The Enchantment of Books

IMG_1605This book is my oldest possession, it was my prize for “General Excellence” at the end of Primary 3. I have to confess I wasn’t even there for the presentation. I was mortified when an older pupil turned up at our door in Rathlin Street bearing said prize. In my head  “the holidays start tomorrow” meant we were on holiday immediately, not that we would break up after school the next day, and in fact after prizegiving – whoops!

I did manage to attend subsequent primary school prizegivings where I proudly went up and received my books in person. Actually now I come to think of it, it could be that primary school was the peak of my intellectual achievement because I never won anything at all once I went to High School! Or…nothing for academic subjects, where I would usually come second or third in the subjects I was good at. There was a prize offered for four years perfect attendance and I knew I’d be in line for it as I’d never been off in all that time. But…well, would YOU want to win a prize just for turning up? I think my sick day was entirely justified!

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Anyway, the Thousand and One Nights. I loved that book, with its exotic stories and beautiful illustrations. I read it over and over again, I read it to my sisters, to my children, and I’ll read it to my grandchildren sometime soon, now that I’ve unearthed it from the cupboard where it’s been stowed away. Flicking through the pages now, the stories and the pictures are still familiar after all these years.

Books do that, don’t they? At least some books do. Make a lasting impression, change your perspective, influence your outlook and opinions. For example, in a book called The Two Families (First Prize, Primary 5) there’s a scene where a couple of teenagers are cooking breakfast and the girl tells the boy, “Cook the bacon first in the pan, then the eggs in the bacon fat”. I do it that way to this day!

But of course I’m talking about a much more profound effect than just offering cooking tips. Some books even present us with a blueprint for our soulmate in life. Who hasn’t fallen in love with Mr Darcy, either Fitzwilliam (Pride and Prejudice) or Mark (Bridget Jones Diary)? Not to mention Mr Rochester, Heathcliff, Sir Lancelot, Rhett Butler. AND, on a slightly less unattainable level, I have to confess to also having an enduring soft spot for William Brown (Just William) and J.C.T. Jennings of Jennings and Darbyshire fame. Not to mention the latter’s long-suffering schoolmaster Mr Carter, who is described as having a “shrewd understanding” of the boys in his charge, combined with a “sympathetic ear”. What’s not to love?

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It could be that the affinity with William Brown isn’t so surprising. I didn’t know it at the time, but the character of William was probably deeply embedded in my Dad’s psyche – I discovered from one of his letters to his Mama that he received William the Outlaw for his 10th birthday in 1931. I think the sort of authors Dad enjoyed also reflected his persona – adventure stories by Hammond Innes and Alistair Maclean, among others. And Mum! Over the years she acquired an enormous number of books, mostly from her habit of browsing the charity shops in Byres Road – she absorbed everything that interested her and she was interested in everything!

Perhaps as a child it was partly a way of escaping a busy and crowded household, but you’d usually find me with my nose in a book whenever I had the chance. I think in some ways I was more influenced by the imaginary worlds in my head than by the real life going on around me. In fact my reading matter greatly coloured my perception of the world. What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge is a case in point. I totally identified with the 12 year old Katy, eldest of 6 siblings. In fact in my head I WAS Katy; Ann, next in line, was Clover, her loyal lieutenant; and then Mary was little Elsie. Katie’s next three sibling were, I think, boys, so the roles of Grace, Jane and Eleanor were less clearly defined. Why I would model myself on a heroine from 1872 is a bit of a mystery, but there you have it. Katy was always trying, and failing, to be good, and so was I.

Ann has reminded me of another favourite volume: Going on a car journey was a bit of a trial for me. I sat in the front with mum because I was carsick. You used to sit in the back with your 4 other sisters, often reading Little Women. When mum asked why you were crying, sisters replied you had just read the bit where Beth died. I had forgotten that! The thing I do remember about those car trips was the singing, sometimes we would sing the whole way there. Wild Mountain Thyme, Skye Boat Song, Flower of Scotland, sung in full and with feeling.

I read voraciously: books, magazines, comics, cereal packets, the HP sauce bottle: “Cette sauce de haute qualite est un melange des fruits orientaux, d’epice et de vinaigre pur”. I kid you not, I’ve heard many people say that reading that sauce bottle was their first introduction to the French language, I rather think it was mine! There’s even a you-tube clip of the late Marty Feldman singing La Sauce HP in the style of the French crooner Charles Aznavour. I recommend it to you!

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Thursday was comic day, which would involve a trip to the newsagent’s to pick up my copies of Bunty and Judy, both of which were avidly read from cover to cover by all of us, though of course my sisters would have to wait until I was finished catching up with The Four Marys and Sandra of the Secret Ballet. I never really forgave my mother for not bringing my comic collection with us to our new home when we moved from Govan to Kersland Street in 1963, especially as I had accumulated a complete set of every single Judy from issue #1. I moaned about it for years, “I mean it’s not even as if we don’t have lots of ROOM now to keep them in”. I think I’ve just about got over it now. Later we also read the Mandy, the Beano, the Dandy, Topper, June and School Friend – anything we could get our hands on really!

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I think it was not long after we came to Kersland Street that Mum acquired a big pile of old (rather musty) books from someone in the close next door – probably they were clearing out the house after an old relative died. These books were a real treasure trove for us. I can’t really remember the titles, but I know there were lots of vintage annuals and boys school stories and were full of “ripping good yarns” which for some reason greatly appealed to me and my sisters. One of the best of them, and the one I do remember, is “Desmond Plays the Game” (1929). I don’t know what happened to it, I’d like to think it’s in the custody of one of those sisters, but I was delighted to find a copy for sale on ebay the other day, hence this picture. I’m still toying with the idea of putting in a bid…

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The public library – in fact Partick Library to be precise – featured largely in my life for a year or two at the end of primary school (St Peter’s Partick, just a few streets away). I would visit there several times a week on the way home from school or on a Saturday, dropping off the six books I had finished and picking up the next. I could read the lot in one evening! And yes, I was one of those children who would read under the covers with a torch until late at night. Having exhausted the library’s childrens’ room, I discovered that my little cardboard library card was also a passport to the adult section. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was already familiar with Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Edith Nesbit, to name but a very few. At the other end of the scale I would also seek out Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers, Billy Bunter, The Chalet School and the aforementioned Just William and Jennings. And of course everything in between! I suppose this habit tailed off once I started High School and homework started to rear its head. Which reminds me – I did of course read all of my school text books from cover to cover well before term even started – Shakespeare, Chemistry, Latin, whatever….

I’ve maybe made it seem that I did absolutely nothing but read my way through my childhood, and perhaps I did inhabit this world of the imagination rather more than average. But let me assure you that I also had real life friends too, and I certainly had my sisters. Looking back now, perhaps books filled gaps which our family’s modest means couldn’t stretch to, and which I would never have dreamed of asking for. But I could always read to my heart’s content about music lessons, ballet classes, horse riding, boarding school. However my interests weren’t confined to those topics – I would be just as gripped by Science Fiction or Agatha Christie. So it seems likely that the desire to read, to be told a story, is just in my DNA, as necessary to me as food and drink – after all I had a double dose of it from those great readers, my Mum and Dad.

The enchantment cast its spell early and continues to the present day – reading, that wonderfully private and personal pleasure, is still my favourite pastime.

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