Philipa Coughlan’s Ten Books and Why I Acquired Them

Article published on March 9, 2018.

1. From childhood I still have the well-thumbed set of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit books published by F Warne & Co Ltd. My favourite was The Tale of Ginger & Pickles. Potter’s beautiful illustrations entranced me way before I could even read but listened to my mother at bedtime. In the story, Ginger and Pickles have a shop “just the right size for dolls”. Strangely Ginger was a yellow tom-cat and Pickles was a terrier. But as shop owners they seemed to rub along quite nicely! They also gave unlimited credit but had no money anyway, especially when Pickles had to buy his dog licence and they receive a visit from the police. Sadly, the shop had to close. Ginger ended up living in a warren and Pickles worked as a gamekeeper. Eventually Sally Henny Penny takes it over as a co-operative jumble – but does insist on being paid cash! I loved playing shops myself and throughout life have loved ginger cats too!

2. My mother was given a beautiful set of Charles Dickens’ books by her father. Inside each he has written “To Margaret Xmas 1945.” I never knew my grandfather James Jeffries, but this wonderful red leather-bound set links me to him as well as to my mother, who died when I was only 15 years old. We shared a love of literature. Some books contain illustrations by the famous Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), although my favourite A Christmas Carol was illustrated by John Leech. I have always loved this ghost story, particularly the scene at Mr Fezziwig’s Ball.

3. Good Housekeeping – Cooking for Today was given to me by my mother. I quite liked Domestic Science (as it was then called at school) and even remember the teacher, a rather strict Mrs Woods. My edition is falling apart and was published in 1973. Seeing Mary Berry on her shows reminds me of this book, which has sections like For the Hostess, Hot and Midnight Suppers and What went wrong? Some of the photos of items I did try to make are like old friends. The section on Parties for Teenagers which although featuring hamburgers, hot dogs and even ‘white wine cup’ wouldn’t I think cut it with teenagers today!

4. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. I studied this at school, but it didn’t deter a love for the book and later the brilliant film version starring Richard Attenborough as Pinkie. Living in Norfolk, where although the coast and seaside were stunning if at that time boring, the gangs, illicit sex and excitement of Brighton seaside resort seemed wonderful. I later lived in Sussex for 30 years and often went to Brighton, soaking up the streets and seafront and wondering if I’d come across Kolley Kibber and his prize winning cards. It is, as Ian McEwan says, ‘for someone aged 13… a serious novel that could be an exciting novel.’

5. The Dubliners by James Joyce will be travelling with me when I head to Ireland this year. Again, studied at school, I think because it was a set of short stories, it was easier to undertake than any other Joyce offerings at the time. My favourite story The Dead is often seen as ‘the perfect short story’ and has featured on TV and in film. Finished in 1905 by Joyce it took nearly a decade before someone would publish it, yet it is the most accessible of all his work and brilliantly describes Dublin and so many of its residents. Just as Joyce and his family had experienced poverty and movement to the less salubrious parts of the city, many of the characters in the stories, with unflinching realism, show the reader the underbelly of the magnificent Georgian facades. I married an Irishman and now return to his hometown grave with his sons. However, there is always time to spend in Dublin and soak up the streets so wonderfully described in Joyce’s masterpiece.

6. The recent TV adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent was excellent. I decided to go back and read the novel which had featured in my English classes and teenage bookshelf. Verloc (acted superbly by Toby Jones) is a humble, somewhat annoying shopkeeper in Victorian London and is secretly acting as a spy for the Russian government. Anarchy, bombs, threats and Soviet spies on our streets? Nothing much changes it seems.

7. As a young girl I went through a phase of loving horses. Until I fell off one and made the mistake of never getting back in the saddle. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell was of course a favourite. Especially when I found out that she was born in Norfolk (where I lived) and the tragic circumstances of her life, facets which it seemed to me, would be ideal to be a famous writer. She had suffered with a crippling bone disease and by her thirties could only get about outside in a pony cart. Anna had been born into a Quaker family and loved animals and this was the first book I read where the author got into the mind of an animal. Beauty has a wonderful life but then discovers the cruelty of some humans against animals.

8. When I was studying for my MA in Literature as a mature student, I met a professor who was an expert on the life of Lewis Carroll. I had vaguely known about the dodgy liking Charles Dodgson had for young girls when he photographed them in his studios (often in Eastbourne), but I learnt a lot more about the writer and the real Alice Liddell upon whom the character of Alice in Wonderland was based. I never really got to grips with the fantasy of the book and had a love/hate relationship with the whole story. Weirdly, I particularly liked the wicked Queen of Hearts chopping off heads and longed to hold Mad Hatter Tea Parties. Once again, my very favourite character was the slightly sinister cat!

9. Asterix by Rene Goscinny (writer) and Albert Uderzo (illustrator) was my favourite comic book character. So much to learn about history with Gauls, Goths, Romans and Egyptians and funny, larger than life characters! Apart from Jackie I rarely had much to do with comics or magazines but found for my sons they were a great way to encourage reading when books just lie untouched!

10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald has the most wonderful ending of any book I know. The narrator Nick is now alone after being immersed in the extravagant, but deadly worlds of Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan and the scary all-seeing eyes of Doctor T.G. Eckleburg on advertising hoardings. I re-read this every year and love it from beginning to end. Is there hope? Gatsby thought so… ”Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter-tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…and one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” I’d quite like it read at my funeral!

Philipa Coughlan
March 2018

You can submit your own Ten Books and Why I Acquired Them list here.

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