Monday, 29 September 2008

Dianne Hofmeyr - Our Secret Selves

I wish I could remember the first book I ever bought… but I can’t.

I grew up in a village next to the sea on the far tip of Africa with a butcher, fishmonger, pharmacy, corner café, bucket and spade shop… but no bookshop. When a Library was finally opened in the village, the books were covered in evil-smelling plastic, toxic enough I’m sure, to kill any mockingbird. But what a collection! All those uncracked spines! All those irresistible titles! The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, The Member of the Wedding, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Catcher in the Rye. Enough to entice any deliciously lonely teenager.

Lewis Buzbee suggests in The Yellow Lighted Bookshop, 'The books of our childhood offer a vivid door to our own pasts, and not necessarily for the stories we read there but for the memories of where we were and who we were when we were reading them.'I was a latch-key teenager with long summer afternoons to fill. My place for ardent reading was the beach. Every afternoon, I’d fling off my school uniform and armed with a book, head off with a bag of apricots/figs/grapes and a bottle of olive oil and vinegar… not for sprinkling on the fruit but for spreading on my body. This was the early 60’s and those were the days when olive oil was bought in a medicinal bottle at the Pharmacy. (Warning: olive oil is best for cooking. I’ve since had every form of solar keratosis and basal cell carcinoma removed by slicing, freeze-burning and chemical peel. A single dose of sunburn can cause a melanoma!)
But we’re still in the early 60’s and sprawled out on my tummy on a towel, I’m being plunged into the icy wastes of Siberia, I’m riding the Purple Sage, chasing white stallions through the canyons of the scorching Senora Desert, hunting the Kenyan savannah, visiting Lee Chang’s grocery store and being trundled off by the Sultan to his harem in the Barbary States of North Africa. I’ve discovered Tolstoy, Zane Grey, Steinbeck, Carson McCullers and Anne Golon’s Angelique in no particular order and read them totally enthralled. The book that I hold in my hand has been written solely for me. I live, breathe and exist in this world. When I close the book and roll over, it’s in disbelief that I see the empty beach around me. The ‘me’ that I was, is not the ‘me’ that lay down on that towel.

John Irving has said that adolescence is a time when we begin to keep secrets from those we love - in that secret place, we begin to find ourselves and how we might make our way in the world with that self.
Those summers of 62, 63 and 64 I was another mysterious (perhaps even 'unhinged'?) person… living wildly and passionately and secretly, discovering more of the world than I knew existed, discovering as Barry Lopez puts it in Crow and Weasel, ‘Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories.’


Phillip Hofmeyr said...

Wow - great first ever blog post mom!

PS: you were pretty cute in those days ;-)

Anonymous said...

good stuff! and he's right (even ifhe's got the same surname), you were pretty cute.

adele said...

What a super post, Dianne! How lovely to see you here and to read about your early reading. More posts please....about anything! said...

There may be a genration gap between us Di, but I identified with your blog - that's the amazing bond between people and books, we all move through these ages of discovery at some point in our lives. Thanks for reminding me of youth - which is now!

dhofmeyr said...

Great post Di. I'm glad they opened a library in your 'village' because those same books inspired you to read to us. Thanks to them I was a pirate, a gold-digger, an evil villain (some might argue not much has changed). I sailed the seven seas and battled armies with a bamboo sword. I chewed a carrot like a cheroot for three years, launched myself into space in a rocket that on any other day might simply have been a tree. Thanks.