Thursday, 7 March 2013

The book's the thing

It landed this morning; as classy a cover as could be, at once invoking worthy tomes of the past, but managing also to suggest, with one very clever design twist, something rather sassier.

There was perhaps no better way to celebrate the advent of World Books Day than with the arrival of Mary Beard’s new work, Confronting the Classics.

Is there anything quite like the pleasure of a good book – not least the feeling of a new one in your hands?

No, no: I don’t meaning ones displayed on a backlit screen, but the real, old-fashioned paper ones; the ones you want for company as you curl up on the sofa with the cat and a cup of camomile on a grey and grizzly day.

Or the ones you open on the bus and find yourself unexpectedly chuckling out loud at.

The ones that have a smell, a sound – go on: rustle some pages and listen; that have age and texture and gloss or the bruised look of something thumbed many, many times.

The big ones and the small ones; the glossy art ones, full of black and white photography, and the antique ones with yellowed edges and a slightly musty smell and the mystical sense of passing through hands down the years.

The graphic novels and the ones full of dense type; the politics and the economics, the sci-fi and the crime fiction: what’s a nice dame like you doing in a place like this?

Musical scores in uniform yellow, like the ones we poured over in school; classic books hated when young but gradually appreciated with the passage of time – Hardy and Brönte and Golding and, goodness, even the poems of Keats.

Books about art and history and film, about gardening and cookery, about language and about science, about cats and philosophy – not together, you understand, although Akif Pirinçci’s marvellous Felidae, a novel of cats and murder (and not a little philosophical musing), comes close.

Books and books and yet more books. I am addicted. They are piled high throughout the flat – only the bathroom doesn’t have a shelf weighed down with them.

And then there are the books of childhood that have such a very special place in ourt memories.

Oh my – that’s an whole different ball game.

My mother guarded the reading matter of me and my sister fiercely. It was also a different time, with a clumsy gap between what children read and what adults read – little market for teens.

It’s extraordinary now to think that I was allowed to read books – fiction and non-fiction – about war (Biggles was a favourite) but, when I returned home from the library in my teens one day with a copy of Airport, having seen the film, I was sent straight back to return it, as it was not considered ‘suitable’.

It was some years later that I realised that this meant that S.E.X. was involved.

Oh yes – violence is fine for young people: sex is not.

Indeed, my teen reading was generally pretty dire: Agatha Christie was acceptable, as (as previously intimated) was anything from a biography of Douglas Bader to anything by Alistair MacLean.

Violence okay – sex not.

But when I think of children’s books I also hold very fond memories too.

Enid Blyton gave me many, many a happy hour. And here’s an easy segue from the school stories and the Secret Seven and the Famous Five – because perhaps one of the Blyton books that lives most in my memory (it was a church prize, incidentally) was Shadow the Sheepdog.

Because it took place in a setting that I genuinely could recognise.

Since we moved away from Westmoreland when I was just three, my memories of the place were formed later, when we stayed with an honorary uncle and aunt on their fell farm at the fabulously named Weasdale Beck.

And to be honest, I think those times were the happiest of my childhood.

So even though the Eden Valley is bleak – and oh, it is – I certainly feel that it is a very deep part of who I am.

And when my mother gave me Marjorie Lloyd’s Fell Farm series of books, it was something that I genuinely recognised. Indeed, I find myself, right now, on the cusp of buying copies again – it’s not in print, so you can get them cheaply.

So too, I hold Swallows and Amazons in great fondness. It wasn’t that far away, after all. And there is that sense of recognising the landscape.

There was much other childhood literature, but these things these things … well, perhaps it’s a slight exaggeration to say that they haunt me, but they are a part of me, and thus one of the very few constants of my life.

I must admit that the idea of dressing up as literary characters at school for World Book Day makes me squirm; as I do when I read of schools going all American and having a ‘prom’.

To someone who grew up from the 1960s to the early 1980s, it is utterly alien.

And recalling my own dreadful gaucheness and inability to relate to most of my peers, I shiver at such ideas.

It’s precisely the sort of thing that would have been mortifying.

For god’s sake, it was bad enough in the sixth form when we wore civvies – my mother sent this timid mouse to school in cast-offs from elderly maiden aunts; Edinburgh Wool Mill skirts and blouses with big ties at the neck à la Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote.

What literary figure would she have decided she could find the appropriate clothing for – Miss Marple?

I shudder to think.

Books are liberating and magnificent. And, when I think about it, they’ve formed an enormously important part of my life over its half century.

I’m sure everyone reading this will have similar stories and sentiments.

So tonight, treasure your own connection with books – and switch off the telly and pick a book up instead. They are still utterly magical!

And it doesn't matter whether you read Proust or Agatha Christie – just read!

Remember too – love your libraries.

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