Happy then, and happy ever after: Nicholas Tucker explores what makes grown people pay pounds 3,000 for a copy of Peter Rabbit

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ALL OVER Britain a few consenting adults are meeting in small groups to talk about and exchange the special literature of their choice. When perused in public, their books are sometimes covered in brown paper so as not to excite comment. Indeed, one reason why people join these societies is the relief they feel when they discover others who share the same unusual tastes.

Those involved in this semi-secret world are generally willing to talk about it to anyone who shows reasonable sympathy - rather than disbelief or mockery - at the spectacle of adult readers still helplessly caught up in . . . the literature of their youth. For we are talking here about those literary associations that celebrate not the great and good, but children's authors who were rarely taken seriously in their day and are treated even less seriously now.

All this nostalgia can have a hard-headed aspect. Collecting children's books is a growing business. A first privately printed edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit could set you back pounds 3,000; The Hobbit (1937) would cost about pounds 2,000. Even first editions of a prolific best-

seller such as Enid Blyton can go for pounds 40, so difficult is it to find copies that do not bear witness to the destructive love of their original young owners. Drawings, personal inscriptions and addresses ending with 'The Universe, Outer Space' may have been fun at the time, but prove irritating to dealers now.

Before any literary association can really get going, people must have not only a general desire to swap books, but also some additional spark. Take the case of Violet Needham (1876-1967). Her standard fare was children's Ruritanian romance set in a world far removed from the reality of 1940, when she started writing. Her rich fantasies were not highly rated at the time and are almost entirely ignored by standard reference books now, but they nevertheless inspire a small, beleaguered group of enthusiasts.

The Violet Needham Society produces three magazines annually, issues regular newsletters and mounts twice-yearly meetings. Prices are still low; her first novel, The Black Rider, rarely fetches more than pounds 30. This is just as well for those wishing to add to their collections, since all Needham books are long out of print.

Sometimes literary associations host more than just meetings. The Elsie Oxenham Society, named after the revered creator of the Abbey School series, puts on picnics which occasionally feature dressing-up and folk dancing. It also produces warm and friendly newsletters. A similar chummy informality radiates from the quarterly magazine produced for the Friends of the Chalet School, formed in honour of the writings of the late Elinor Brent-Dyer. 'Many articles require oodles of diligent research,' trills a recent editorial. 'We'd hate to hear that anyone had been slaving away over references to 'Changing hairstyles in the Chalet School series 1925-1970' or some such, only to discover that 'Fashions in coiffure from The School at the Chalet to Prefects' had already been submitted. (Gosh, that's not a bad idea])'

Much of this 42-page magazine is devoted to speculation about details in the school stories or wondering what might have happened to a leading character such as Jo Bettany as she grew older. When she was still alive, Miss Brent-Dyer used to provide her own answers to such questions for the benefit of members of the Chalet School Club, as it then was. This year is the centenary of her birth. Planned events for the society's 500 members include the unveiling of various plaques, a new headstone for her grave, exhibitions, a celebration dinner and a special mass at the Hereford church where the author worshipped for more than 30 years.

Other societies are just as busy. The Arthur Ransome Society, with more than 1,000 members, has restored one of Ransome's boats. Last year it mounted a literary weekend with talks by Hugh Brogan, Paul Foot and myself. Proceedings were presided over by Brigit Sanders, the youngest of the Altounyan children around when the first stories were written. Delegates from the Arthur Ransome Society of Japan mingled with home-grown members, some of whom wore pullovers with slogans like 'Swallows and Amazons for ever]'. But anyone visiting the conference in search of inadequate, childhood-fixated personalities like 'Kuno', so wickedly mocked by Christopher Isherwood in Mr Norris Changes Trains, would have to think again. This was an articulate, cosmopolitan gathering, well able to hold its own not just about Ransome but also other issues.

Why do some adults still feel so passionately about their childhood reading? With much-loved but now obscure authors, it may be a case of trying to put right what is seen as a literary injustice. This also happens with current literary associations for neglected adult authors. With children's authors, however, there is the additional incentive of wanting to own and discuss texts still in their original form. While no one dares to rewrite the adult classics, children's stories are frequently altered in later editions. Sometimes this is for reasons of taste; more commonly, it is an attempt to get closer to the world of contemporary young readers.

Schoolboys in Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings stories now receive their pocket money in decimal coinage. All references to Mr Carter and Mr Wilkins as ardent pipe-smokers have disappeared, along with Blyton's gollywogs and Dahl's pygmies. Both Elsie Oxenham and Elinor Brent-Dyer's school novels were reissued without their descriptions of loving friendships between girls who sometimes shared beds.

Few would wish to defend every detail of what they read as a child. Yet it is rare to believe that a favourite piece of reading could have done harm. The memory is more likely to be of pleasurable time spent attending to literature, certain of what it was saying and how it should be said.

Cul-de-sacs make good play areas. Re-reading children's books that treat childhood not as a stage of growth but as an end in itself offers the equivalent of a trip back in time. For those who want or need to make such a journey, literary associations are one of the stations on the way, helping to keep this particular line fully operational.

The author is lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex.