is still high on my to-do list.

Now, although I have generally aspired to be a "never look back" sort of guy, I'm as susceptible to nostalgia as anyone, especially when it takes me by surprise. Which it did, that same day in Bridport Old Books. Actually, "nostalgia" is the wrong word for what I experienced, but I don't know a better one. I'm talking about that rush you get when, after half a lifetime of trying to remember something important from your deep childhood – in my case, inevitably, a book, but it might equally well be a toy, or a picture, or even something off TV – you bump into it, as if it had always been waiting for you to stop by. Hello, old friend! Where have you been?

For many, many years, I have been tantalised by half a memory: a small, narrowly rectangular book, unusually printed in orange, that for some reason seemed like the secret key to some special place where I had been supremely happy. Given the resources now available on the internet, it's generally possible to triangulate a book from the flimsiest of clues; it's also a skill I have refined, professionally, over the years, and I rate myself pretty highly as a "book detective" [1]. But this one has always eluded me, mainly because the clues were so vague; I may even have been pre-literate when I last held it.

But: incredibly and unmistakably, there it was, laid out on a table, in a display of "collectable" children's books. Or, rather, there they were, as there were four of them, all different titles in Enid Blyton's "Mary Mouse" series, published by Brockhampton Press, printed in black line and orange body colour, each about 6" x 2.75", and simply stapled together along the narrow edge, with red linen tape covering the staples, like a cheque-book. It's not often that something so simple and throwaway can give such an intense rush of recognition and pleasure. But that's how it is with nostalgia: it doesn't take a Beethoven quartet to open a magic door onto childhood, merely the chime of an ice-cream van.

However, once I looked inside, I realised that although this was clearly the right format from the right publisher, these were not the right books. "My" book had trains in it, I was pretty sure. Maybe there was another one, "Mary Mouse Goes Trainspotting", perhaps, or "Mary Mouse is Enraged by Rail Privatisation"? Later, a little investigation on Google revealed the existence of another Brockhampton series by illustrator Neville Main [2], concerning Jimmy and His Engines; I'm pretty sure one of those is the secret key to some special place where I was once supremely happy. Unfortunately, that place is in the past, some sixty years ago, and even finding precisely the right key would be useless. "Never look back"? There's nowhere back there to be looking: the lock and the door and the room behind it are long gone.

But I'm happy enough to have caught this intense little flash of my own deep past, like the memory of the waves sparkling on Swanage Bay, in that exciting first glimpse of the sea on the first morning of our summer holidays, walking down to the beach. The title Jimmy at the Seaside did catch my eye... I wonder if that might have been it? It might well have been, but it might equally well have been Jimmy at the Zoo, or Jimmy Goes to a Party, or some other Brockhampton title altogether... But I think this particular tantalising quest has now been satisfied, thanks to Bridport Old Books.

Now: what about that annual bought for me to read in hospital when I had my tonsils removed around 1960, with its story about a giant pterodactyl trapped inside an iceberg that haunted my dreams for years? The truth is out there...

1. Got a book you can't find? Try me!
2. It turns out that in his long career Neville Main drew – among many others  comic strip versions of Muffin the Mule, Four Feather Falls, Fireball XL5, and the original Doctor Who strips. Anyone else remember the puppet version of Four Feather Falls on TV? It was something of a cult at my primary school!


Martin said...

Haven't popped by for a few weeks, Mike. I enjoyed this post, a great deal. Hey, you beat me to a tonsillectomy by one whole year. I only know that because, during a pre-op assessment, recently, the nurse asked if I'd had general anaesthetic before. I worked out that it was in 1961. Then a childhood memory of Winchester hospital rose up from the deep. I wish it hadn't! Your books are a much more attractive proposition.

Mike C. said...


It seemed to be a bit of a cure-all in those days, and I don't think anyone has them out much any more. Bit like wisdom teeth...

I remember mine vividly because they used to give you pre-op Ketamine in those days, and I have a very strong memory of blissfully going down the so-called "K-hole" (a bit like the opposite of Douglas Adams's thing about time travel being a bit like being drunk. Hey, what's so bad about being drunk? Ask a glass of water...). I'm sure this pre-disposed me to, um, recreational intoxication in later years...

But, yes, being in the Lister Hospital in Hitchin, what seemed a long way from home and under a late-50s regime was less than fun.


Dave Leeke said...

At least you seem to have had a better time than me at Hertford Hospital (with adenoids gone too) in, probably, 1966. After the op I was sent home and had to return that night because of an internal haemorrhage. Two weeks on what was called the "Danger List" in the men's ward because the hospital was so full left me with quite a distrust of hospitals.

By the way, in reference to H & M, "Odin's wife" was a clue in the i crossword/quiz this weekend. Due to growing up reading Thor comics I knew straight away that it was Frigga, which is a much funnier name now than then.

Mike C. said...


Yes, reaming out kids' heads and then subjecting them to hospital discipline seemed to be a common way of persuading you not to waste doctors' time with your imaginary complaints...

I always like an opportunity to offload the information that, in addition to his famous, attention-seeking sword Excalibur, King Arthur had a more self-effacing spear called Ron.