Last week, my longsuffering partner Paul and I got stuck into the backbreaking and heartrending task of clearing my parents' loft, after the sad death of my dad in June.
I was staggered to discover that my parents appear to have kept everything they ever owned and everything that belonged to me as a child - toys, books, clothes, schoolwork, exam papers, posters... All the stuff I thought had disappeared long ago and now resided only in my memory was suddenly spread out before me in all its dusty, grimy (lack of) glory... evoking a range of emotions I can't begin, just yet, to describe.
Some of it, I would far rather not have seen. My memories had been clear and colourful, but these remnants were old and decaying, bringing it home to me just how many years it is since I played with that toy dog with the now-crumbling head.
The books, though... It was good to be reminded of the things I read as a child. Although some of them I would now regard as rubbish, they all helped me develop a love of reading and a desire to write. I'd kept a selection of my favourites anyway, but here were more... dozens of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's Chalet School Books reprinted by Armada Press (half a crown a each from W.H. Smith's - that's where my pocket money went every week). Pony books by the dozen, my favourites being the Jill series by Ruby Ferguson. These had the advantage of being funny as well as stuffed with horses. She was a witty writer and I think they will bear reading again. The school stories - Malory Towers and St Clare's - of Enid Blyton, which I see are now in print again, with several new ones to fill in the missing years (what happened in the third year at St Clare's that Enid Blyton could never bring herself to write about? I always wondered, and now, it seems, I have the chance to find out...)
My all-time favourites were, and still are, the William books by Richmal Crompton. I discovered my first one, William the Conquerer, in a musty box of old books in the store cupboard of my classroom at school. This was for the kids who finished their classwork early. 'Go and find yourself a book to read.' It was a depressing-looking collection. None had jackets, all were ancient hardbacks dating back, as likely as not, to the 1930s - the depths of pre-history when my parents were at school. I thought William The Conquerer was a boring old history book and I don't know what made me look inside and start reading. Perhaps the Thomas Henry illustrations caught my attention. Whatever it was, I never looked back, and was delighted to discover how many William books there were. And Richmal Crompton very thoughtfully continued to bring out a new one for me every year, right up to 1969, when I believe she died. Now that's commitment to one's readership...
Not long after this, I discovered Frank Richards and his Billy Bunter books, set in Greyfriars School where the boys only ever seemed to study Latin, lucky things. These tales were funny, too. They were set in a world of tuck shops, prep and dorms almost unimaginably different from my own, but they were about 'real people' nonetheless, as opposed to goblins, fairies and trolls. I always preferred my fiction to be realistic and, in the main, still do, though I was willing to make an exception for Tove Jansson's Moomins (who are real people, after all).
Anyway, what has come out of the this trip down memory lane (or up memory loft) for me is a reminder of where my intense love of books began. I lived in a house full of them, which was a great help, and spent hours of my life, as an only child, immersed in made-up worlds. Very few of those worlds were anything like my own. I never went to boarding school and (much to my regret) never had a pony. Nor did I have brothers, sisters and cousins who took me off on holidays to have adventures. Today I still like books that take me into unfamiliar worlds, as long as the characters are recognisably people like myself. And the books I love best are the ones where you can tell that the author absolutely loved writing them. And you can tell. Kids can tell, grown-ups can tell. A novel can be about anything at all as long as the writer loved his or her subject and wrote because they desperately wanted to. That's worth remembering, when I write my own.
Finally, in case you're wondering about the title - one of the last things we unearthed from 50-odd years of stuff in my parents' loft was a small pink plastic potty. Somewhat worryingly, I can just about remember using it. Let's say I have very early memories, as opposed to being tardy on the toilet-training front...
It was good to laugh, anyway, in among the sadness, as well as to be reminded of the little girl who loved books and still does.
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