Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Read in tooth and claw.

I recently read The Child That Books Built by lovely Francis Spufford, one of our lecturers at Goldsmiths and also winner of the Costa first novel award for Golden Hillwhich I've also read and heartily recommend. And this got me thinking about which books have meant a lot to me over the years and which have, in some small way, made me what I am, particularly the children's books. 


In his book, Francis mentions visiting his town library a lot when he was a boy, in Keele, where he grew up, and by coincidence one of the lovely old people I chat to on the phone (I'm a telephone friend for Age UK) told me yesterday how important her local library was to her when she was a girl because the house she grew up in didn't have any books. I was lucky. I grew up in a house full of books, with a mother who loved to read to us and who continued to do so long after my brother and I were able to read to ourselves. I particularly remember The Wind in the Willows and The Hobbit and later a book called A Likely Lad by Gillian Avery. We used to rush home from school for that, then sit either side of her on the sofa as she read. I know my brother was about eight so I must have been about eleven which is embarrassingly old, but there you have it. So, here's my life in books, Francis Spufford-style, except without his wonderful narrative, or beautiful prose, or intelligent analysis, or heart-wrenching ending. So nothing like his, in fact, just a random list of books.


I remember The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aitken, The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett, The Ghost of Thomas Kemp by Penelope Lively and particularly The Witch's Daughter by Nina Bawden, one of the first books I read to myself. I don't remember anything about the plot of The Witch's Daughter, I just remember the cover sitting there on my bedside table and that at the end of the story there was a cave, I think. I do remember the atmosphere, how it made me feel, that I could escape to another world where no one would be able to find me, which is the joy of reading. I'm still there a lot of the time. I also remember Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh which is set in New York and which I read in Canada. Harriet was a role model, a girl-hero who writes a notebook/diary and spies on people. I really wanted to be her.



The teen years are so important for laying down a reading foundation. In my early teens I read everything by Somerset Maugham and H.E. Bates plus lots of historical/hysterical fiction. I particularly remember Katherine by Anya Seton, also the usual stuff - The Bell Jar, Little Women, Gone with the Wind, then Frankenstein, which sparked a gothic craze so I read The Monk, which is very long and The Castle of Otrantowhich is very short. Then there was a Nancy Mitford phase, an Evelyn Waugh phase, an E.M. Forster phase, then George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan - all made a big impression. Also kitchen sink stuff, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Alan Sillitoe), A Kind of Loving (Stan Barstow) then James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (such a beautiful book) and of course everything by Jane Austen and the Brontes, as well as those foreign fellas I've mentioned before, Tolstoy and Flaubert. 


Going to university to read English very nearly killed my reading completely, it certainly killed my writing for a long time. It made me feel completely inadequate. I should have done a degree in creative writing instead but there was no such thing back then. It took me years to realise it's okay to be an okay writer. I can be very obstinate and if someone tells me I must do something I tend not to want to do it, but I read what I had to, I just stopped enjoying it. And I don't care what anyone says, I still can't stand Henry James.


After I left university I slowly began to enjoy reading again. I remember Vita Sackville-West's The Edwardians. I discovered  Margaret Drabble and Margaret Forster - I've read everything Margaret Forster wrote. If you're out there struggling with an ageing parent I highly recommend Have The Men Had Enough?. MF is brilliant on family life. Not as brilliant as Anne Tyler, though, who I discovered more recently. I love everything by Anne Tyler as well, particularly The Accidental Tourist


I've already written about the profound effect reading Birdsong (by Sebastian Faulks) had on me when I read it days after giving birth to Middle One. 


Straight after that I read Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy. Everyone should read these books before they die, along with Testament of Youth, Wild Swans and Schindler's Listall of them real and tragic tales that ooze empathy. Beyond these, the books that pop into my head straightaway are Small Island by Andrea Levy, The Poisonwood Bibleby Barbara Kingsolver, Wolf Hall (obvs) anything by Kate Atkinson (she comes from York, you know) or Nick Hornby (I think he may have briefly lived in the same village I lived in as a child in North Yorkshire, small world) and if you live in south London and have secondary school-age kids you really must read May Contain Nuts by John O'Farrell. 

More recently

A few years ago I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It's not a particularly well-written book but sometimes a book comes along that touches a nerve, this did this for me. I was just so envious of her journey (she walks from one end of the Pacific Crest Trail in the United States to the other). After reading it I wanted to pull on my walking boots and set off on the PCT myself, alone. It's immensely difficult for women to go off and walk in the wild by themselves, they're simply more vulnerable than men. Read Dark Chapter by Goldsmiths alumnus Winnie Li to learn just how vulnerable.



I really fell for Samuel Pepys when I read The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin. A brilliant book. What a wonderful,
lovable, clever, candid, witty, flawed person he was. I recommended it to Middle One's history teacher who amazingly hadn't read it but then did, and mentioned it back to me next time I saw her. She had loved it, of course. It's one of those books you will never forget. Probably the best historical biography I've read.

There are so many more books I could mention here but the hour I set aside each week to write this blog is up and I've yet to find photographs and links to put with this. Happy reading and see you next week.

Love E x


P.S. I just finished Family Life by Akhil Sharma. Very sad.


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