I didn’t read a proper novel until I was fourteen or fifteen, and then it was because I had to, it was homework. It was ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and I thought it was quite funny, for a book.
My childhood was a more middle class version of ‘Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.’ It was brilliant. I mucked about until the age of about fourteen, when girls and bands and physics came along. From then on life wasn’t so straightforward, but books still played very little part in it.
At nine or ten I was up early on most mornings to take my dog for a walk, usually along the canal path, where the tramps used to sleep. I’d have a big breakfast, enough for a small army, then head off to school where I was bright enough to get through the day without too much effort. Bookish people seemed a little odd. Why would I want to spend hours curled up on my own? It seemed just as geeky to me then as X-box addicts must appear to an older generation today. No better, no worse.
There were comics, of course. I started with my brother’s Eagle, took up the Beano, then the much overlooked TV21, followed by Batman, Flash and the X Men. There was Monster Magazine, Shoot, and a little later music magazines: Melody Maker, NME and Sounds. I was never allowed to read comics or magazines at the meal table, only in the ‘lounge’ in front of the television. I couldn’t read them in the bedroom because I shared that with my older brother and he didn’t need any excuse to beat me up.
My parents would buy me ‘improving’ books for Christmas and birthdays. There was one series called ‘How and Why’. The ‘How and Why Book of Rockets’, for example, or the ‘How and Why Book of Dinosaurs.’ I adored those books, I loved the illustrations and used to make copies of them, colouring them in with felt pens. Sometimes I just drew on the books. What liberation, just to draw straight on to a book! But I can’t say I ever understood the how or the why of anything. I definitely didn’t understand the ‘how’ of rockets, and certainly not the ‘why’ of dinosaurs.
But ‘How and Why’ books were important for one very significant reason. They were bigger than comics, and therefore could camouflage the mindless stuff by hiding it inside a brainy cover. When I started reading ‘The How and Why Book of Volcanoes’ at the breakfast table, my mum gave my dad a nod of the head, and thinking I was on the sunlit path to self-improvement, left me alone. Little did they realise I was gripped by a Fantastic Four adventure I’d borrowed from my friend Martin.
Books were good for you, comics were bad. Books were akin to fresh air and exercise, comics were like crisps and chewing gum. To me, they were just the opposite. Books were dusty and meant for dark corners. My parents, wonderful though they were, thought I would become an intellectual if I read proper books. They wanted a brainy son, and comics would not feed my brains.
But comics are beautiful, and even now the smell and texture of a comic sends a delicious shiver of excitement through me. I love all books now, of course, and have long since stopped drawing all over them. Through comics I found my way to books, and once I’d found them, I was never going back.
I mentioned this far off episode of the household disdain for comics to my octogenarian father the last time we spoke and he made a startling admission. “I still haven’t ever read a proper book,” he laughed. And then he winked. “Except yours, of course.”