Monday, 23 January 2012

Childhood reading

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.


  1. Loved this Kath!
    My Hobbit experience was more positive than yours. I remember the librarian recommending it to me when I was 10. She knew I was a voracious reader who chafed at the 6 book limit imposed on library patrons and also that I didn't like being forced to choose always from the children's section. I read it sitting in my mother's armchair- brown leather with a circular back and arms which were perfect for sitting in sideways with my legs slung over the sides. I read it in one fell swoop, about 6 hours, and I remember my bottom fell asleep but I didn't care.
    I also would read labels if nothing else was to hand.

  2. How lovely! I worked my way through the entire "Five Find-outers and dog" series (complete with the very un-pc boy called Fatty) whilst ill with an ear and throat infection, aged about 8. I remember the nylon-covered eiderdown that flashed when the cat jumped onto it. My mother didn't understand static electricity and said I was imagining it! I remember reading Jane Eyre aged 10 in a big squashy armchair one winter. The fire spat out bits of log and you had to leap over and stamp on them quickly. I too had nightmares about the Red Room and Grace Pool. The worst (and best) was Wuthering Heights, aged 11 or 12, when my bedroom looked out onto an apple tree which tapped at my window! Whenever it was windy I'd sleep suffocating under the blankets all night.

  3. Kit and Jo, how wonderful! Love the flashing nylon eiderdown, Kit - I'd totally forgotten how that used to happen - and glad to know another sauce-bottle-reader, Jo...

  4. What a lovely, interesting post. I so enjoyed going back in time with you. I do hope your brother had a good recovery?

  5. A beautiful, evocative post, Katherine.

    Makes me realize how much my memories have dulled!
    If I really dig, I do remember reading a large paperback copy of "The Wind in the Willows" sitting on the back steps of one of the places we lived in when I was little.

    That's one of the nice things about having young children now, I'm revisiting books from my childhood, and discovering so many more.

    (My older boy has inherited the sauce bottle reading from me.)

  6. Star, thankyou - yes, he did, and lives only miles from, me now!

    Lynn, it's just lovely revisiting favourite books with one's own children, isn't it? Though if it was a huge favourite I'd sometimes get a litle tearful on the last page - and they'd stare at me with that accusing, critical look only young children can manage and observe, 'Mummy's crying again...'

  7. Reading my way through Narnia with a 3 and 6 year old (they've seen the films so even the three year old manages to follow) Striking how hilariously dated the dialogue and references seem now and they never stop talking about food...sometimes rather incongruously. Children don't seem to notice though. I've loved buying loads of my old childhood favourites for the children-some they've enjoyed (Uncle) others they haven't (3 year old completely freaked by The little girl and the tiny doll-who gets left in the deep freeze)

  8. Oh happy days of reading. I had a wonderful little library near me where the kind librarian let me devour books & avoid the school bullies. She let me have The Lord of the Rings 'under the counter' ( even tho' unknown to her Mother had forbidden it). They'd switch off the lights round me & gently usher me out of the polish, books & dust-scented sanctuary at the end of the day. Marvellous escape.

  9. When I had appendicitis and peritonitis as a nearly seven-year-old, my surgeon offered me Enid Blyton's autograph - he was her (2nd) husband!

    When my middle daughter had her appendix out aged seven too, I was reading her The Hobbit as we waited for her to be taken down to the operating theatre. I had to bowdlerise as I went along since there was so much about food and she was not allowed anything to eat!

    I too went riding every fortnight at 12 and we terrified, but although I must have read some horsey books what I mainly remember is trying to write one (From Herd to Harringay) with a friend. I don't think we got far.

    Like you I associate my early reading with events/situations just as much as I do smell or music.

    Thank you for bringing back some memories!

  10. Oh I love "From Herd to Harringay"! Maybe I should write a post about childhood writing, and find out about some more wonderful child projects!

    Strange - my eldest daughter had HER appendix out aged seven, too. I don't remember what read to her, but I do remember playing endless games of 'Battleships'.

  11. Yet another wonderful blog, Kath - don't know how you do it! I can remember the books I read, but not where I read them. I can remember being endlessly told, 'You'll ruin your eyes, reading- - though not my parents! My Grandmother was worried that 'all that reading' would 'damage my little brain.' Of course, it's possible she was right. I might be Prime Minister by now if it wasn't for all that reading!

  12. A lovely post - you write so beautifully! I didn't read Beatrix Potter as a child, but our children were certainly frightened by Mr Tod.