I’ve been thinking of writing this post for a while and the idea rose to the surface again recently due to two things that happened. The first was another periodical debate in a Facebook forum about book bloggers being paid, biased, fake and not ‘real’ readers. The second and happier reason was the discovery of my reading diaries going back to 1996. This post is not going to be about the former, it’s getting stale and boring listening to the same old, same old from people who are ill informed about what book bloggers are, and for the most part what they do – for free!!. Now the diaries are a different matter. Don’t worry though I’m not going to inflict on you every book I’ve ever read since 1996 – it gets
worse better, I’m going back even further! You did spot that this was marked Part 1 didn’t you?
So for anyone of the same vintage as me, you can perhaps join me in this first trip down memory lane, for other, more youthful souls, this is what passed for solitary entertainment along with dolls, jigsaws, colouring books and dot to dot books.
Pre-School & early reading
My first reading memory goes back to when I was ill with measles. I was aged about 4 at the time, so it would have been 1962. My mother has a worse memory than me and can’t confirm the year so we’ll stick with that. I don’t remember owning or looking at books before then or being taught to read. Unlike today, when babies seem to have books from a very early age, I was born in less enlightened times. So the first thing I remember being given to read was a comic. This wasn’t a regular occurrence and was definitely bought for me when I was ill. It was of the Beano, Dandy or Topper variety with pictures to keep me occupied. I only remember this because the story on the front (or might have been back) just stayed in my memory as I found it funny. The story features a little boy who had been given a lolly which he lost and couldn’t find anywhere. The ‘joke’ was, that he had sat on it and it was stuck to the back of his shorts. Very slapstick and juvenile and my 4 year old sense clearly appreciated it. I also find that funny because as an adult the one thing I don’t find funny is obvious or slapstick humour – I guess it was an age thing.
The first book I remember was The Christmas Tree Fairy By Mollie Clarke published in 1963.
This book accompanied me on a long train journey to Edinburgh in the winter of ’63 and was read and re-read. I was then 5 so had started school and would have been learning to read. I don’t know what happened to this book and often look out for a copy on my travels. It had a story about a Christmas Tree Fairy who was not as nice and kind as she could have been, so when she needed help it wasn’t readily forthcoming. A life lesson learned early there – be kind and be nice, you’re no better than anyone else! Spookily, the same day that I decided I’d go ahead with his piece I saw a second hand copy for sale on Amazon. That is the only reason I knew the authors name, or was able to see the cover to know it was the same book. I am now torn between coughing up nearly £20 for it and having my rosy childhood memories ruined by something that bears little relation to the ‘holy grail’ of books it has become in my mind.
For the purpose of writing this piece I scoured through my book shelves and was surprised at how many of my old books I still had. As I was the eldest, many of my things were handed down to my sister who was 5 years younger, and then my brother (8 years younger). This was the cause of many arguments as I was very careful with my things and looked after them. It has to be said my siblings had a more laissez faire attitude to obsessions so many of mine never survived. Have I forgiven my sister for the loss of my Jacko Monkey (left out in the rain for days and ultimately thrown away) – no I have not! How I managed to hang onto anything is beyond me, so to still have my books – in one piece and scribble free is a miracle. I do still have a photo of Jacko to remind me of my loss. Here he is with Judy who survived the ravages and is still with me. Perhaps I should clarify, Judy is the doll, the little human is me and I’m definitely a lot older and battered around the edges.
From the same era 1963/64 I have two books, one of which in particular, as an adult I find very odd I should have had at that age. One was the ATV Television Star Book (1963) and Top Pop Stars (1964).
Now I know I was probably a precocious child, having spent my first five years as an only child, brought up among adults, but even today would a 5/6 year old be bought books about TV programmes they would never have seen? Maybe they would, I don’t know. That said a quick flick through suggests I was more au fait with many of them than I might have remembered, but some of those memories might well have been later ones. I do though remember being allowed to watch Sunday Night at the London Palladium, when Topo Gigio was on. Topo was a cheeky little Italian mouse character.
I also used to stay with my Nanna some weekends and she had a TV before we had. Our favourite then was Rawhide with the exceedingly handsome Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates. I also have an inkling that the TV book may have been bought because it featured my other big love at the time Frank Ifield. Oh yes Frank, I do remember you!!
Starting to enjoy books
From then on, I had clearly started to read and love books. I was of the Peter and Jane era, so learning to read had been based on the simple and basic model of say what you see D-O-G dog, simple. It worked for me. For Christmas 1964 I was gifted my beloved Chimney Corner Stories by Enid Blyton. The very first story in that book is one called The Clockwork Mouse and in view of what I wrote about my possessions the opening is unbelievably apt.
“There was once a little boy called Gerry, who was very kind to his toys. He didn’t break them. He didn’t leave them out in the rain (Oh Jacko!). He really did look after them, and love them.”
