Magazine article The Spectator

'Too Marvellous for Words: The Real Mallory Towers Life', by Julie Welch - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Too Marvellous for Words: The Real Mallory Towers Life', by Julie Welch - Review

Article excerpt

It's not often that books make me laugh aloud. Even books I'm officially finding funny often do no more than make me smile, or emit a sharp soundless puff of breath from the nostrils. But this book made me guffaw. Normally, only P. G. Wodehouse has that effect.

It's tragicomedy, really. Julie Welch's subject is a ripe one for tragicomedy, as I should know, having written on it myself: life inside girls' boarding schools -- or in this case, life inside Felixstowe College (founded 1929, closed down 1994) to which Welch went in the early 1960s, and which shaped her whole being to such an extent that she's convinced her gravestone will read 'Here lies Julie Welch (R)' -- Ridley being the house she was in, as opposed to Cranmer, Latimer or Tyndale.

Illuminating every comic detail is its dark shadow -- some crazed, frustrated matron or housemistress with 'blackened, seaweedy hair', or some kind of difficult home life. Julie's own father (whose mistress usurped her mother and lived with them) was once so drunk when Julie went home that he thought their dog, Rebel, was a cushion and tried to plump him up.

The very fact that Welch has total recall of every detail of school life -- including what it was like to have a fire practice using the Abseil Davy Descender Automatic Fire Escape ('you had to push yourself away from the wall with one hand so you didn't get skinned by Ridley's pebbledash') -- just goes to show what a deep impression those crazy establishments made on girls. And then there was the matron with a lisp who stood at the top of the staircase waving a red cloth and crying: 'I'm the fire, I'm the fire: go down the other thstairth.' Nothing, for girls who have lived in these establishments, is ever quite as vivid again, and the friendships forged in them are unbreakable.

There are about three comic gems per page. They gather pace when Welch recounts the school train journey from Liverpool Street on her first day as a new girl - she notices the sign saying 'HARWICH FOR THE CONTINENT', under which someone has scrawled 'FRINTON FOR THE INCONTINENT'. A girl called Cherry comes into the carriage and says, 'The bust exercises were a complete failure. I still haven't got any bosoms.'

From then on, we enter the behind-closed-doors world of Felixstowe College, where the girls are made to wear so many layers (underpants, bloomers, vests) that they are 'living games of pass the parcel'. …

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