In a Christmas Day broadcast in 1947, he recalled how his nanny, Hannah Wallis, a simple and loving soul, had bought him a toy for a present, a toy which he wanted and for which she’d had to save up. In the excitement of unpacking his stocking, he trod on it and broke it. He didn’t let on, hiding the debris in his room, saying nothing to her lest he should hurt her feelings. Later, [after] Hannah tidied his room, he found the broken pieces put in the waste paper basket. Neither of them ever mentioned it. It’s a good job childhood is at the beginning of our lives; we’d never survive it if it were in the middle.

This is an episode from the childhood of John Betjeman, recounted in Alan Bennett’s Poetry in Motion. The sentiment of his last sentence is absolutely spot-on. I am accustomed to think of myself as having been a sensitive child, but as an adult there are so many more tiny details I notice which, if I were more emotionally demonstrative, would make me collapse in tears.

A case in point: last week I took delivery of an order of four toner cartridges for a printer at work. On unpacking them, my colleague discovered a bag of Maltesers at the bottom of the box. How kind of them, was my first reaction. Then she suggested that they had probably been left behind accidentally by the driver. Yes, that’s it, I thought. Some poor man somewhere, having completed his morning round of deliveries, has just turned to his passenger seat to look for the snack he bought from the newsagent that morning, and has found nothing there. Why should I feel such a melancholic sadness at this (on the face of it) inconsequential separation? It’s not as if the man’s lost his son or daughter. And it’s not just because I hold chocolate in such high esteem either, though if the story has a moral it’s clearly that one should eat all chocolate immediately, preferably before leaving the shop. I think my consciousness that the smallest thing can have the greatest effect may be relevant.

Later, I catalogued a book we had bought. This one was unusual in that it had been dedicated by the author:

On your birthday, with
best wishes and the encouragement
to pursue your interests in Middle
East studies.

[name redacted]
31 March 2004

Silly to get worked up about it, really. Maybe the author wouldn’t care that this book had ended up in a library. How can one be sure? But 2004 isn’t so long ago, and I wondered what had happened in the meantime to make the book surplus to requirements. Perhaps Rebecca died – or her interest in the Middle East did. Or maybe all she wanted for her birthday was a packet of Maltesers.


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8 Responses to “Fragility/Maltesers”

  1. MikeAlx Says:

    I fear it requires a proper *box* of maltesers to make me at all nostalgic. The unusually proportioned box was the defining characteristic of maltesers in my early childhood – in its modest way, as special as the admittedly more flamboyant prism-shape of the toblerone.

    BTW, given what they fleece you for toner cartridges these days, I’d have thought a few items of free confectionery ought to be the least they could do!

  2. Gareth Says:

    They were cheap reconditioned ones, but still obscenely expensive for a bit of powder inside a plastic tube. I’m not sure what’s happened to the Maltesers, incidentally. I was going to take them surreptitiously, but another librarian or a light-fingered student may have beaten me to it. I’ll have a look around tomorrow.

    I too have a greater nostalgia for the box than for the packet. Are the boxes the same size now as they were in your childhood, Mike, or have they shrunk like all other confectionery packaging? It may be difficult to be certain, with the change in perspective from childhood to adulthood.

  3. Mike A Says:

    Well everything seemed bigger when I was 4, but (unless memory deceives me) I was thinking of a box format that’s actually smaller than the boxes you get now. I think it was this box that the packets replaced (I don’t recall seeing maltesers in packets until later). This box stood upright with a push-in flap on the narrow side – a bit like an overgrown Payne’s Poppets box.

  4. Gareth Says:

    Oh, that sounds excellent. I’m sure there would be a market for the smaller box if they were revived today.

  5. crosseyedpianist Says:

    Aah the box of Maltesers, a staple at the theatre or cinema as a child!

    In the days when I worked in an office (way back when….), the stationery supplier we used would regularly add a complimentary box of chocs or biscuits, or some nice ground coffee to the order. Probably a way of encouraging us to re-order. Printers, on the other hand, would send vast sides of smoked salmon, crates of Cava, and Belgian chocolates to persuade us to place more work with them. It was a very democractic office, and so such treats were always shared equally amongst the staff (though I am sure Ursula always took one too many chocolates…..)

  6. Gareth Says:

    I won’t feel concerned, then. It was probably just a ploy to ensure our future custom. But I am worried about the whereabouts of the Maltesers. They are painfully notable by their absence.

  7. crosseyedpianist Says:

    Is there an Ursula in your office? Maybe she ate them…..

  8. Gareth Says:

    Not by name, but perhaps there is someone who is an Ursula in spirit.

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