I have been reminded today (yesterday as I end this) a couple of times of the ways in which I read and the things I read before I discovered Tolkien. I met Superman, the Fantastic Four in comics, I watched Top Cat… But it was also the time of Jackanory, event television for me often, and (whether these fit chronologically I haven’t checked), hearing Mai Zetterling present the Moomins, or John Grant tell Little Nose, or Kenneth Williams camp gloriously through The Land of Green Ginger suggested to me this book or that to read, to find sequels, follow authors and so on. Lucy Boston came my way because of Jackanory; Elidor remains with me as perhaps the scariest telly I saw as a child. This supplemented the end-of-day class story in the Downs Primary in Essex, the teacher reading to the whole class that still happened in Top Juniors, where I met Clive King’s meticulously researched and exciting Twenty-Two Letters, and Rosemary Sutcliff and, particularly memorably for me, her Shield Wall. I would like to ask Antonio and Elaine and the two Martins what they remember of them: was it just me? Reading was powerful for me: a motivator to do more, an enrichment of my world.
And so I’m nine, then ten. I don’t make it to the end of Top Juniors at the Downs because just as I turn eleven we move to Burnley. I’ve mentioned this rupture before; it comes here again because it marked such an end, and such a beginning, in so many things, not least my obsession with the Hobbit and then Lord of the Rings. Did I stick with the vaguely erudite known because so much, so quickly became unfamiliar? Burnley wasn’t Sutcliff’s Buttermere, and a trip to Manchester brought me no closer to Elidor, although I did look. Tolkien it was, then.
Those authors I loved sustained me, and did, I suppose, help me make sense of my world, before the move: I am sharply reminded of my summer of being ten by Raymie Nightingale, all scrapes and freedom on my bike and friendships made and lost. David Benjamin, whose depiction of growing up in the US is framed by his sport, talks of the segregation between adults and children that was part of that life. I recognised it at once in his Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked as well as in Raymie Nightingale.
But this is my challenge. The writer, writing about the child (and, crudely put, for the child: I know the debate is huge) writes about what Hollindale calls “childness.” The child is encouraged, motivated, to make sense of the narrative by interpreting it in terms of their own lives, and vice versa, to make sense of their lives through what they see in the story. A sort of hermeneutic mutuality. But – but – but where do I fit in, the adult reader of the “children’s book”? Is recognition of past experience enough? Am I a mere intruder? Does the writer “writing back” into their childness somehow expect me to come with them? Possibly: reading Samira and the Skeketons recently reminded me of the horrid thrill of recognising I have a skeleton – so much so, I bought it and shared it with the grandchildren, who love it. Dual audience, where the adult and child are both addressed. But if I am not sharing the story with a child at all, is there any point in talking about dual audience? To push this further, am I a reader or simply a critic? And is there a difference? I feel like my best image tonight is one of the theologian reading the texts of another religion: a set of maybe enlightening encounters, but also a treading on holy ground. I am encouraged by this, but also warned and full of questions of the position of the researcher.
Well, thanks to Peter Hollindale and Mat Tobin and all the other people whose ideas are running round in my head, it’s nearly 01:15. I still am no nearer a solution.