Ever since I was old enough to read, I have done so enthusiastically and with the hunger of someone for whom there will never be enough words. I was one of those annoying children who could read before they started school and who motored through the assigned reading books as quickly as possible to enable me to become a ‘free reader’ who was allowed to choose anything from the library.
Once Peter and Jane and their dog, Pat, had been banished to the reading shelf at school and I was allowed to read what I wanted, there was no stopping me. I’d read anything: I just liked reading words. I was the sort of kid that took books into the playground and got told off for sitting under trees and reading rather than running round the playground, although I did do that too. (Sidenote: Pat the dog. How have I not twigged about that before? For shame…)
My parents maintain that I read the Lord of the Rings when I was 6, although I don’t remember doing it. I don’t imagine I really understood it but I loved hearing my father read a chapter every night as my bedtime story, so suspect I was just trying to recreate that as he was away a lot of the time when I was young. That or I got fed up waiting for him to come back and read the next bit so decided to do it myself.
My memories of reading books that weren’t school readers start at about the age of seven, when our next-door neighbour gave me a massive box of books her children no longer read on account of being grown up. It was like Christmas, only better, because Christmas usually meant only a few books and this was dozens.
The box was full of Enid Blyton, as you might have expected back then, some 33 years ago now. There was the Faraway Tree series, which I liked because they were the sort of imaginary things I quite wished could be real at that age. Then there were books for older children: The Famous Five and a few Secret Seven, although the Seven really didn’t do it for me. I read them anyway, they were books. While I knew what I really liked, even back then, I’d read anything if it was my only option. Even the print on cereal boxes and jam jar labels would be devoured as I sat at the table for breakfast. (I was rather pleased when I caught my own daughter doing exactly the same thing, years afterwards.)
I read about mischievous, bright children who had adventures. I was raised on glorious descriptions of wonderful picnics and marvelled at how quickly a veritable feast could be thrown together. I remember asking my mother if we could get a cook like Joan. She was less than impressed, I seem to remember, and pointed out that we already had one and my room needed tidying because it was a pit.
I emulated the Five and desperately wanted to be part of their gang, even though clearly the numbers would have rendered it an impossibility. (As well as the small issue of them not actually being physical people, although they were real to me.) That part of my childhood was full of writing and deciphering codes, making dens and hiding in trees. It is to my eternal shame that despite our best efforts, my gang and I didn’t ever manage to halt or solve a crime. There didn’t appear to be any where we lived and I remember several meetings where we hopefully discussed crime-fighting strategies that would remain unfulfilled. Since one of them involved dropping a net on a burglar from a (helpfully positioned?!) tree, it was probably just as well that we were never given that opportunity.
At some point over what seemed like a never-ending school summer holiday, I remember all my books were taken away. This was basically the harshest punishment my parents could think of for my crime: the heinous one of reading under the duvet with my bedside lamp under the covers. Given that one of the neighbour’s children had managed to set fire to their mattress while doing this (smouldering mattress was thrown out of the window and everyone was fine) they were pretty keen that I should stop. I couldn’t though: if I was conscious I wanted to read. Sleep got in the way of that. The books were boxed up and put in the garage until I could earn them back.
This was me, though. Whilst I was more like Anne by nature, I had the stubbornness and defiance of George. I managed to keep one book, hidden in my room: probably under the mattress, although that seems terribly obvious. It wasn’t one of the Famous Five series – they were arranged in number order on my shelves, so a missing one would have been easy to spot. No, my book was just one from the box, not a well-known or ‘classic’ book: just the sort of story that people wrote for girls after the Second World War.
The book in question was Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre, by Gwendoline Courtney. I don’t think she was especially well-known but I loved the pictures she drew with words (most of what I read didn’t have much in the way of illustrations) and I must have devoured it hundreds of times. I wanted to be Elizabeth: she had adventures and was unruly and there was an evil stepmother and everything. It kept me going when my library had temporarily disappeared and because it was the only book I had, felt as though it contained almost mystical properties.
I don’t think I actually ever thought books were magic, but I have always loved language and sound and my earliest experiences with books were (as with most people) having them read to me. Having someone read something properly, with expression and cadence and all that can be taken from the simple words on a page does feel a bit magical when you’re a seven year-old who inhabited the world in her head for a lot of the time. Sadly, this led me to do something which I still greatly regret: I damaged the book.
By “damaged” I don’t mean that I accidentally dropped it and dented the cover, or tore the dust sheet. No, I made ‘potions’ (key ingredients were toothpaste and talcum powder, as I recall) and at some point I decided that I was going to seal the pages and applied it liberally around the margins, although not ever on the words. I also drew in it: there’s a terrible attempt to recreate the front cover on the inside pages, as the original got torn off at some point along with the back one. I genuinely don’t know what possessed me to do it: I positively venerated books so there must have been some method in my madness at the time. I suspect the covers were lost over time rather than by my hand: it probably fell apart.
I don’t have any other books from my childhood. I may have the titles but I don’t have the actual books. When you move house a lot, as I did, you get rid of surplus or excess and so either most books will have been passed to my younger sisters as I grew out of them (got better with language – I’ll never really grow out of them) or given to other people. I regret it a little but then it was how I got my books so really it’s only fair. Anyway, I don’t have the others but I have that one, which is how I can detail the damage.
A few years ago I bought another copy from a second-hand book seller. It’s not the same: it’s an American edition and the cover’s not like the one I had, but the story’s all there. I don’t know that I’ve re-read it. I don’t necessarily need to since the plot’s pretty much burned into my memory. It was more about having a copy on my bookcase that didn’t have my drawings in it and an actual cover. I will never get rid of the other one, though, even if it probably would fall apart if I opened the pages.
It’s not something that’s ever particularly occurred to me before now, but most of the books I really loved as a child were written by women. Obviously I was the sort of child who was raised on Swallows & Amazons as well, but mostly it’s Blyton, Angelou, Webb, Brent-Dyer, Brontës all and the Austens. My favourite book (the one that speaks to me and has done from the first moment I found it as a young teenager) is Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, discovered as I read my way through the Virago Classics series. Whilst the plot isn’t about being a woman out of (ahead of her) time, it’s how I read it. She didn’t fit in either and whilst it bothered her a bit, she got her happily ever after in the end.
Having got a Kindle these days, my library can increase without the risk of burying me under collapsed stacks and so I’m downloading more than I could afford to buy in physical form. There are always some books, though, that I’ll want to be able to hold in my hands. They are not always the most well-known, but they are the ones that mean the most to me and I like to have them, even though I don’t read them as often as I should. Most of my reading these days is non-fiction, although I’ve read the Game of Thrones series (excellent books) and The Hunger Games trilogy, both of which I found as captivating as the Harry Potter series, which I like so much I’ve got in print and on cassette and CD.
I’m currently re-reading the Little House on the Prairie series, largely because I suspect it’s where the seeds of enthusiasm for preserving food and doing things in the old ways were sown. I do still read in bed, although not often, and have decided that the best thing about being an adult is that if you want to stay up all night reading something wonderful, nobody can stop you. That alone is worth the price of the ravages of time, although these days I do my reading with the lights on and nobody gets to take my books off me.
I did eventually get my big box of books back, once my parents realised that nothing was actually going to prevent me from reading. It was like Christmas all over again, as I unpacked everything and put them back on the shelves, in order. I’d missed them so much but getting them back was brilliant and I immediately entered into a marathon reading-session that only stopped when I’d reconnected with every single one of them. My dad gave me a torch so I wouldn’t burn the house down over night.