Few of the books that I read as a child have survived all the house moves over the years. Looking on my shelves just now I found only What Katy Did at School, Anne of Avonlea, The Count of Monte Cristo, an abridged Alice in Wonderland (given to my mother by Chesterfield Congregational Sunday School) and Princess Anne by Katherine L Oldmeadow. They are all in hardback, which may account for their longevity. Princess Anne, I see from an inscription, was given to me as a Christmas present when I was eight. Katherine L Oldmeadow, Google informs me, was born in 1878 in Chester and died near the New Forest in 1963 and that not much is known about her life. She wrote lots of children’s books, including a series of ‘Princess’ books, Princess Anne, Princess Prunella and so on. Princess Anne was published in 1925 (did I read no contemporary fiction?) and is the story of a thirteen year old orphan whose sweet, but impetuous nature and lively imagination endear her to those around her, but also get her into scrapes. It occurs to me now it owes something to Anne of Green Gables. Truth to tell, Oldmeadow is not a distinguished writer, but I loved reading about Anne and her adventures – and still do, if I’m to be honest.
The first book I remember buying in a book shop, or, more likely, having bought for me, is THE BORROWERS by Mary Norton. My memory is hazy – but I see the dark wood shelves (and paneling, too?) of the old W.H.Smith’s on Redcar High Street – which probably means I was staying at my grand-parents. It’s the feeling I remember most – of wanting and the thrill of possession. I don’t know how old I was. Seven? Eight?
We didn’t have a lot of books in our house, because we didn’t have much money, but when we lived in Ampleforth, my mother used to take us the bus into Helmsley once a week and we would get books out of the library. I loved the Norse legends and was frustrated because I was a good reader and had usually finished my book long before the next visit came round. However I couldn’t have been so very short of books, because there were enough for me to pretended to be a librarian and catalogue them: I see that ALICE IN WONDERLAND is number 10. That had been one of my mother’s books from her own childhood: so was ANNE OF GREEN GABLES which I adored. In my copy of WHAT KATY DID AT SCHOOL by Susan Coolidge I’ve written a date: I was six when I was given that. I read it many, many times and much preferred it to ALICE IN WONDERLAND – I think that is a book for adults. As a child I found it disturbing. Maybe my grip on reality wasn’t strong enough for me to enjoy the joke.
Later, aged around ten or eleven, I saved up my pocket-money to buy the Pullein-Thompson pony stories to fuel my own fantasies of one day owning a horse. Then a year or two later it was Gerald Durrell’s series of books about collecting animals: THREE TICKETS TO ADVENTURE, MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS and so. I’ve still got those. Looking back it seems to me now that a very wide of range of reading appealed to me and it wasn’t just a solitary activity. My friend Linda and I loved Biggles – how extraordinary that seems now – and my friend Pauline had a terrific collection of Superman comics. We used to pore over those together as well as over our copies of JACKIE.
Will today’s children have the same relationship with the printed word? My own children haven’t – there are so many other calls on their time, TV, the internet, DVS . . . I feel something has been lost. But then I would, wouldn’t I?