Sunday, 13 September 2015


So I’ve just changed my mind. But that’s OK. I learned in Second Form At St Clare’s that it’s a sign of a first-rate character to be able to change tack. (Mirabel, you will remember, mistakes stubbornness for strength but Gladys Puts Things Right.)

The minute I read Patricia Craig’s Bookworm (Somerville Press, 2015) I knew I wanted to tell ABBA about it. It’s a memoir about childhood reading, as wide-ranging and thoughtful as you’d expect from such a critic. With its celebration of the Belfast public libraries Craig frequented in her 1950s childhood, it’s also elegiac.

Like Craig, I grew up in Belfast, and like her I had a voracity for books that my parents could not have fed without the local library. Craig’s account of regularly visiting the library on the way home from school, of sometimes varying the bus route to take in a different library, struck a chord with me that was all the more poignant because these were Belfast buses, and Belfast streets and Belfast libraries. Some of them no longer there.

When I planned this post, it was going to be about libraries. Specifically, the sadness of what’s being done to them by successive governments. About how I, growing up in the 1970s in a grimmer Belfast than the one Craig knew, found in my local library a sanctuary, a window and a treasure-trove. When children at school visits ask what made me become a writer I always say, libraries.  And I wonder how many of them will be able to say the same.

But you know what? It’s too sad. Like many of us, I have campaigned, and written letters to the government, and protested and lamented about the plight libraries. And I will continue to do so. But not today. Because I want to write something more cheery.

You see, Bookworm is mostly about books. About the books we find as children that become part of us in a way that no adult reading ever does. I knew that Craig, whose first book (with the late Mary Cadogan) was You’re A Brick, Angela (1975) had engaged with many of the same books as I, and loved reading about her early encounters with Streatfeild, Oxenham, Blyton et al.
scruffy and well-read (like me)

There’s something really special about sharing the same childhood reading as someone. When my friend Susanne asks me, Mark, Dick or Will? I know she means Which of Christina’s chaps in the Flambards books do you think is most attractive? When I say something is nearly as sad as Jack dying, we both think of the brindle bulldog who followed Laura’s wagon all the way across the prairie. 

I’ve met the author Ian Marchant only once, when he was the midweek guest at an Arvon course I was tutoring, but we enthused for hours about Swallows and Amazons, trying to recall the name of the farm girl who darned Roger’s britches after he tore them on the Knickerbockerbreaker. (It was Mary Swainson, we finally remembered.) And you know, any friend of the Swallows is a friend of mine. 

Nostalgia? I suppose so. And after all, we tend to warm to those who share our interests, whatever those might be. But with shared childhood reading, I think there is more going on. Maybe it’s because we’re so shaped by what we read. And because the books, and the characters in them, have become friends. If someone likes Antonia Forest, I’m pretty sure I’m going to like them.

When I was very young, my mum used to buy me the Bunty. She'd come home from the shops  it rolled up and sticking out of her open wicker basket. She was a student  and the kind of young, cool mum who sometimes forgot to iron school blouses or fill in forms, but she never forgot Bunty. Only when I was older did I understand. She'd read it in the 1950s, and couldn't wait for an excuse to get it again. The Four Marys were still in the third form. 


Pippa Goodhart said...

Oh, Dick, is my gut reaction! But then Will was wonderful too, and maybe offer more experiences through life? But not Mark. I can't bear a bully, however handsome. But a hug from Dick, smelling of hay!!! Lovely post, Sheena, and it certainly hit a chord with me. I've wept so many times over Jack! Thank you.

Julie Sykes said...

Will, definitely. But Christina made the right choice at the end of the series.

Swallows and Amazons, where to start? I read the books until the pages fell out, taught myself semaphore, morse code, how to tie knots and to make a fisherman's net with a shuttle fashioned from stiff card. I also learned to sail on an old reservoir in Kingston. Happy days!

Emma Barnes said...

We've so many books in common, Sheena. And (although I wasn't actually a huge Ransome fan) I've got the exact same row of Ransome hardbooks with one jacket missing - only on my shelf it's Pigeon Post.

I love memoirs of childhood reading - Francis Spufford wrote a good one too. I think I'm going to treat myself to Bookworm.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Yes, I'm going to treat myself to the Francis Spufford one! When Anne Shirley talked of kindred spirits, I always took that to mean people who liked the same books as I did.

Steve Gladwin said...

That was lovely Sheena and it really recaptures that infectious enthusiasm of yours about such things at Charney. And that bookshelf. But I was wondering if you or anyone else has read Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine series? My sister and I used to love them.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Steve, I never got into Malcolm Saville but I know his fans are devoted! There are some reprints and I think a book about the books published by Girls Gone By.