If you think you’ve been here before, you may well have done. Now that The Covenant is safely launched, I am going to be transferring a lot of my old posts onto my sparkling new wordpress website. So this is one.
All through my childhood, bed was a place for two things; sleeping and reading. I read before going to sleep and I read when I woke until summoned to get up for school. Weekends were wonderful – I could read in bed all morning. I know I began with picture books – Smoke and Fluff was one of the first, and then the Beatrix Potter and the Flower Fairies books.
Gradually I moved on to more and more words – Heidi, The Silver Sword, The Hobbit, the Narnia books, Storm Ahead, the Swallows and Amazons series, but pictures remained an important part of the books for me. That’s the great thing about children’s books – they are so often illustrated. It’s not that I couldn’t manage words without pictures. It was more that illustrations, beautifully done, told an alternative version of the story, with extra hidden lines. I did have a few old school stories, passed on from a second cousin. They came in red cloth binding, on thick yellowing paper, with titles like Phyllis of the Fourth Form, usually involving hockey sticks, but lacking pictures, so they were never my favourite.
As illustrations go, nothing beats those by Pauline Baynes in the Narnia novels, and the Swallows and Amazons novels always had maps, which are every bit as good as fine art. I can still lose myself for hours in an Ordnance Survey map.
Besides the novels, there were the annuals, presents from uncles and aunts – Rupert, June, Bunty. I wasn’t too taken with them, but I did like the children’s reference books. Look and Learn, the Child’s Encyclopaedia of World Knowledge, atlases with pictures of minerals and constellations.
As I grew older, I had the thrill of buying my own – The Incredible Journey from the school book club; Hunt Royal, my first purchase from a real shop (the book department of Boots).
The older I grew, the more advanced my reading and, alas, the fewer the illustrations, until pictures were left behind. Fortunately maps lingered on.
The important thing, of course, was that I had a vast library to choose from, and there were always more and more. If there’s one thing (and there are actually lots of things) that would put me off wanting to live in the past, it’s the thought of not having that vast array of imagination to disappear into as a child. Where would be the joy in having nothing but chapbooks of unnerving rhymes or sadistic fairy tales, or improving tales with terrifying morals, warning of the terrible fate awaiting children who told lies, disobeyed their parents or ate too much? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory without the humour and charm. For most children, of course, no fiction at all. Just learn your letters and when you can, read the Bible.
This is the dilemma facing my protagonist Leah in my latest novel, The Covenant, published August 20th. In the 1880s there could be, theoretically, an increasing selection of books for a child who craved a vision of a wider world, but not necessarily for a child in a God-fearing Welsh-chapel family where religious tracts were the only alternative to the Holy Scriptures.
Thanks to the loan of books, Leah reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin because that was translated into Welsh in the 1850s. She moves on to The Settlers in Canada, because she wants to explore the wide world, if only in words. What she has to settle for, instead, is a very narrow world, in which books are a dangerous thing, giving people ideas and dreams.
Many regimes have figured out how dangerous books are. Churches and Fascist states have rushed to burn books. One of the best loved books of my childhood was Bambi, by Austrian Felix Salten, subtitled Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde (A Life in the Woods). While Disney was making it into a cute cartoon (I never have seen the film), the Nazis were banning and burning it as a dangerous allegory of their treatment of Jews. Beware of reading. It leads to thinking.
First published 27th June 2020