Sophia Money-Coutts: ‘Books took me away from my parents’ divorce and school unhappiness’

I blame this book for the crush I later developed on Prince William, and the ­conviction held until I was much too old (around 16 or 17) that I would marry him. It was a fanciful thought but then isn’t one of the great joys of a book its ability to make us fantasise? I couldn’t have articulated that as a young child. All I knew is that I loved reading as a way of escape. Books took me away from my parents’ divorce and unhappiness at school. I was furiously jealous of Eloise for living in a hotel with her pug and turtle. I longed for a flying broomstick like Mildred Hubble’s in The Worst Witch and I hated that simpering, hair-brushing obsessive Gwendoline in Malory Towers.

A writer friend who’s recently published a contemporary novel set in a Swiss boarding school tells me that boarding stories are ­particularly popular with children because they’re fantasy worlds without parents but which remain safe (give or take the odd Voldemort). Thanks to Malory Towers, my second ambition in life, after marrying Prince William, was to have a midnight feast.

My bedside table was mostly piled with old-fashioned books that had belonged to my mother before me; copies of Just William, the pages yellow and the hard, red covers falling off.

There were copies of various Famous Five adventures on there, too. I was a tubby kid who, according to one member of my family, “ate” my way through the divorce wranglings, so Enid Blyton’s picnics – pork pies, jam tarts and Aunt Fanny’s scones – were a happy distraction. Although how come she let her fictional children get drunk? It was something else I only realised embarrassingly late on in life: ginger beer isn’t alcoholic. Still, although there was war going on between my parents and their solicitors, at least it wasn’t actual war.

Young William had it much worse in Goodnight Mister Tom, another of my favourites from back then. The idea of sewing ­anyone into their vest and pants transfixed and horrified me in equal measure – how did he go to the loo?

By the time I was at boarding school myself, I’d developed a crush to rival Prince William: Bill Bryson. A middle-aged, whiskery American might seem a strange choice for a teenage girl from the Home Counties but I’d fallen in love with his writing.

First with his story of travelling around Britain, Notes From A Small Island, hooked from the start by his tale of being marched to the lavatory by his furious landlady at a Dover B&B and shown a small floater which hadn’t flushed away. I read every book of his after that, laughing in my ­dormitory to Bill’s stories (he won’t mind if I call him Bill) about Australia, about walking the Appalachian Trail in America with his unfit friend Stephen Katz, about the long car journeys of his youth in America.

His sense of humour always cheered me up, as it does now, and there’s always a copy of one of his books beside my bed for fretful 3am moments.

When little girls play at being adult, they dress up in their mother’s heels and lipstick. In an effort to seem grown-up, it was around this time that I also started sliding Mum’s thrillers off the bookshelves at home and carting them back to school.

While girls around me discussed Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, I lay in bed reading Nicci French and Minette Walters novels, feeling snootily superior, and the world of horse-racing seemed far more dastardly than I’d ever imagined thanks to Dick Francis.

I was always very thick about who the murderer was in these books, never working it out until the last page and often still quite confused about the plot even then.

But, again, these books presented radically different landscapes to the one I knew. How liberating to be stuck inside the walls of a Home Counties boarding school yet reading about a gangland murder in Glasgow, at least until our Portuguese matron waddled along to the dormitory and shouted: “Lights out!”

Later, my friends and I graduated to racy novels to make up for none of us having real boyfriends. One of those didn’t materialise until long after I’d left school, so I comforted myself with Jackie Collins, early Jilly Coopers (the likes of Prudence, Harriet and Octavia), and Louise Bagshawe’s Tall Poppies.

I remember being very confused by a love scene in The Horse Whisperer where the whisperer himself licks Annie’s armpit hair.

This didn’t sound very sanitary at all. But for a chaste teenager at an all-girls’ boarding school, these books offered me hope that one day – one day! – I might fall in love. A word of support, on this note, for Mills & Boon novels. I didn’t read them when younger, but have recently bought a big pile from eBay, all published in the 1970s, as research for my next novel.

The heroes have strong ­jawlines and luxuriant eyebrows; the heroines mostly “striking blue eyes” and “full” mouths, but they’re wonderful, romantic escapism. Book snobbery is abominable. Read ­whatever gives you pleasure, whether that’s Mills & Boon or the Bible.

These days my tastes are still very much dictated by my mood. If I’m feeling low, it’ll be PG Wodehouse or my old friend Bill Bryson. Opening one of their books is the equivalent to slipping into a bath – cosy and familiar. They’ve been my staples during lockdown, although, like many people, I’ve struggled to concentrate in the past few months and my reading pace has slowed.

In March, as a present to myself, I bought a Kindle since we couldn’t get to physical bookshops. And although I grew to love it (the new ones are waterproof which makes reading in the bath a lot easier – no crinkly pages), as soon as book shops were opened again, I hurried back to John Sandoe in Chelsea to pick up a ­couple of recent releases.

It’s a wonderfully higgledy-piggledy independent shop with books piled to the ceiling and where I worked for a week last year to research my new novel, The Wish List. The difficult moments of life have always been lifted by books, so I wanted to pay homage to where they came from. Does visiting a bookshop ever get less exciting? In 30 odd years, it hasn’t for me. I love the buzzy anticipation of stepping into one, the thrill at the idea of all those worlds waiting on their shelves, the sensation of carrying home one or two (or three or four) new reads in your bag.

I spent a joyful week working in the Chelsea shop albeit as the most useless ­assistant who ever lived.

Sloane customers would ask for a guide to the Galapagos or Puglia and I’d have to refer them to a more experienced sales person.

Although in a scene that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Notting Hill, one man did actually come in and ask for a John Grisham and I was able to point him upstairs to the thrillers section. Mostly, I sat and observed customers browsing quietly, sometimes for hours. That’s one of the loveliest things about a bookshop: no assistant ever comes up and asks, “Would you like to try it on?”

I hope I’ve done justice to bookshops with The Wish List. If books have helped you in recent months, as they have me throughout life, then do visit a bookshop in support if you can. The world would be a much darker place without them.

The Wish List by Sophia Money-Coutts (Harper Collins, £12.99). To order your copy with free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop of 01872 562310 or online at Delivery 10-14 days.

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