Some things never change - like the books in holiday cottages: Ian McMillan

I’m recently back from a lovely week in a cottage by the sea, and of course the cottage had all the things I always hope to find in my holiday accommodation. I’m not talking about hot tubs or espresso makers; no, I prefer a more old-fashioned kind of cottage with things like novelty cruet sets (these were in the shape of two lighthouses), games of Trivial Pursuit in a cupboard, a lemon squeezer and, of course, all the books that, when you open them, shower you with sand.

Ian McMillan.

My wife and I have been visiting this particular cottage on the Northumbrian coast for years and there’s always been a copy of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Voice of the Heart in a little cupboard next to the fireplace. It’s a well-thumbed copy and I imagine it’s been read time and time again. Or maybe it hasn’t; I have to admit that over the years the book hasn’t looked any different. It looked a bit battered when I first saw it and it looks a bit battered now.

There’s a Jackie Collins book called Lucky, and a Tom Clancy one called Net Force and I’m sure I’ve seen those two books in every cottage I’ve ever stayed in, whether it’s in the midge-kingdom of the Highlands of Scotland, or down among the subtle watercolour evenings of East Anglia.

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And of course I’m tempted, every time I visit that particular cottage, to take one of the books home and swap it for a different book at the next cottage I stay at, so that the books make their snail-like way across the country, almost passing each other on B-roads or down country lanes with grass up the middle.

Or (and this is a more radical idea) I could take the Tom Clancy book and swap it for the very same Tom Clancy book at the next cottage I found it in. Now that would be a plan! Britain’s beauty spots mapped out in Tom Clancy novels!

In the place we stayed at recently there was a Peter May book called, presciently, Lockdown, and there was a book by Cynthia Harnett called Ring Out Bow Bells! that began in a gently lyrical way: “Nan sat on the top of the warehouse steps, her chin in her hands, looking out over London’s river…’” and part of me wanted to alter it so that it read “Nan sat in the holiday cottage, her book in her hands, a copy of Ring Out Bow Bells! by Cynthia Harnett…” but that would be a very strange thing to find.

In the Barbara Taylor Bradford book there was a phone number written in pencil on the title page and I was very tempted to ring it. I imagine the phone ringing in a vast and echoing house. Someone takes ages to come to the phone. A quavering voice answers. I try to sound reassuring and I say: “Hello; I’ve found your Barbara Taylor Bradford book in a cottage in Northumberland” and the voice will say “Can you send it back, with the Tom Clancy and the novelty cruet set?”

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Thank you

James Mitchinson