Thursday, July 16, 2015

2015 Summer Library Series: Cigarettes and Astrid Lindgren by Regi Claire

Welcome back! It's the third Thursday of July and time for the third reflection in the 2015 Summer Library Series.  This summer's season began in Philadelphia, travelled through the rural towns of Washington, and now crosses over to Switzerland.  Please enjoy this memory by author Regi Claire, who takes us into her childhood by way of a small school's attic library.

Primarschule Mūnchwilen,
Photo by Roland Zumbuehl
Cigarettes and Astrid Lindgren
by Regi Claire

Regi Claire as a child,
Used with author's permission
When I was eight, I read a whole library. A library? Yes. Housed in a small attic room with a combed ceiling, up a steep flight of wooden stairs from the stone-flagged second floor of my village primary school. But why the sink and cupboards? Why the thick cigarette smoke? Well, the library must have been an afterthought. 
        First and foremost, the room was for the staff. The table was always littered with debris after the teachers' mid-morning break: full ashtrays, empty cups, a coffee pot, milk jug, spilt sugar  and, best of all, a plate of leftover cookies. Out of the whole week, Saturdays were the only days we kids, or at least a couple of us, were allowed into that smoky sanctum. And, boy, didn’t we fight for it!
        Picture the little girl then, with her straight hair and almost-straight frock, dashing off her arithmetic exercises extra-quick to be eligible for the cookies  and the books that would make her head reel with magic. Luckily, my maths skills were up to scratch. ‘Off you go, Regula (the tedious version of my name). And you too, Karoline.’
         Generally it was girls who got chosen  probably because our hands were marginally cleaner… You didn’t think we were sent upstairs simply to have fun, did you? Pleasures are usually dampened by duties, in our case by soap suds. The water, which our teacher would run into the sink before leaving us to do the washing-up, was so hot that when you plunged in your hands they came out looking boiled. At least this made us feel grown up.
        The school library consisted of two long shelves above the counter and sink. And so, after tidying away the dried cups, spoons and saucers and polishing off the last of the cookies, we would climb the short ladder to check out the books. We loved fantasy, adventure and romance. Authors such as Astrid Lindgren, Ottfried Preussler, Erich Kästner, Klaus Held, Lisa Tetzner and Federica de Cesco were among our favourites. We knew we didn’t have much time before the teacher returned to take us back to the classroom, but for the few minutes up on that ladder under the eaves, choosing our booty, we were the happiest schoolkids on earth.
        That was how, to my mind, dish-washing became synonymous with libraries and cookies. These days my husband reads to me while I plunge my hands into the suds after dinner. By now we must have shared close to two hundred books  far too many to fit into that little library at my old primary school!

Regi Claire grew up in Switzerland and now lives in Scotland. She speaks four languages and is the author of four books of fiction, all written in English: Inside~Outside (1998), The Beauty Room (2002), Fighting It (2009), and The Waiting (2012). She has twice been shortlisted for a Saltire
Regi Claire,
photograph by Mike Knowles

Scottish Book of the Year award. One of her stories was selected for Best British Short Stories 2013. A former Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, she is now a newly appointed Royal Literary Fund Lector for Reading Round Scotland. She is married to poet and novelist Ron Butlin. You can read several of her stories online, such as "The Tasting" and "Fighting It." To learn more about her and her work, please visit

Books by authors in the Summer Library Series will link directly to author-friendly sites, such as the press itself or to the international library search engine, Please support small publishers, independent bookstores, and our libraries.