Wednesday, 20 July 2011
Guest post: Books and reading as a child – a personal memoir part 3
The third part of Richard's guest post. Thanks Richard, really enjoying these!
Books at home
Image from http://leapingfrogdesigns.blogspot.com/
My gran was a reading influence of sorts when I was five or six, albeit she didn’t have much success in getting me to read many of her suggested books. Black Beauty was a favourite of hers but never appealed to me (oh that long hour spent in front of the TV version on stuffy Sunday afternoons, longing for Batman) and the one occasion I recall of her reading to me in bed on a “sleepover” ended literally in tears. The book was called something like The Fantastic Journey and told the story of three animal compatriots escaping from either a laboratory or a pound. [Ed: Was it The Incredible Journey?] It was a miserable book, and something sad happened to one of the animals which made me cry, and that was that. (I am certain of course that my gran didn’t mean to upset me.)
In my own home my mum and dad didn’t have many books – they spent more of their spare time listening to music – but I definitely remember two: one was called Man, Myth and Magic, which was actually some collectable magazines in a binder, and The History of Theatre which I’m pretty sure was by J.B. Priestley, although I can’t find a reference to it online. Man, Myth and Magic aspired to be an encylopedia of paganism and the supernatural, although oddly enough it wasn’t as disturbing as the Theatre book, which had a picture of some antique carved wooden masks in it which frightened the life out of me. Like many such pictures, I looked at it over and over again. The only other book I remember at home as a young child was A Dictionary of Music, where you could look up anything from J.S. Bach’s biography to the definition of a crotchet. I remember dipping into it occasionally throughout my childhood, but most of it went in one ear and out the other, and I grew up loving the blues.
The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (W. Heath Robinson)
Image from amazon.co.uk
Books which frighten or disturb you as a child are always fascinating. The one that really did it for me was The Adventures of Uncle Lubin by W. Heath Robinson. I didn’t make the connection between Robinson’s more famous pictures of “complicated and implausible machinery” and this book for many years – it just seemed to have always been there, a weird and unsettling oddity on a shelf in my room waiting to pounce. The story itself is disturbing enough – the titular Lubin is looking after his beloved baby nephew Peter one hot afternoon when he (Lubin) falls asleep, and wakes to see the baby being carried off in the beak of a “wicked bag-bird”. Lubin, who looks like a cross between Ken Dodd and a minor character from The Lord of the Rings, builds an “air-ship”, actually fairly conservative as Heath Robinson’s contraptions go (an attached handbag labelled “sandwiches” is a great touch), and floats off to find the bird. The stories that follow are very short, typographically eccentric and illuminated with surreal creatures, with a black-and-white illustration on every facing page. The main illustrations vary between mildly disturbing and utterly nightmarish – a warty sea-serpent tangled in its death throes, a laughing giant with enormous teeth, a small boy running through a snowy landscape from a sword-wielding dwarf. Robinson seems to have a thing for nightscapes – Lubin and his deflated air balloon hanging off the sharp point of a crescent moon, or charming a “dragon snake” with his concertina. It’s not a book I would recommend to any child, or most adults come to that.
The Robot, The Dinosaur and the Hairy Monster (Anita Harper, ill. Sara Silcock)
Paddington (Michael Bond)
Image from virginmedia.com
Another book from this period was called The Robot, the Dinosaurand the Hairy Monster, a short Blackie “Easy to Read” book by Anita Harper with illustrations by Sara Silcock. It was published in 1975 so would have been new when I was a small boy. The story is perhaps unusual in that all the characters are female. Alliterative titular friends Rachel, Daphne and Hilary (respectively) “meet in a forest” and come across a faulty magic box. They enlist a witch to help them get it working, travel to an island where Hilary gets sick from eating wild berries, enlist the witch’s help again to cure her and then have a fun time playing musical instruments that pop out of the magic box (even though what they’d actually wanted was food). There’s a lovely illustration of Daphne, who seems to be a small diplodocus, pulling her two friends across the water to the island on a raft. I think though my favourite story featuring a small hairy animal at this time was Paddington by Michael Bond. The two books couldn’t actually be more unalike and to compare them is risible but it’s interesting to see why Paddington became an international phenomenon and the other didn’t – I think it’s because Paddington is such a character, and a loner. He’s easy to identify with because he’s on his own, unique, alienated, rather than one of a group of friends in their own self-accepting world. He has a backstory – he was being looked after by his aunt Lucy in “Darkest Peru” until she got too old and he had to stow away in a suitcase for a new life abroad, living on jars of marmalade for the duration of the trip. How he ended up at Paddington Station isn’t altogether clear but it doesn’t matter, especially as Paddington is a superb name for a bear. His duffel coat, floppy hat, small stature, love of marmalade sandwiches and well-spokenness all mark him out as a crypto-English eccentric, and I think we all like those.
Comic strippage and the school book club
There was then a period when I read almost nothing but comics. My favourites were the Beano, the Dandy and the (relaunched) Eagle; I could spend hours reading both the weekly comics and the annuals. It didn’t do anything for my attention span, although I did become quite good at drawing cartoons and at one point seriously considered becoming a cartoonist when I grew up. I also obtained entire books of comic strips including Garfield by Jim Davis (of whom I remain a big fan) and Peanuts by Charles M. Shulz. The latter – which was a sumptuous, thick paperback called something like Peanuts: A 30-Year Celebration, full of colour cartoon strips – was bought through the school book club, which was a wonderful thing. Every month or so we had the option to buy books from a catalogue, so you filled in your order form, enclosed the cash or cheque and gave it to the teacher, and after what seemed an age the entire class’s order would arrive. Usually just before hometime on a Friday, everyone would be handed out their beautiful, shiny new books in one ecstatic sitting. It was a fantastic occasion. Another book I remember getting from the book club was The Ha-Ha Bonk Book by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, a joke book full of terrible old gags, teeming with funny little cartoon characters. My introduction to poetry also came through the book club as I bought Silly Verse for Kids by Spike Milligan and Rabbiting On by Kit Wright. The latter was illustrated by Posy Simmonds, these days more famous for Tamara Drewe. Milligan’s own illustrations were wonderful and surreal; the best poem in it was by far On the Ning Nang Nong, which several years later was voted the country’s favourite comic poem in a BBC TV poll. Rabbiting On had a terrific poem about a disastrous kids’ party (“My dear old friend, Dave Dirt, / Was terribly sick / All over the flowers. / We cleaned it up. / It took hours.”) as well as one called Give Up Slimming, Mum (“She says she / looks as though / someone had / sat on her – / BUT WE LIKE MUM / WITH A BIT / OF FAT ON HER!”)