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.