Thursday 26 May 2022

First books, by Sue Purkiss

 I was interested to read Saviour Pirotta's post a couple of days ago about the books set in England that he read as a child in Malta. He writes particularly about an Enid Blyton book, The Happy House Children, whose portrayal of an England of thatched cottages, lemonade and fruit cake and village greens, enchanted him. (I'm paraphrasing slightly.) Of course, when he arrived in England, the reality was a little different.

I was actually living in England at that time, on a council estate in a town of lace and lingerie factories, and, until recently, of coal mines. I too lapped up books where children went to boarding school and lived in large, comfortable houses - and it never occurred to me that their England differed in a number of significant respects from my own. I wish someone would do some research into this: do all young children immerse themselves in the world of their books so thoroughly that they see no need to compare that world with the one they live in? I really have no idea whether my experience - and Saviour's - is typical. Is it only as they get older that children notice that the children in their books are different from them?

Well, anyway - this wasn't what I meant to write about. What Saviour's post did initially was to make me think about the books I had when I was a child. Not surprisingly, I had far fewer than children have today. I was a child not that long after the war (though oddly, the war, which grown-ups often mentioned, always seemed a very long way back in the past to me), and there were shortages of everything, including books. Of course, there are lots of other reasons why today we have this incredible abundance of beautiful, entertaining and thought-provoking books for children of all ages.

But still - I loved the ones I did have. There were a lot of Ladybird Books - I learned to read from the fairy tale series. But my favourite was from the historical series - The Story of the First Queen Elizabeth, subtitled An Adventure from History. I loved the costumes, the vividly coloured pictures, the sheer drama of it all. I don't have my original copy - I don't have any of the books I owned as a child - but I did find a replacement second-hand copy a few years ago, and it still works for me: written by the gloriously named L. Du Garde Peach, it's a masterfully clear and concise retelling of a lengthy and complex story.

What else did we have at home? (Of course, once I could go to the library, I had access to masses more books - but I don't think that was till I was in junior school.) There was another series of fairy-tale retellings, which I've never been able to track down since: they were small books, with yellow and black hardback covers, and for some reason I really loved them - not just the stories, but the way they looked, the way they fitted into my hand. There were Noddy books, and I remember asking my mum to bring me back a copy of Shadow the Sheepdog, also by Enid Blyton, when she went on a shopping trip to Nottingham - using, of course, my carefully saved pocket money.

And I do remember a book similar to the one Saviour mentions, in that it was about a family who lived in a little white house, with a red garden gate and a stream at the bottom of the back garden. I don't think it was by Blyton, but I suppose it may have been. Nothing much happened - they just seemed to live in such a nice place. I particularly envied the stream, and I still think fondly of that book when I see a house that has a stream at the bottom of its garden.

We always had an annual at Christmas - though that was probably when I was a few years older. And there was a set of dusty blue encyclopaedias, which somebody must have given us - they were old, even then. But they had so much in them. Oddly, the standout thing is an image: a black and white reproduction of a famous painting of a road in northern France or maybe Belgium, lined with trees. I can't just think of the artist, but when I went to northern France many, many years, I saw that road again - many times - and felt a sense of eerie familiarity.

Well, there we go. There must have been other books, but they're all gone now. My mother, quite understandably, must eventually have got tired of storing all our old stuff, and she got rid of it. I wish she hadn't disposed of the books, but it's my fault really. My thanks to Saviour for reminding me of them!


Lynne Benton said...

Lovely post, Sue - and it set me thinking: you're quite right, when I was small it never occurred to me that the children in books didn't live like me, I was just happy to get lost in their world! (So much for the advice given to children's writers pre-Rowling: "Don't write about boarding schools because most children don't go to them, and don't write about witches and wizards either because they are outside most children's experiences"!) Thank you for this timely reminder that the "experts" don't necessarily know everything about what children like reading!

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes - you do wonder sometimes!

Anonymous said...

Sue , I so identify with your experience. I too lost myself in books imagining that was how most children lived only to discover the reality as I grew older.

Anonymous said...

Me too! And I always identified with the heroine however unlikely it was that I would become a princess or an international show jumper! I loved and embraced the fantasy.