I’ve just found out about a blogging site (which you probably all visit regularly already) called Booking Through Thursday, which posts weekly questions on bookish topics for bloggers to respond to. What fun! Looking over the current options I decided to combine two together, the latest question about the social environment you grew up in and the one about keeping old school books and papers. This was partly brought on by having my school friends here last week – you remember the threat of the old photographs? Well, they did indeed appear although I was thankfully a bit older in them than I had feared – seventeen or eighteen – and whilst I had no idea that my relationship with my first boyfriend was so well documented, or that I was much chubbier in the past than I remembered, I was not quite so horribly gauche as I had anticipated. What got to me was seeing old clothes that I recalled being terribly fond of: a green jacket, a striped shirt, my dad’s sweater. Oh the eighties did not serve us well for fashion!
Anyhow, I was remembering the reading environment I grew up in at school. Naturally English classes had nothing to do with reading. The only event I can vividly recall from them is carefully sticking two white hole reinforcements over the eyes of Charles Dickens on the inside cover of Bleak House, adding a beard and horns and passing my copy of the book around the class. This was back in the days when doing such a thing would be considered the height of hilarity. But I do remember us all beginning to read adult novels. One of my friends developed a taste for the novels of Isaac Asimov at about the same time as I was lost in Agatha Christie world and we agreed to swap books and try each other’s genre fiction out. She did much better than me, reading right to the end and subsequently exploring other kinds of stories as well. As for myself, the only thing I’ve read by Asimov are his quotations about writing, but those I must say I love dearly. ‘If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood,’ Asimov said. ‘I’d type a little faster.’ What I remember most from this period of my life is the absolute and incontrovertible absence of knowledge about books. I hadn’t heard of any authors; I was grossly ignorant about the classics. I remember my other friend who came to visit last week reading an Iris Murdoch novel. We none of us had a clue who she was or what kind of books she wrote. Is she any good? we asked her. Yeah, not bad, was the reply. A bit weird. About this time I was still visiting the local library once a week with my parents. There was a stand, formidably entitled ‘Young Adults’, which I guessed meant me, but it had the ropiest collection of old rubbish on it you ever did see. That particular segment of the fiction market must have been in the doldrums back then. There were multiple holdings of every book J. D. Salinger wrote, and nothing much else; the Salinger I refused to read on principle, on the grounds that its very inclusion on the stand must make it unworthy of my attention, and I would wander around the alphabetised adult sections of the library, completely at sea, surrounded by all these names that meant nothing to me.
So genre was the way to go, because at least you had some idea what you were getting, although even then there were surprises. I wasn’t the most voracious reader in my class by a long way. Another very good friend of mine used to walk between classes reading her book, and managed to keep turning the pages right up until the moment when (and sometimes a little after) the teacher started talking. As we sat together for all of our lessons, I would naturally read over her shoulder. There were a couple of years when she read an endless stream of Catherine Cookson novels interspersed with some horror. Eventually I came to the conclusion that they were much the same thing. In my ignorance I had assumed Cookson was one rung down the ladder from Barbara Cartland, and it would be foil-wrapped romance through a pinkish haze. On the contrary, reading over my friend’s shoulder I was witness to an endless stream of beatings, rapes and violent miscarriages. I eventually learned not to read in the run-up to lunch.
When did we all get our bearings in the fictional world? Looking back it was quite late for me; I must have been seventeen or so, just heading out of Mary Stewart’s retellings of the Arthurian legends (which captured my imagination for a long spell), trying my hand at the Brontes and Jane Austen, when I finally decided to try for Cambridge after years of saying I had no intention of going to university. A couple of kind teachers offered me lists of reading and I plunged with delight into a world of Sartre, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann and Francois Mauriac. I knew right then and there that I loved modern European fiction, adored it. It was so obviously full of ideas, although I couldn’t have told you what they were, and satisfying in its intellectuality, its spirituality, in a way that was crisper, more clear cut than the English novels I’d read. They were deliciously tangy on the reading palate, these sharp-edged continental books, less bogged down in detail, more punchy in intent. It was the start, for me, of a long, long love affair, one that has never diminished, never grown old or dull, and never provided anything but pleasure and enlightenment. And as far as I can see, its end is nowhere in sight.