Thursday, 6 March 2014

For World Book Day: My Childhood Reading


Most adults talk of the books children ought to read. Teachers (and I was one) have an obligation to do this. However, in this post I am going to talk of the books that, according to my memory, I loved as a child.

The first “proper” book I read for myself was “Five on a Hike Together”. I was six. My sister had just been ill and someone had given it to her. I soon followed that with most of the other Famous Five books. You can say what you like about Enid Blyton, and some of what you say is probably true, but she certainly encouraged my generation to read a lot. I was particularly attracted to those of her adventure stories that were set in the country – the Famous Five, as I have said. Also those “…of Adventure” books. Was it the “Island of Adventure” that involved bird-watching on one of the Western or Northern Isles. I remember when I was maybe seven or eight getting “The Mountain of Adventure” out of Coniston Public Library, finishing it soon after lunch and then immediately turning to Page 1 and beginning it again.

I have always re-read novels that I like. I read fiction then and now partly for escape. (After all, I am a historian. I get quite enough gritty realism from history, for goodness sake.) So stories with characters I enjoy spending time with, in places that I like to visit, have always attracted me. The fact that I know the plot and become increasingly familiar with the dialogue does not reduce my pleasure in the book. Most of the children’s books on this list are ones I have read again and again, and many of them I rediscovered when reading them to my own children.

At my little infant school any one whose birthday it was could choose the story for the day, which would be read aloud. On my seventh birthday I chose the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” from “The Wind in the Willows”. It is left out of most adaptations because it has nothing to do with the Mr Toad plot. It describes how Mole and Rat spend a night on the River searching for the baby otter, Little Portly, and are bewitched by the god Pan. “The Wind in the Willows”, of course, is one of those books like “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” where it is hard to remember when one read the full and unabridged version, rather than a Ladybird book, or some other highly illustrated and much cut setting.

My parents’ cottage in the Lake District (advertised by the seller as “derelict outbuildings”) had no floor in places, only one cold tap and no electricity. Naturally reading was one of the main activities. The books of my infancy are still on the shelves there: “Rupert” (two big volumes) “Uncle Mac’s Children’s Hour Stories” some of which are very good indeed. Who could be without “Odds Bobs and Mackerel and the Pirates”?

When I was eight I was given a school prize (boast boast) and it was a version of the King Arthur stories: “King Arthur and the Round Table” by A M Hadfield. It followed (I discovered later) Mallory’s extended tragedy fairly closely, and was a pretty meaty book for a young child. By the time o was nine I pretty well knew it by heart, and it illuminated many of my dreams and fantasies. There were two of R J Unstead’s books around as well “Looking at History” and “People in History”. The first was social history, wonderfully illustrated. The second a series of biographies, from Caractacus to Alexander Fleming. I was given it when I was nine and knew it all by heart by the time I was ten. My future career was pretty well decided.

My parents were devoted to the Lake District – a devotion they have passed on to me and which I have never regretted. Naturally the works of Beatrix Potter were all around when we were little. Now that I am old enough to tell, I can see that her greatness is only partly based on the famous pictures. She was also a master of elegant, precise and beautifully crafted prose. Incidentally, I have heard knaves and fools describe “The Fairy Caravan” as less good than her famous little books. They are wrong. It is superb.

Many of the various Swallows and Amazons books are set in the Lake District as well. Between the ages of eight and eleven I read them again and again. “Pigeon Post” was a special favourite, and I do not think any children’s book has a more exciting climax and a more astonishing twist in the final chapter. Talking of knaves and fools, I have heard it said that they are bad books because they are “dated” and “middle class”. Well, of course they are dated. So is “Pride and Prejudice”. As for being “middle class” – well, what sort of half-baked neo-Marxist literary criticism is that supposed to be? One could hardly expect a children’s book to have members of all social classes included, from decayed gentry to lumpen. As a matter of fact one of the remarkable things about the books is the way that the different middle class families – children of naval officers, rentiers and academics – are subtly differentiated. Arthur Ransome himself was a left-leaning journalist, and he was sensitive to this “middle class” criticism, which is why the chief characters in “The Big Six” are the children of skilled workers. It was when re-reading the whole series to my own children that I discovered what good books they are. Incidentally, they are pretty advanced in attitudes. I think it was Jonathan Porrit who said he first learned his environmental awareness from “Coot Club”, and as for gender equality – well don’t tell Nancy Blackett that girls are not “equal” In fact there are some even better gender equality moments, such as when John falls asleep, after they have drifted into the North Sea in a storm, and Susan steers the ship without waking him. Or in “Secret Water”, when Roger and Titty are racing the Amazons and Roger asks Titty to taken the helm for “ she was the better steersman and he knew it.” This is all in the 1930s.

At my prep school there were lots of good old adventure stories, many of which left little impression. “Tintin” was a joy, of course. Biggles was never a special favourite of mine except for two which I was given “Biggles fails to return” and “Biggles delivers the goods”. They are Second World War stories, not the unreadably “incorrect” imperial ones of the ‘20s and ‘30s. They certainly boosted my fund of general knowledge. With an older sister fairly close in age we acquired a good few of books as presents. “Dr Dolittle’s Puddleby Adventures”, William Mayne’s choir school books and some Rosemary Sutcliff. Her “Shield Ring” was a special favourite, with its Lake District setting, and I can now see that it is quite a tough story of love and rivalry in a desperate war-zone. Of Cynthia Harnett’s books I specially liked “The Load of Unicorn”. As for her forgotten classic “Sandhoppers”, it can bring tears to the eyes. I was given “The Silver Sword” by Ian Serallier at about the same time. Oh, and “A Hundred Million Franks”, and “The Otterbury Incident”.

When I was about nine John Masefield’s “The Midnight Folk” was serialised on the BBC Home Service “Children’s Hour”. I was gripped by it, later acquired the book, and still think it is very fine. I suppose it is a book for children who like history, with which it is packed. I wonder if this was before, or after, someone gave my sister “Three Men in A Boat” and we hooted with laughter as our mother read it to us at bed time. It is with this period that I associate the “Just So Stories”, too.

Meanwhile at school we had an English teacher, Mr Packwood, who used to read aloud to us a lot. He had old fashioned tastes, as befitted a man who still had a 1918 bullet in his wrist (a ricochet from a training exercise). From him I learned to enjoy Jack London, W W Jacobs, and above all those Conan Doyle stories that are NOT about Sherlock Holmes. Who now knows “The Missing Special” or “The Croxley Master”?


We did not own a television when I was small, but my father used occasionally to hire one if he thought the summer Test Cricket series was going to be worth watching (1956 and 1959, for sure). In those days there used to be a classic story serialised for children on Sunday afternoons, before Richard Green in “Robin Hood”. One that caught my imagination then was “Huntingtower” by John Buchan. It isn’t a children’s book at all, but a very fine comedy thriller, but that children’s version opened up fresh avenues of escapist reading. (Did I make it clear at the start that I refuse to regard escapism in fiction as a bad thing?). Another serialisation was “Kidnapped” again not particularly a children’s book. Robert Louis Stevenson says something somewhere about writing for the boy who is half a man and the man who is half a boy. And so around the ages of eleven and twelve there was more and more Hornblower, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Richard Hannay, and childhood reading was technically over. But escaping to the country was still important. I’ve still got my copy of “My Family and other Animals” given me for my twelfth birthday. 

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