My big reunion was nearly here. Forty-four years is a long time apart. But now at long last, the decades were about to be rolled back and I would soon be able hold and cherish an old love of mine, once again..
But there would be no undignified public wailing on show, because, unlike TV programmes such as Long Lost Family, this would be a private affair. No crying, prying-eyed live audience and compassionate TV host in tow. Just me alone, at home, finger-drumming and waiting..
Then, a rattle at the front door and suddenly all the waiting was over.
I had been concerned that it might not fit through the letterbox, but the dull thud proved otherwise. I picked up the package and made a careful tear in the brown wrapping to get my first glimpse for years, of that once, oh so familiar title. Ahh..
The Founding Of Evil Hold School
I must have been no more than 9 or 10 years old the last time I’d held a copy of this, one of my most favouritest of all books at that time. I removed the rest of the packaging and ran a finger across the dust jacket.
I didn’t have to read the sleeve notes to know that it was a terrible tale of two child-hating schoolmasters who start up their own boarding school, for the sole purposes of being generally wretched and beastly to the pupils and, eh.. hmm..?
Despite my boyhood fascination with the story, it seems that my memory had retained little else other than the basic premise and the names of the two main protagonists. They were Dr Grimly-Feindish and, surely one of, if not the best villain names in all of fiction, Mr Malcolm Dredge-Strangler.
By Nikolai Tolstoy
The author’s name hadn’t meant much back then, what with me being 9 and not too familiar with the Russian classics and all, (no change there then) and it was only years later, whilst trying to track down this, long since out of print work, that I’d learned that Nikolai is a distant cousin of Leo, another Tolstoy, the one who gave us War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
Drawings by Robin Jacques
The cover illustration, showing the schoolmasters’ ugly old gnarled features, scowling down upon a small boy, who’s hiding a catapult behind his back, took me instantly back to my childhood. The illustrator was a regular contributor to children’s literature and a skilled exponent of the art of Stippling, a technique he’d applied in this book. He also happened to be the brother of comedy actress and Carry On films regular, Hattie Jacques.
As promised by the seller, my online purchase looked to be in good nick, and a quick inspection of the inside the cover confirmed, as the listing had stated, that it was an ex-library copy. West Riding County Library, in Wakefield, to be exact. West Riding County, a reminder that my native Yorkshire had once been sub-divided into it’s three historical ‘thridings’
And yes, there was the library’s stamp and, written by hand, the book’s last ever ‘return by’ date: Jun 1973, which just happened to be the year before those ancient Yorkshire boundaries would be reorganized into the ‘new counties’ of today.
I set the hardback down on a shelf, looking forward to catching up with it later then went about my day. At one point my thoughts returned to my new ‘old’ book and I remembered that I had initially heard it being read on that most brilliant and simply formatted of children’s TV programmes, Jackanory.
For those not familiar with the programme, every tea time, for a week, Mon-Fri, a famous actor would read a serialised story, doing all the voices, sometimes straight to camera, sometimes over stills of the book’s illustrations. Then the following week, another book, a different actor. It was a dead simple, dead effective and entertaining way of getting kids interested in books.
The storyteller for The Founding of Evil Hold School had been the late great Kenneth Williams, another Carry On regular, whose oft impersonated ”Ooh matron” he had famously delivered to Hattie Jacques, whose brother, as I mentioned earlier, had illustrated the book. Neat. I like those little trivial links.
I recall being enthralled, tea on my lap, as Williams’ snide nasal tones drew me in, and made me want to read the story again myself. And so, off I’d trotted with my mum to Sheffield City Library , (in the then, West Riding of Yorkshire), where I proceeded to borrow, read, renew and re-read the book several times over. But I had never actually owned my own copy. Until now…
And so to bed, and my much-anticipated re-acquaintance with The Founding of Evil Hold School. I opened the book, and began gazing upon sentences that I had not gazed upon for the best part of half a century. But it stank.
I don’t mean that plot or the writing style was bad. I mean it literally stank. The pages honked something awful. Like a smelly old dog who’d been rolling around in bin juice, with a top note of rotten-eggy, school laboratory whiff. Most unpleasant. And my fingers smelled of it now, too.
I began to wonder where exactly this book had been residing these past years, to have become imbued with such foulness. Had there been, I wondered, in the ‘thridings’ of Yorkshire, in June 1973, a child who had returned this book to the library having undergone a series of misfortunes on the way, involving dirty old dogs and bin juice? And then, after the boundary changes, maybe a new child-unfreindly Library manager had it banished to the vaults, lest it caused olfactory offence to the good folk of the ‘new counties’ of Yorkshire..I managed a chapter and a half before dropping it down by the side of the bed.
A quick Google the following day elicited several suggested methods for getting bad pongs out of old books. Who knew? Indeed, it seems that there are many others out there, asking for help with refreshing their aged and rank volumes. And there’s no shortage of tips involving all manner of stuff. Cornflour, vinegar, newspaper, talcum powder, and plastic bags are all recommended and sworn by. Not all at once, I hasten to add.
In the end, time did the trick. The book gradually adapted to it’s new home, and I eventually re-read and enjoyed it again.
There is however a slightly sour footnote to my story, as I subsequently learned that Nikolai Tolstoy, author of my treasured childhood story, joined UKIP in 1996 and stood for election for them in 2010.
Now that really does stink..