I also have another favourite Tales of Brave Adventure, this one clearly gave birth to my love of all things gallant and upright, it features Robin Hood (with his merry men) and King Arthur (with his Round Table). Fairy tales were obviously the order of the day as my next surviving book was Hans Anderson’s Fairy Tales (a selection for very young readers). My, have those stories stuck with me, how I wasn’t permanently scarred by some of them I’ll never know – The Daisy with the bird that dies from grief and thirst; The Red Shoes with the girl who has her feet cut off and The Little Match Girl. Thankfully there were lighter moments with The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Real Princess (the tale of the Princes and the Pea).
I’m beginning to think that from a very early age my morality and ways of thinking were heavily influenced by what I was reading. Which on reflection, based on these books, was no bad thing. The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes also clearly gave me a finely honed ‘bullshit’ radar from an early age and while other people might not always recognise it – I’m secretly a Princess. In my case I cannot bear to sleep in a bed that has any wrinkles and can feel them even through socks – who needs a pea!
There appears to be a gap in my collection as my next books are for a slightly older Jill. As I know full well I had a healthy collection of Ladybird books, a lovely Richard Scarry bedtime story book and more Enid Blyton’s I can only think they went the way of Jacko and were passed on, never to survive. Rest assured if they’d been in the house they’d have joined my personal collection.
Books were things that tended to be bought for birthdays and Christmas, as they were still relatively expensive. The other occasions would have been illnesses, these were the days when chickenpox, measles, German measles and scarlatina were a regular childhood hazard. I have to thank my sister (again) for being responsible for the chickenpox that meant I missed my school Christmas party.
The Library Years
By the time I was 7-9 I would describe those as the ‘Library Years’ so that would also explain why there were less books bought in that period. I loved the library and was allowed to go on my own to the Central Library. This was definitely another example of different times as I can’t imagine I’d be allowed to venture that far, at that age nowadays. This had nothing to do with parents not caring, we were definitely instilled with the rule of not talking to strangers, not getting into cars and not believing anything we might be told. The final resort as exhorted by my Nanna – kick them where it hurts. Impeccable advice but as a child that would probably, at best, have reached a knee!
Our library had a ‘Bookworm Club’ and I signed up as soon as I was old enough. It meant that you could choose a book from a designated list to read, and answer questions on. Once you’d read a certain number from the list I think the prize was a badge. I only remember completing one of the question sheets, but don’t remember which book it was for. I’m sure all the titles on the list were worthy reads but I’d started to discover my own favourites.
Milly Molly Mandy, The Family at One End Street and Bobby Brewster – all kept me happily occupied. I attended my first author event at the library when I went on a Saturday morning to listen to H E Todd, the author of my beloved Bobby Brewster. Bobby was also the originator of the sardine sandwiches that became my staple snack for a while. Tucked away somewhere I still have Mr Todd’s autograph which might have helped me to date this momentous occasion. One thing that hasn’t changed is my ability to become a complete, stuttering idiot in the face of an author. Before this event I had a great idea to give him for a new story – it involved a magic ruler (lots of things were magic in Bobby’s world), the ruler was able to change size so that it constantly got Bobby into trouble when he measured things incorrectly. Did I mention this to the great man himself – of course I didn’t. I’m surprised I was brave enough to actually get his autograph, though I suspect it involved joining a queue and thrusting my autograph book at him without a word being uttered. Enid Blyton also made a re-appearance in my reading in this period with her Famous Five series.
This was also a period when my regular weekly reading was supplemented by the eagerly awaited weekly comics. Thursday I think was the eventful day when my ordered copies of Bunty and Judy could be collected from the paper shop. No luxury of deliveries for us, though it was only at the the corner of our street. The shop had a filing cabinet behind the counter and each customer had a file – the joy of seeing that your eagerly awaited item had been filed was magic. My favourite was definitely Bunty and the Bunty annual was always eagerly looked forward to at Christmas. I have some of those safely stored away in a box, along with others that I would scour jumble sales for so keen was I to build my collection.
By the age of 9/10 the classics were the order of the day and for Christmas 1967 my present from my Nanna was What Katy Did. These were the days when one carefully chosen present, given with love, was gratefully accepted without waiting for another handful of gifts to appear. I also remember being enraptured by Heidi and Little Women. I seem to have acquired a little collection of Bancroft Classics over these years, though I must shamefully admit that some remain unread.
For 1968 my Christmas book from my Nanna was one that was clearly chosen with me in mind. Jill at Hazelmere this was ideal as I’d also been devouring the Angela Brazil series of girl’s school stories.
Starting to Grow Up
By the end of the 1960’s my reading was becoming less formulaic, certainly more ‘grown up’ and choice was starting to play a bigger part. At school we read The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier which was a story that opened my eyes to what had happened in the real world. This saw my reading take a move away from the fictional and more towards the factual (albeit in fiction form). I was still a child in library terms though at 11/12 I’d outgrown the books they deemed suitable for children. If the YA market was around then, I never found it. What I did find though was Jean Plaidy and for some reason the library allowed these titles to be borrowed on a junior ticket. I lay my love of history at the door of the blessed Ms Plaidy. Even today I’ll happily revisit her books and have more than a few on my shelves. My first introduction to her world was via the fourteen-year-old Catherine De Medici in Madame Serpent. I’d come a long way since the Christmas Tree Fairy!!