Thursday, 24 July 2008

Books To Keep - Susan Price

I took a load of books to a charity shop recently, and that started me thinking about the books I'd never, ever part with.

Rudyard Kipling's First and Second Jungle Books, and The Just-So Stories. My father read these when he was a boy, and loved them, so he bought them for my seventh Christmas. I loved them too, and came to know them almost by heart. Kipling taught me such new words as 'insatiable' and 'replied' - and his love of chanting, rhythmic language appeared later in my own books, The Ghost Drum, for instance.

Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales. 'Far out in the sea the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest of cornflowers, and as clear as the clearest glass; but it is very deep, deeper than any anchor chain can reach...' (M. R. James' translation). I was about nine when I found this on our bookshelves, and it had me at 'Far'. The Dauntless Tin Soldier, The Tinder Box, The Nightingale - I loved them all. Later, as a teenager, I realised that many of Andersen's tales were his re-tellings of traditional stories - The Seven Swans is one. As I was becoming fascinated by folklore, the book took on a new interest for me.

Scandinavian Mythology by H. R. Ellis-Davidson. My mother promised to buy me, for my fifteenth birthday, whatever I wanted, and I chose this. (I was a strange child). Mum had the vapours when she saw the price: One pound and fifteen shillings (1-75p). And this for a large format, hard-backed book with photographs on almost every page, many coloured.

But she kept her word, as she always did, and I still use this book for reference. I didn't know, when I chose it, that Ellis-Davidson was an acknowledged expert on her subject. The book outraged my aunt with its photo of 'Windeby Girl' - a partially preserved, naked bog-body. How could my parents allow me to look at such things? 'Windeby Girl' has since been discovered to be a boy. My aunt would have had conniptions.

It was a story from this book, King Olaf's Warnings, which became the germ and inspiration of my first collection of traditional stories, The Carpenter.

K. M. Briggs' Dictionary of British Folk-Tales. I found these paperbacks in a Birmingham bookshop, priced at thirty quid each. I couldn't afford them, but asked myself, was I ever likely to find them again? (This was in the olden days, before the internet). I rushed with them to the pay-desk, where the assistant exclaimed, "Oh thank goodness! We ordered those by mistake and thought we'd never get rid of them!"

Those books have more than paid me back, not only in material, but in entertainment. I've lost track of the number of stories I've retold from them, and the number of ideas they've given me. They were worth every penny - as books generally are!


Sally said...

Hurrah for Kipling! I can still remember being read 'Riki Tiki Tavi' by my grandfather and thinking it was utterly wonderful ...

Katherine Langrish said...

oh wow, how I envy you the Dictionary of British Folk Tales!!!
And I really love Hilda Ellis Davison - a brilliant scholar, and her 'Gods and Myths of Northern Europe' is one of my bibles!

Charlie Butler said...

I interviewed Penelope Lively once, and she told me that she bought the four-volume Briggs (and a fridge!) with the advance for her first children's book. I thought that was such a good idea I used my next advance to do the same.

Lee said...

Hm, the Briggs sounds wonderful, only what am I going to do about an advance? Some Ellis-Davidson books are at least still available for a reasonable price. Maybe I should put a Paypal 'tip button' on my next serial after all, as some have suggested. I'm rather reluctant ...