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  • belgreenwood

A First Encounter - Books

Updated: Jan 13, 2022



Books and reading: How do they form us as people and as writers? Some books never leave us, some books shape our consciousness. I think of the books that were explosive to me- Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch read at sixteen. It fundamentally shook up my DNA. I think of the books that have been friends, of books I have consumed in a frenzy, such as Jean Rhys' A Wide Sargasso Sea and John Read's Ten Days That Shook the World about the Communist Revolution; and books I have longed for and still haven't read, everything by Ursula Le Guin. I have had so much comfort from books, I cannot imagine living without them and so I am grateful for my working class mother and her love of books and for public libraries. If there were no libraries I would have been a book-starved waif, intellectually malnourished and infinitely sad. Below are early draft extracts from the memoir.


The first book I remember holding in my hands was about elephants living in a faded sienna savannah. I loved this book and its companion about camels. There was a ritual to looking and touching. I would sit on a hard-brushed carpet at the foot of the bookshelf. Too young to read then but ready to absorb. There was also an illustrated copy of a prose story of The Tempest by William Shakespeare. I would run my fingers over its slightly embossed cover in cream and insipid green. The illustrations were Rackham-like. I breathed in the pictures of Ariel trapped in a tree cleft, Sycorax garlanded with malignant weeds, crude Caliban with thorns in his skin and the beautiful Miranda. These books were on the bottom shelf of a bookcase in the house in Highbury. They rubbed covers with a copy of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. Later I read it and it wasn’t the pure, clean girl who I identified with but the boy chimney sweep yearning to wash away everything he was.

***

It was the women in my family who read books, my silent grandmother passed this gift to my mother. I found this treasure even before I had language. I was drawn to books. They showed me that there was more beyond the boundaries of house and garden, the local North London streets, beyond the boundaries of where we saw ourselves in the world, firmly wedded to place, labour and class. My grandmother and mother were working class women who prized books even though my mother no longer had the time to read them and there certainly wasn’t any money around to buy new ones. Books when they came into the house arrived as gifts at Christmas along with hand-knitted jumpers and cardigans for school when that brutal adventure began. Birthdays brought more prosaic presents like knickers or socks in brown paper bags.

***

Learning to read, I can remember standing at my mother’s side – diligently picking out the words in Janet and John reading books. Using my finger to point to each word. I was desperate to please my mother, a Fernand Leger figure draped in authority. I can only ever see the trunk of her body, her thick arm – my eyes always on the page and never gliding up to her face. I learned to read quickly, and books tumbled towards me. They formed a mountain, and I followed their trails. They were my escape from everything that shadowed my shyness.

***

Later, I was groomed on set piece stories and poems by our paternal grandfather, a stern, warm war invalid who helped me into words and dreams. He entertained us, as my grandmother made hard-boiled egg sandwiches for tea. He would recite Kipling, and especially Gunga Din. He was always short on breath, but his wheezing delivery only added to the drama and the emotion as Gunga Din having saved the life of a British soldier dies himself with a bullet that cleaves clean through him. Sitting at his knee, I could smell the Indian battlefield, and hear the rattle of the ammunition mules stepping over bodies, and hear that cry, ‘It was Din, Din, Din…’ And I wanted to be there. I wanted to escape into the words and run with Gunga Din, his water bag bumping on his back.

***

My grandparents’ bungalow in Margate, had almost no books except for a giant dictionary and a Roget’s Thesaurus, almanacs and a set of encyclopedia. My grandfather was addicted to crosswords, and he did the crossword every day. I loved to help him fill the boxes with the right words. I was his assistant, looking things up for him in the dictionary and encyclopaedia, and when I did, I was learning all the time, the pleasure, the meaning, and triumph of words.


Please write in with your own early experience of books and reading. Who introduced you to books, what they meant to you, and mean to you now? What you remember, how they formed you into the person and writer you are today - your thoughts? What access did you have? I can share here, our common experience.

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Simone Chalkley
Simone Chalkley
25 feb 2022

After seeing your post, I was dismayed because I was racking my brains, but I just couldn’t remember my very first encounters with books! For anyone who knows me and my ridiculous obsession with the page, they would think that absurd… as do I! I went away and had a think, and it slowly started coming back to me. I then got lost in a veritable rabbit hole and am only just resurfacing!


I don’t really remember reading books before I went to school, but my mum said I did. And I was the youngest of three, always trying to emulate or do better than my older siblings, so there is no doubt she is right. She said she used…



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belgreenwood
13 ene 2022

My Introduction to books.


From an early age my mum took me to the local library on a regular basis. Initially to choose books that she could read to me and later those that I would be able to read myself. As I got older my mum would go off to the adult section and I would be left to explore the children's library. Books that stand out in my memory at that time were those by Enid Blyton and a series called Milly Molly Mandy. We did not have many books in the house. I don’t recall seeing many books in the houses of family or friends either. Money was needed for other things in those days.


I can…


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belgreenwood
13 ene 2022
Contestando a

Thanks Gail - that's it - I have the same memory - buying books was rare and libraries were everything. Malory Towers - by Enid Blyton that was the one, read her books incessantly - and I had a daily reading habit of two a day when I really got going in primary. I am very curious now about Prester John and got to read it. This is marvellous - to share memory and experience of how the whole reading adventure began.

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amanderwellings
amanderwellings
11 ene 2022

I didn't really learn how to read till I was 11. My school taught using the initial teaching alphabet or ITA. It was a phonetic style supposed to make learning how to read easier. My mother hated it and tried to teach me how to read properly with the normal alphabet at the same time. I got put in the remedial class and really struggled. New headmaster came and we had reading sessions one to one with him. He was my hero a giant of a man must have been 6ft 4 or more and he would fold himself into an mg sports car. I missed out on a lot of children's books but remember fondly my father reading Edwar…

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belgreenwood
13 ene 2022
Contestando a

Thank you for sharing, Amander. I remember Nancy Drew but for some reason I have never come to terms with - I could not stomach The Wombles, maybe because our house was a bit like a womble's. I think it is important to have an introducer - that one person who believes in books, to champion a lifelong commitment to reading. I cannot remember any books or library in my first inner city primary school - although there must have been something because I took reading books home but there was no stacks of shelves and excitement about finding something to hide in. How good to have a headmaster who loved books and to hear children reading. Really interesting post.

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