Thursday, 2 October 2008

Memories of Reading - Katherine Langrish


Like the smell of woodsmoke – which always takes me back to a narrow sun-striped Majorcan street lined with tall houses, silent in the afternoon heat, on a long-ago holiday when I was eight years old – certain books take me back to the particular place and time when I first read them.
“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”, for example. Here I am, about nine years old, curled up in a big bristly armchair which prickles my bare legs, reading and reading. I’m alone in the house because my younger brother’s in hospital with peritonitis and my parents are visiting him. (He swallowed a small cocktail sausage at a children’s party, and amazingly the cocktail stick went down too. He’ll come out of hospital in a week or so with a three inch scar – this was before the days of keyhole surgery.) I’m unaware of the danger he’s in, and assume he’s getting plenty of fuss and attention. My parents have bought me the ‘Dawn Treader’ paperback because it’s the last of the Narnia books I haven’t read – I came to them out of sequence – and to keep me quiet, and console me for being left alone. It’s working. I’m away on those brilliant seas, looking down through clear water at the purple-and-ivory-skinned sea people, shivering with pleasurable terror at the nightmarish island where dreams come true (“Dreams, do you understand? Not daydreams: dreams!”), tiptoeing with Lucy along the sunlit empty corridors of the magician’s house.
We had a lot of classic books at home and I was allowed to read more or less whatever I liked. I loved Shakespeare, I loved “Jane Eyre” (Oh, poor Jane, locked in the Red Room by horrid Mrs Reed!) Now I’m ten years old, I’ve just finished “Oliver Twist”, and I’m cowering in bed with the lights out, terrified by Bill Sykes’ vision of dead Nancy’s eyes. I expect to see them, eyes floating in the darkness, coming in from the landing through my half-open door, hovering over my pillow.
“The Hobbit”. I’m in bed with tonsillitis: my mother works on the principle that if you’re too sick to go to school, you’re too sick to come downstairs. But I don’t mind: I can sit in bed reading library books, sucking blackcurrant throat pastilles and waiting for my mother to bring me dinner on a tray. I’m not reading “The Hobbit” because I like it; I’m reading it because I’ve run out of Enid Blytons, and I’m a child who will read the labels on sauce bottles if there’s nothing better to hand. I’ve just got to the chapter called ‘Riddles in the Dark’, where Bilbo the hobbit meets Gollum. And my dinner arrives: a plate of mutton, greens, mashed potato and a dark lake of gravy. I picture Gollum, pale as mashed potato, splashing in his dark underground lake. I am put off both my food and the book, and I’ve never really got around to liking “The Hobbit” since.
“The Tale of Mr Tod”. This takes me back a lot earlier. I’m about six years old, sitting on a hard-wearing blue hall carpet, leaning against a polished cedarwood chest which my father brought back from Burma before I was born. Sunlight slants across the hall. My two dolls, the one with curly fair hair, the one with long brown hair, and my panda bear are lined up on the floor beside me. I am teaching school, and reading aloud to them this most exciting story, full of natural violence and terror. The bones outside the fox’s den. The baby rabbits, alive in the oven. The tension as Peter and Benjamin dig their way under the floor. The tremendous fight between Mr Tod and Tommy Brock the tramp-like badger who has gone to sleep in Mr Tod’s own bed – with his boots on! The Heath Robinson device by which Mr Tod tries to scare Mr Brock by dropping a flatiron on him – and then thinks he has killed him stone dead. The pictures; above all, the pictures: rusty reds and bracken browns and fern greens! I don’t know if my dolls are impressed, but I am thrilled. I relish the strength and darkness of the story.
“Jill’s Gymkhana” by Ruby Ferguson. I’m twelve years old, pony mad, but also terrified of riding. I go once a fortnight to a riding stables near Gloucester, and am white and sick with fear beforehand. Afterwards, though, I come back home, curl up on my bed and read blissfully about girls who own their own ponies, who arrange shows and gymkhanas, who win rosettes…
All my most vivid experiences of reading are from childhood. And not from school, either: books read at home in my own time. If any words of mine can ever give a child one of those moments of ecstatic rapture or terror that I remember from my own childhood, I’ll be a very happy writer.

14 comments:

Susan Price said...

