800 Books in my life, part 1

 

When I was very young a favourite aunt used to sing me to sleep at night; but before I was much older my father started reading to me. I suppose it’s usually mothers that read to their offspring; but my Dad could do a posh reading voice better than my mother could. I think he must have made a practice of showing me the words as he was reading them, as in some way or other I did manage to start reading a little for myself some time before I started primary school (which was at age 5 in those days).

I’ve no idea what were the first books I looked at; probably whatever was around the house. I can vividly remember a souvenir programme of the Coronation – mostly the beautiful church-window style colour printing on the cover, all deep crimson and royal blue, certainly not the text, which was above my level – but by then I was six years old and already at school.

One thing I do remember about learning to read was great frustration at the illogicality of spelling. I would often see a word I thought I didn’t know, only to find out that it was a perfectly ordinary word, such as “school”, but disguised by its spelling. However much this annoyed me, it determined me to get the better of English spelling rather than vice-versa.

The children’s books that were around in the 1950s are pretty much forgotten now, but most of you will have heard of Enid Blyton. She was best known for her “Noddy” books, which if nothing else contributed one word to English slang – the policeman was called Mr. Plod. The next stage up was the Famous Five and Secret Seven books; adventure stories. I read these, because everyone did, but they made very little impression on me. With hindsight, I think they were all plot and no personality.

Somehow I came across my first favourite author. His name was Anthony Buckeridge. Heard of him? I thought not. He wrote school stories about a boy called Jennings (first name unspecified). These were the first books that made me laugh out loud, to the annoyance of others around me. It wasn’t just that Jennings and Co. got into the most hilarious scrapes; Buckeridge had a wonderful way with words and knew how to drop the right word into a situation that was already funny enough. It didn’t matter at all that these were middle-class lads at a private boarding school; they were doing the sorts of things that I would have liked to do. In a way it prepared me for later, as Enfield Grammar School had a lot of the trappings of a “public”, i.e. private, school.

Incidentally, Buckeridge also gave the English language a word, though it’s not a common one. A while ago I heard an interviewee on television saying that someone or other had “really made a bish” of something or other. This is straight from Buckeridge; I don’t suppose I’d heard anyone say it in 40 years.

These were of course the days before Roald Dahl but there were already some scary stories about. I didn’t much go for adventure stories (Treasure Island and all that pirate stuff, or Wild West stories when I didn’t even know what a cowboy was); I liked silly books, especially Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, and most of all A. A. Milne. I still do. I wonder, without Milne could we ever have had Spike Milligan? Discuss.

That does mean all of A. A. Milne; not just the Winnie the Pooh books but the poetry too. Even at that tender age I think I understood the thought behind geraniums red and delphiniums blue, one of the saddest things you’ll ever read. Milne wrote for adults too; he was a fine essayist – but that will come later.

I read comics too, particularly the funny ones. My favourites were the Beano, and, later, the Eagle. These had all the best characters; Desperate Dan, a kind of Popeye character, always in trouble; Dan Dare the pioneering spaceman and others I liked at the time but have since forgotten; a red-haired madcap boy – what was his name? – ah, now I remember, Dennis the Menace!

There were some failures too; Tom Brown’s Schooldays (I was too young); The Wind in the Willows (too slow starting); Huckleberry Finn (too far outwith my experience); but we have come to 1958, and the move to Grammar School. For the next seven years I read what I had to and not much else.

You’ll see that up to age 11 I had read fairly lightweight stuff chosen by myself (how did I get to know about them?). No-one was forcing the classics on me, not even the “children’s classics”; to this day there are many, many classics I haven’t read (yet). For example, I’ve read very little Dickens. But we’ll come to that on another page, as this one is quite long enough.

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