A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The River Of Words (1): Childhood

Peter Rabbit
I love pictures and paintings, I'm seduced by film, I couldn't live without music; yet I suppose it's the power and beauty of the word, in poetry and prose, that excites and moves me the most. I'm lucky to have been born into a bookish household — well, on my mother's side at least. My father was a much more workaday and practical man. But both my parents were keen on reading to me, encouraging me to read and providing me with books. As a young child, there were always books to look forward to as birthday gifts and Christmas stocking (or pillow case) items.

I remember going with my mother to the local public library, which she visited religiously on Saturday mornings. She also had a big collection of her own books, which were shelved in utilitarian 1950s-style bookcases (one older, more elegant bookcase had posh, hinged glass doors), some of which she'd inherited from her father, who was clever and literate: Shakespeare and Dickens, Bunyan and Kipling (Puck of Pook's Hill and Just So Stories were her favourites), all kinds of poets including Browning, Masefield and Longfellow, Bible commentaries, thrillers by Alistair MacLean and Hammond Innes, a Brit-centric encyclopaedia from between the wars called The Book of Knowledge, and two volumes of National Gallery reproductions (in black and white!) which, at a certain age, I scoured furtively for naked nymphs and alabaster-breasted goddesses.

I think the books we read and had read to us as children are amongst the most important and influential of our lives; no book read in our adult years ever seems to produce quite the same magical thrill as those early 'boxes of delights'. After Noddy and Big Ears I made friends with Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, and before long I was following the adventures of Biggles, The Famous Five, and Swallows and Amazons. And every week I eagerly awaited my comic fix — Playhour, then Eagle, then Look and Learn.

Some children's authors I didn't fully appreciate until much older — Kenneth Grahame and Lewis Carroll, for instance. I recall the dizzy delight of joining the adult library as a teenager and discovering murky histories of fenland Lincolnshire (my home county) — full of eel catchers, deep drainage channels and infanticides — and reading George Orwell for the first time. Soon, in my late teens, the floodgates opened, and I found myself swimming in the turbulent, exhilarating and sexy river of real, grown-up world literature — encountering Lawrence and Woolf, Kafka and Hesse, Camus and Sartre, Kerouac and Vonnegut, and a host of other literary guides and enchanters.          


The Weaver of Grass said...

I feel the same way Robert/ Although music has played a large part in my life (I play the piano to a reasonable standard and did a lot of musical work at school) and of course painting through Malcolm, when it comes down to it it is the written word which excites me most. It was my father who gave me my love of poetry and good novels. My mother was an avid reader of novelists who were fashionable in that time - Warwick Deeping I remember and her favourite book was always 'Red Wagon' by Lady Eleanor Smith (about the gypsies) - mother was always a bit of a dreamer and read that book over and over again. Thanks for the reminder.

George said...

You are very fortunate, Robert, to have been exposed to great books and fine literature in your childhood home. I had no such experience. As a young adolescent, however, I was taken under the wing of a wonderful English teacher, who introduced me to literature, especially poetry. To use the closing line of The Road Not Taken, "that has made all the difference."

am said...

This post with your memories of books brings back the days when I was being introduced to words and pictures through books at a very young age. One of the first books that was read to me may well have been Peter Rabbit or it maybe it was the Childcraft Poems of Early Childhood:


I also remember the Little Golden Books:


Those were the days where words were sounds we could repeat and remember, having no correlation with the written word for us. Peter Rabbit was as alive to me as I was to me. I felt what he was feeling. So were Wee Willie Winkie and Bobby Shaftoe. There were pictures to look at and words that could evoke the pictures when the pictures were out of sight.

They still live inside of me. We've never been apart (-:

Bouncing Bertie said...

Ah, Peter Rabbit. The inspiration for a game which involved my brother (in the role of Mr McGregor) chasing me (Peter Rabbit of course) over and under all the beds in our 5 bedroom West Bridgford house, causing maximum disturbance to the bed linen. I suspect my mother rather regretted intruding us to that particular childrens classic!
Cheers, Gail.

Bella said...

I love reflecting on my earliest memories of books, I was full of wonder and fascination. The school library with an always changing display of picture books. The visiting library bus to the area we lived before a library was built...the hum of the air conditioner and shelves packed with books and the whispering and silence that made it like a church. At home the world Atlas from readers Digest and world dictionaries were always a favorite to open on any page and and read in wonder.

Vagabonde said...

I agree with you completely – the books we read as children and adolescent influenced us very much. I also read that the big difference between people is not culture, race, religion, language but between people who read and people who don’t.
In school, as a child, we were rated in class every month from the first of the class to the last of the class. If I was rated first my mother gave me 3 new books, 2 books for a 2nd rating, 1 book for a 3rd and nothing after that. I did get many books this way. Of course those I read are not like yours, they were French, like all the Bécassine books, the Perrault fairy tales, the books from the Comtesse de Ségur, Le Petit Prince, all the books on Heidi by the Swiss Johanna Spyri, Jules Verne, Joseph Kessel, Les Fables de la Fontaine, some children books from George Sand, Alphonse Daudet, the Grimm fairy tales. There was a serie also called “Contes et légendes” from every country that I loved and you learned so much from then, like Greek mythologie, ancient Egypt and so forth - then later Alexandre Dumas, Balzac and so on. Without any brother or sister, books were my friends.

Anonymous said...

As well as the specific authors there were those big, thick books of illustrated short stories.

"Under full throttle, Captain Ian Pepper dived his plane towards the fight. The sky, full of fleecy clouds, had hidden the lurking assassin from the view of his victim, just as it had hidden, ...etc., etc." ("'Drome of Death") That kind of thing.

As for comics, the Beano every time.

The Solitary Walker said...

Wonderful, all these comments! Thanks so much for them, everyone. I think recalling childhood books strikes a chord.