One of the pleasures of parenthood is the excuse to buy children’s books. There are wonderful picture books for children these days, and I loved reading and looking at them with my daughter. It’s strange, looking back, that I don’t remember any picture books from my own childhood. Of course there were far fewer books around generally and, relatively speaking, they were more expensive and we didn’t have a lot of money. Yet, both my parents were readers, so I can’t believe there weren’t any. It’s even stranger that I can recall so few books at my little village primary school. The only one is The Hobbit, which was read out to us in class: the description of Smaug asleep on a vast mountain of golden treasure has lodged in my memory.
I learned to read quickly after I had started school at five and I read everything I could get my hands on. Those were mainly from two sources. One was the local library in Helmsley. My mother used to take my brother and I there on the bus, a journey which took us past the neo-Gothic splendour of Ampleforth College, so romantic to my child’s eyes. I was enthralled by the Norse legends and frustrated by being able to take out so few books. I had usually read mine by the day after the visit and there would be nearly a week to wait until the next time. My other resource was a collection of my mother’s books from her own childhood and these were often read and much loved: Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School, Alice in Wonderland (not so much loved, that one: I found it rather sinister). And there was Dumas’s The Count of Monte-Cristo. I still have that and inside it is a book plate recording that it was awarded to my mother in her second year at Staveley Netherthorpe Grammar School in 1938. I was reading it at the age of eight or nine and I have never forgotten the thrill and the terror of hero’s escape from the Château d’If. Most of my reading was of books meant for older children or even adults, but that didn’t deter me. I just read whatever was to hand and made the most of it.
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?