Like the smell of woodsmoke – which always takes me back to a narrow sun-striped Majorcan street lined with tall houses, silent in the afternoon heat, on a long-ago holiday when I was eight years old – certain books take me back to the particular place and time when I first read them.
“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”, for example. Here I am, about nine years old, curled up in a big bristly armchair which prickles my bare legs, reading and reading. I’m alone in the house because my younger brother’s in hospital with peritonitis and my parents are visiting him. (He swallowed a small cocktail sausage at a children’s party, and amazingly the cocktail stick went down too. He’ll come out of hospital in a week or so with a three inch scar – this was before the days of keyhole surgery.) Unaware of the danger he’s in, I am mildly bemused by the fuss and bother I sense in the house. My parents have bought me the ‘Dawn Treader’ paperback, the last of the Narnia books I haven’t read – I came to them out of sequence – to keep me quiet and console me for being left alone while they go visiting the hospital. Anyway, their ruse is working. I’m away on those brilliant seas, looking down through clear water at the purple-and-ivory-skinned sea people, shivering with pleasurable terror at the nightmarish island where dreams come true (“Dreams, do you understand? Not daydreams: dreams!”), tiptoeing with Lucy along the sunlit empty corridors of the magician’s house.
We had a lot of books at home and I was allowed to read more or less whatever I liked. I loved Shakespeare, I loved “Jane Eyre” (Oh, poor Jane, locked in the Red Room by horrid Mrs Reed!) Now I’m ten years old, I’ve just finished “Oliver Twist”, and I’m cowering in bed with the lights out, terrified by Bill Sykes’ vision of dead Nancy’s eyes. I expect to see them, eyes floating in the darkness, coming in from the landing through my half-open door, hovering over my pillow.
“The Hobbit”. I’m in bed with a sore throat: my mother works on the principle that if you’re too sick to go to school, you’re too sick to come downstairs. But I don’t mind: I can sit in bed reading library books, sucking blackcurrant throat pastilles and waiting for my mother to bring me dinner on a tray. I’m not reading “The Hobbit” because I like it; I’m reading it because I’ve run out of Enid Blytons, and I’m a child who will read the labels on sauce bottles if there’s nothing better to hand. I’ve just got to the chapter called ‘Riddles in the Dark’, where Bilbo the hobbit meets Gollum. And my dinner arrives: a plate of mutton, greens, mashed potato and a dark lake of gravy. I picture Gollum, pale as mashed potato, splashing in his dark underground lake. I am put off both my food and the book, and I’ve never really got around to liking “The Hobbit” since.
“The Tale of Mr Tod”. This takes me back a lot further. I’m six years old, sitting on a hard-wearing blue hall carpet, leaning against a polished cedarwood chest which my father brought back from Burma before I was born. Sunlight slants across the hall. My two dolls, the one with curly fair hair, the one with long brown hair, and my panda bear are lined up on the floor beside me. I am teaching school, and reading aloud to them this most exciting story, full of natural violence and terror. The bones outside the fox’s den. The baby rabbits, alive in the oven. The tension as Peter and Benjamin dig their way under the floor. The tremendous fight between Mr Tod and Tommy Brock the tramp-like badger who has gone to sleep in Mr Tod’s own bed – with his boots on! The Heath Robinson device by which Mr Tod tries to scare Mr Brock by dropping a flatiron on him – and then thinks he has killed him stone dead. The pictures; above all, the pictures: rusty reds and bracken browns and fern greens! I don’t know if my dolls are impressed, but I am thrilled. I relish the strength and darkness of the story.
“Jill’s Gymkhana” by Ruby Ferguson. (Remember those Green Knight books? And there were age-banded Red Knight and Black Knight books too, I seem to recall.) I’m twelve years old, pony mad, but also - unfortunately - terrified of riding. I go once a fortnight to a riding stables near Gloucester, and am white and sick with fear beforehand. Afterwards though, I come back home, curl up on my bed and read blissfully about girls who own their own ponies, who arrange shows and gymkhanas, who win rosettes…
Many of my most vivid experiences of reading are from childhood. And for me, that's what reading's all about: rapture, terror, immersion in another world. I'd love to think my own stories may sometimes lend a child the same quality of experience.