Labels of sauce bottles, backs of cereal packets, Mr. Cube on the sugar bags - with you on that, Kath!

Lucy Coats said...

I remember being about 8, lying in a long hallway in my grandmother's bungalow, next to a long wooden shelf full of books. I was working my way through Mrs Ewing's canon at the time (fragile falling off covers, smelling slightly musty and with foxed pages, but none the worse for that). I loved this, Kath--so true that a book can take you right into the place and time you first read it. I am also a packet reader. Have even been driven to the horrible modern language Bible in hotel rooms...being a King James diehard makes it a problem--but print is print!

asakiyume said...

With you on the sauce labels as well. And cereal boxes and newspaper inserts...

I loved your memories of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader--those words about dark island stuck in my mind too, and the scene in the magician's house. Also very much the scene with Eustace peeling off the dragon skin, and for actual lines of text, the line about how Lucy knew that if she ever saw the mer-girl again, she and the girl would run to meet each other with open arms. Wow, those words stuck with me forever after.

It must have been strange for you to read this one after reading The Silver Chair and The Last Battle--to see Eustace in his pre-Narnia phase? His diary is quite amusing.

You know it's funny, but I *don't* recall the situations in which I first read these stories; not really. I remember the stories intensely, but not my life when I was reading them. I think it's great that for you--and others too--the tales and your own reality are linked; it's like it helps you remember your own past.

Nick Green said...

The Dark Island is da creepazoid! My first encounter with it was only in passing, as my mum read 'Dawn Treader' aloud to my elder brother, but it gave me the screaming night terrors. To this day I doubt I could look at the Pauline Baynes illustration of it without a small shudder.

Katherine Langrish said...

Yes - "Can you hear a noise - like a huge pair of scissors opening and shutting - over there?"

Brrrr!

And yes, Asikayume, the bit about Lucy and the mer girl running to meet each other still brings tears to my eyes.

Catherine Johnson said...

I used to read the backs of bottles of bleach in the toilet...

asakiyume said...

Nick: Very yes about the Pauline Baynes illustrations! I remember each and every one of them, and the one from the Dawn Treader that's coming to me now is the one where they're leaning by the pool that turns things to gold--remember? And Caspian is going to put a spear in it...

Katherine Langrish said...

As a student I shared a house with a boy who had half a dozen framed Pauline Baynes originals on his bedroom wall - his parents knew her somehow, and she had given them to him. Was I jealous? Blimey.

asakiyume said...

Katherine: Wow! I would have been, too! I loved some of her drawing so much, I'd copy them. I copied her illustration from Smith of Wooton Major where Smith is dancing in Fairyland and put it on my bedroom wall, and I loved her medieval-style pictures, like the one that's the illustration of the magician's book in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And I loved the picture in The Last Battle of all the friends of Narnia in their regal attire (except Susan *sob*), with Jill laughing because Tirian doesn't recognize her.

Linda said...

A dank rainy day in Birmingham in my navel-gazing adolescence, lying on the bed and reading Sylvia Plath. Atmosphere, or what?
Linda

Kristen M. said...

Some of my book memories are also tied to music. When a certain song comes on, it takes me back to my bedroom when I was twelve, curled up on the bed during a storm (rare for sunny California) and reading Frankenstein for the first time. I was on the monster's side the whole time.

And I read the shampoo bottle every single time I shower. Mental.

adele said...

Kath's lovely post and all the comments reveal just how RIDICULOUS the notion of age-banding is! I remember reading my mother's copy of Moulin Rouge by Pierre La Mure when I was nine...a fictionalized life of Toulouse Lautrec with a cast consisting of many prostitutes. And the books of Noel Streatfeild and Lorna Brown and Agatha Christie!

Katherine Langrish said...

Mmm - I have to say you have a point there, Adele. And I remember reading Nicholas Montserrat's "The Cruel Sea" at an age where my mother was concerned it was inappropriate (bad language etc). She asked me 'Is that an abridged edition?' It wasn't, and I didn't want to tell an outright lie; but on the back cover the blurb said 'Also available in an abridged edition for younger readers', so I covered over the first three words and read out the rest, and she was appeased.

LynnHC said...

Age banding - pah! My daughter and her best friend (9 and 10) are currently reading Jane Eyre together and are lapping up every gothic moment!