On my bookshelves are several well-thumbed copies of Good-bye Mr Chips. One is a first edition with a delightful jacket illustration by Bip Pares of Mr Chips asleep in an armchair. Another is a film ‘tie-in’ paperback showing Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark in a scene from the 1969 musical version. A third is a beautifully bound special edition signed by the author and the artist H. M. Brock. And yet another is of Robert Donat and Greer Garson in a scene from the classic film version made in 1939.
Why do I have so many copies of the same book? Simply because it is one I frequently reread and it pleases me to read it in a variety of editions. Good-bye Mr Chips is a novel one can revisit again and again without tiring of it – surely one of the acid tests of a work of literature. Now firmly established as a twentieth-century classic, its origins are interesting.
One day in November 1933 a little-known writer named James Hilton was invited by the British Weekly to write a 3,000-word short story for publication in their Christmas issue. For this he would be paid £50, a considerable sum in those days. Hilton was then living a precarious existence as a freelance journalist and he badly needed the money. The only snag was that the story had to be written within a fortnight; otherwise it would be too late for the Christmas number.
Throughout the first of his precious two weeks he had a classic case of ‘writer’s block’. He racked his brains to think of an idea but inspiration simply would not come. At last he decided to go for a bicycle ride to clear his brain. He set off towards Epping Forest (he was then living with his parents at nearby Woodford Green) and happened to pass some ancient school buildings covered in Virginia creeper. As he looked at the old school an idea suddenly bobbed up in his mind and he saw the whole story in a flash. He pedalled home at furious speed and sat down at his typewriter to hammer out <
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