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.