First off, note the title, gentle reader: I am going to avoid the notion of “the Reader.” I simply don’t know what those words mean, although I can see they are a convention for “anyone who picks words off a page, screen, clay tablet, &c.” And I am not talking about the named and nameless writers and readers who have gone before me over 8000 and more years, from unnamed composers of lists and spells through Aeschylus (neatly explored here) to Baudelaire (“Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere!”). This is a blog post – as I’m afraid they all are these days – about me, a personal snippet of a pale reflection of Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built. I have begun this sketchy narrative before.
A reader. Nine, ten, as I said before. His first read of Narnia is still in his mind, as is Batman. He is read Clive King at school (22 Letters) and on TV (Stig of the Dump), likewise Rosemary Sutcliff, and Moomins, Green Knowe, Elidor come into his reading life (enough of the third person: it’s getting tedious), sorry. The children’s librarian in Harlow suggests I try The Hobbit after one of the Sutcliff books – possibly The Shield Ring. She gets special permission, when I finish Lord of the Rings, for me to borrow the LPs of Wagner from the adult library. This much, at least, is in praise of a woman whose name I do not know, whose task was to take an interest in young people’s reading.
I suggested in an earlier post that the rupture of my reading brought me to read and re-read Tolkien because he represented something bookish, grown-up and at the same time a continuation of my “top Junior” reading. Hollindale’s keen eye spots, in Catherine Storr’s use of “childish” a word that makes her sound apologetic. Perhaps when I got to secondary school in Burnley I was apologetic for my earlier childhood, unable to frame myself as a reader as convincingly as I had in Harlow. My reading was wide, or at least quirky, and my clumsy medievalism, founded on a family view of English Catholicism, starts here, as does my reading of Buddhism through the seriously strange writings of Lobsang Rampa: my dad’s influence both times. My mum bought me adult C S Lewis and we read Daphne du Maurier or listened to dramatisations on the radio. I read her Dennis Wheatley stories of demonic rituals and posh people – and the appendices to Lord of the Rings. So I was still reading new stuff when we moved again, back to North London. So much for story, now to some thinking.
What has often struck me is the fact that I had big pockets of my childhood that appear fragmented or unrecognised. Burnley is vivid, with Gilbert and Sullivan, lots of Church, wild countryside and (at the time) troubling explorations of sex. Harlow had retreated into a time I couldn’t quite remember. It was as if I had lost the thread of the narrative, skipped a chapter so that it didn’t make sense. I loved the windy hills, I ogled the harp in a music shop in Blackburn, but as an adult couldn’t quite put these into place. This is where I am struggling at the moment: not the very idea of why I love children’s literature, but why the rediscovery of books from my own past reading are such a revelation. What memories return.
The Shield Ring gives me a clue to harps and wild hills: what astonished me is that I had forgotten my love for the heroes Bjorn the Harper and Frytha through whose eyes we see so much of Lake Land. So – although this really does need to go on and on – I’ll stop with Hollindale’s idea of what childness might do in an author’s purpose. “The past child as a living agent in the adult self” is acknowledged in some authors as part of why they write. Authors from Garner and Sutcliff are explicit about this; it can be guessed (only guessed, I think) in a wistfulness for a past time in Tolkien. I wonder however whether this is also present me for as I read again books I loved before we moved north: they awake for me a real and steady set of pictures of my “middle childhood,” brief years from eight to ten, and they do so because the literature, the text (not the interpretation) remain constant, there for me to discover, at an opportune moment, ideas, story lines, phrases, characters “that I had loved long since and lost awhile.”