It dawned on me recently that my top three favourite books are my top three for a reason. Sure, they’re brilliantly written and one definitely counts as a modern classic, but the real reason I love them is because parts of my life are in them. I know that sounds a wee bit fanciful, but let me explain …
Sarah Joins the WRAF by Shirley Darbyshire: When I was a kid in the late 1970s, I used to read my mum’s old copy. First published in 1955, Mum’s copy had long lost its dust jacket but had obviously been well read by her. She was 12 years old in 1955 and I suspect she received it as a Christmas or birthday present. I lost count how many times I read it growing up, but enough times to know the story inside out. By my early teens, I also knew that I was set on a career in the WRAF myself (not specifically because of this book, but because I’m from an Air Force family. It’s what we do). Sarah Joins the WRAF did help to settle on which branch I would work in, though. In those days, of course, women could not work in frontline roles. Sarah had become a Storewoman; And like her, I became a Supplier (also known, in somewhat a derogatory fashion, as a Blanket Stacker), although the branch was later renamed to truly reflect the nature of the work and we became known as Logisticians.
To Serve them All My Days by R. F. Dangerfield: I first became aware of this novel in 1980 when the BBC dramatized it over a whopping thirteen episodes. Telling the story of a shell-shocked Army officer, David Powlett-Jones, who in 1918 is employed as a History teacher at Bamfylde, a boarding school in Devon, we follow his life as it focuses on how Britain came to terms with the turmoil of the Great War, the General Strike, socialism and the formation of the National Government in particular. How does my life run parallel? After leaving the Royal Air Force, I worked as a boarding school Housemistress for a number of years. And just like PJ, I was asked to write a character reference for a boy who was, rather unfairly I thought, facing the prospect of exclusion. In PJ’s case, he “began to write, reflecting as he did so that he had never improved on ‘Moderate’ in any report he had compiled of Hislop, King of the Lump.” The reference I wrote began, “Although X is boisterous and mischievous, his actions are usually the result of not being thought through beforehand and never designed to cause hurt or upset …” He was excluded. And later that academic year, asked to leave. Ahem.
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute: This is top of my all time favourite books list. How can you not love this story? I read Mum’s copy when I was a teenager and even selected a passage to read aloud in Miss Mitchell’s 4th Form English class during my ‘O’ Levels.
“… Darkness was closing down in my London sitting-room, the early darkness of a stormy afternoon. The rain still beat upon the window. The girl sat staring into the fire, immersed in her sad memories. “They crucified him, “she said quietly. “They took us all down to Kuantan and they nailed his hands to a tree and beat him to death. They kept us there and made us look on while they did it …” Mum’s copy was so old, and read by me so many times, that it sadly fell apart. I currently own five copies of A Town Like Alice, including one that spent time in a library in Kuala Lumpur. But where’s the parallel to my own life? The first business Jean Paget opened in Willstown was an ice-cream parlour. When The Brainy One and arrived in Australia as part of our round-the-world trip in late 2005, we visited the family of Mum’s close friend and we found the daughter working a shift in the family-owned ice-cream parlour.
Can you find your life in a favourite novel?