Sunday, December 26, 2004

Books of Influence: part one 

The trigger that set me thinking yesterday of Hiawatha is forgotten now, but it set in train a fruitful line of thought: what were the most influential books of my childhood?

Here are the first few; more to follow over the next couple of days.

Just William, by Richmal Crompton -
The real appeal of these books wasn't so much the rascally anarchy of schoolboys with grubby knees and dishevelled hair, forever getting up to mischief (although always with the best of intent) and dodging the wrath of their elders. It was the background to these stories that held my imagination: a small boy's dream of the world outside his back door as it ought to be; an idyll of the perfect English village set in an equally perfect English countryside - trees to climb, streams to splash through, woods to explore, a secret meeting place in an old barn, endless summer days...

Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome -
Without doubt my all-time favourite children's books; I read them all, most of them many times over. Unlike the William stories where the countryside was merely a backdrop, in these stories the surroundings came to the fore - the lakes, islands, hills, rivers, boats, camp-fires were main characters alongside the people. These were deceptively simple stories that didn't require acceptance of fantastically improbable circumstances - perhaps that was what gave rise both to the appeal and to the frustration: much as I loved the books, I also envied these children tremendously - their independence, their freedom, their environment, immersed in a simple, natural world. More than forty years on, my idea of a perfect setting for a home still derives much from the images created in my mind by Ransome's writing.

The Song of Hiawatha, by H W Longfellow - My older sister had a much-read, large-format, picture-book version of an extract from Hiawatha - part III, Hiawatha's childhood. (However it omitted the first couple of pages of the original text of this part. Clearly, the subject of Hiawatha's conception - even by as intangible a being as the West Wind - was considered unsuitable material for a children's picture book). She used to read me the story while I gazed at the pictures - tall pines, a moonlit lake, a life amongst the creatures of the forest.

Then one day my father brought home a brand new hardbound copy of the full work. There wasn't a lot of spare cash in our household when I was a child; presents were usually only given at Christmas and birthdays so that in itself made this gift something special. Up to that point I had no idea there was any more than the extract I'd read time and again. I lay in bed that night, absorbed in the mesmerising rhythms until my eyes could stay open no longer. I awoke later in the night, my bedside light still on, and read some more until, reluctantly, I turned out the light. As I read more over the next few days I was drawn deeper into this world where the boundaries between reality, experience and myth swirled together, impossible to separate; sensing, rather than seeing, meaning beyond the words themselves - my first true experience of poetry.

I spent some time today searching for that copy - I knew I had it somewhere. It had beautiful illustrations - just simple line drawings in the margins, enough to help stimulate the imagination, but not so much as to detract from imagination's creations. I searched boxes of books in the loft, in the garage, in the shed (and in so doing uncovered several others on this list) but all to no avail. Then my wife said "Have you tried P.'s room?" There it was, the book my father had bought me, now sitting on my own son's bookshelf. I should have known; most of my best books end up there. Currently my copy of Catch 22 sits by his bed.

The Poet and the Lunatics, by G K Chesterton -
"Chesterton ably illustrates his own premise that lunacy and sanity may just be a point of view... " (from the Amazon synopsis)

It was my father again who recommended Chesterton. He was thinking of the "Father Brown" stories, but our local library had none of those on the shelves, so I picked up this volume instead. I must have been 11 or 12 at the time, at that narrowing of the growing-up hourglass that marks a transition in ways of thought: the primary-coloured world of childhood fantasy already receding, yet adolescent exploration of my own perceptions only just beginning. Fresh ideas were germinating within me; they felt utterly unique: a creation of my own mind, exciting for their originality, yet bringing a kind of loneliness arising out of my frustration that I couldn't adequately articulate the notions that arose within. So it was with feelings of wonder, affirmation and relief that I read this book - here was someone whose mind seemed to work in similar ways to mine, whose thoughts I could follow and even anticipate. It was true then; the simple world of black and white, right and wrong, sanity and madness was not nearly so clear cut. Lunacy and sanity might indeed be just different points of view...

What books from your childhood had greatest and/or most lasting impact?

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