Tuesday 2 April 2019

Other worlds - Sue Purkiss

When children ask at events why I like reading - and writing - so much, my stock response is that a book can take you into a different world: and why wouldn't you like to be able to immerse yourself in other worlds, wherever you are and whatever your circumstances?

Recently I've been thinking a bit about that. I've been sifting through my memories of childhood reading in particular, and thinking about which books created a world which really drew me in.

The most obvious one is The Lord of the Rings. I used to go to the town library every week - I was a voracious reader. One day I came across a book called The Two Towers, by J R R Tolkien. I was about 13, I suppose. Or maybe I was a bit older, because it was in the adult library, and I can't remember what age you had to be to move on from the children's - though I did use to borrow my older sister's ticket sometimes. I'd never heard of Tolkien, and I didn't realise when I took the book out that it was the middle one of a trilogy.


No matter - I raced through it, and then had to wait impatiently till I could borrow the first and third volumes. I was completely enchanted. I'm sure I'd read the Narnia books by then, and one of my favourite books from the children's library was Mr Whisper, by Brenda Macrow, which is a blend of real life and a fantasy world - but I hadn't come across any other books set completely in a fantasy world, and with such a blend of adventure, mythology, high epic purpose - and hobbits. I remember feeling utterly bereft when I emerged from the third book and realised that I had to return to a world without hobbits. I could just about manage without the elves and the wizards and the dwarves - but hobbits? No, too much to ask!

But it doesn't have to be a fantasy world. Heidi - that was a different world. I loved the Alm, and the goats, and the Alm Uncle, and the sweet-smelling straw bed in the loft, and the toasted cheese for supper. I loved the way the sunset turned the mountains rose and amber and gold, and I loved the tall houses of the city too.

Then there was Anne of Green Gables, with the big cherry tree outside Anne's window, with kind Matthew and crotchetty Marilla - and with Anne herself, passionate and brave. And earlier, there was a book whose name I don't remember, about a family who lived in a pretty white house with a stream running in front of it, which you crossed by a little bridge. There was just an ordinary family there, who did things like paddling in the stream - nothing at all exciting. But I loved the idea of that little house - perhaps because I lived on a council estate in an ex-mining town; we had a lovely garden, but you couldn't have called the estate pretty, and there was no stream, no surrounding countryside.

I don't really know where I'm going with this. I suppose every book has to create a world which convinces you while you're inside it, while you're reading it. Often, of course, they are worlds where you really wouldn't want to stay, and that certainly doesn't prevent you from enjoying the book.

But those books that invite you into their world and make you want to stay there - those are the ones that have a special place in my heart. What about you? Which books do that for you?


Paul May said...

Brenda Macrow! I don't know Mr Whisper, but I have several of her books of Scottish highlands writing and I've been trying to find out more about her. I shall have to find a copy of Mr Whisper. Like you, I read The Two Towers before the other two books, luckily when I was still young enough to believe absolutely in Tolkien's world.

Susan Price said...

I think the stories that left me bereft were the Christian Andersen ones of ornaments and toys that come to life. I used to play with my mother's ornaments -- a large china mallard duck, an open scallop shell that had another little world inside it, of a windmill by a stream. I became quite obsessed by the idea that they came to life at night. I crept downstairs one night after my parents were asleep, to try and catch those china animals and figurines out. I must have been quite young - 7 or 8. I wasn't convinced by finding them stony still and silent. I thought they might have heard me coming.

I'm not sure that I've quite given up on the secret life of objects yet.

Sue Purkiss said...

Nor should you, Sue!

Paul - I loved Mr Whisper as a child, and I think there are interesting parallels to be drawn between him and other, later fantasy heroes. It took me some time to track down a copy a few years ago, and I have to admit, the magic had faded a little. Perhaps I'll have another read of it - just to see... The sense of the Scottish countryside is very powerful in it.

Moira Butterfield said...

I've never heard of Mr Whisper, What a name! Quite terrifying!

Paul May said...

Sadly, the only copy of Mr Whisper on abebooks is a battered old thing with no dust jacket for £261!

Sue Purkiss said...

No, not many people have, Moira! I borrowed it loads of times from the library as a child. There was a sequel too - The Return of Mr Whisper, surprise surprise! He wasn't terrifying, though - he was charismatic. The obvious person to play him would be David Tennant, with his natural Scottish accent.

Lynne Benton said...

Lovely post, Sue! For me it was Prince Edward Island, having read all the Anne of Green Gables books (like you, from the library!) and the Long Mynd in Shropshire, having read all the Malcolm Saville books - and so many others that led me into their special worlds. I didn't come across hobbits till later, when I was at college, so I think although I enjoyed them, I didn't immerse myself in them to quite the same extent. Clearly you need to read these books while you're still young!