Every other term or so at University, my mother would fly in from Belgium bearing gin, duty free Marlboro, tins and tins of sardines and eye make-up remover. Somehow, this was always exactly what I needed and I would take a train from Durham to Newcastle to meet her and get the loot. This had the dual advantage of keeping her away from the shocking pigsties I inhabited (knowing she'd do tidying and washing and uncover god only knows what under the silt of squalour) and the awful possibility that I might have to introduce her to any boys whose names escaped me (or more likely, those whom my name escaped).
Anyway, we also used to go to the huge bookshop near Grey's Monument. My mother has always encouraged us to read widely and voraciously, replacing Enid Blyton with Jane Austen early on, a literary sleight of hand for which I will always be grateful. Browsing round, I'd give her edited highlights of my debauched existence; she no doubt reading between the lines and shuddering. A constant theme was how much work I had to do, having stupidly agreed to read dull and difficult modern languages instead of wonderful, fascinating English Lit. So it was probably out of guilt and a desire to provide some light relief that she suggested I try the EF Benson Mapp and Lucia series. It became a lovely tradition; every other term we'd meet up, catch up and go and choose another book and somehow I still have them all.
One chapter and I was hooked for life. Almost 25 years on, they are as fresh to me as a not-so-young mummy as they were to a cosmopolitan-if-not-sophisticated 18-year old. They chart the rises and falls and rises again of Elizabeth Mapp and her arch-rival Lucia. Set in English towns in the 1920s, these six little books have travelled a long life with me. Their sherbert-coloured spines are soft and frayed; the elegant line drawings on the front faded by desert suns. The inhabitants therein are as familiar as my own family; their petty jealousies, triumphs, pranks, plots and scheming a constant backdrop to my years in exile. I travelled with the social climbing mayoress, quaint lesbian painters, patriotically-divided padre and card-playing, gin-swilling major for decades.
Lucia, for whom we named our graceful Weimeraner, is best friends with Georgie, confirmed bachelor and collector and fervent polisher of bibelots. They mess about on the piano swooning at Mozart and pretend to speak Italian to each other; both pissing off and making jealous the bossy, dumpy Elizabeth. Their adventures are secondary - what I love is the dangerous stilletto-like writing; the spare cruelty with which Benson sketches and dispatches pretensions and snobbery.
Our Lucia, like EF Benson's, is haughty and of impeccable lineage. Watching her stalk her prey with elegant, single-minded ruthlessness is like seeing a character come to life. We were going to get a small, yappy West Highland terrier and call her Mapp. She, like her literary namesake, wouldn't have stood a chance.
If you can't be arsed to turn pages (and God knows we all have those days), watch the stories on dvd. I think the Geraldine McEwan, Prunella Scales and Nigel Hawthorne triumvirate is as close to heaven-on-a-freezing-February-afternoon as you can get. Large gin and sardines-on-toast and you're there.