In the very early 70’s – probably 1970 in fact - I was 5 years old, and started at Drighlington Infants School a little late due to getting chickenpox and whooping cough together (yes, even at that early age I was an awkward sod!) I was very, very poorly, and needed a doctor. The first stumbling block was that it was the weekend. The second was that Mum and Dad were running a pub at the time – The Spotted Cow. The emergency doctor who came out was Muslim and wouldn’t step foot in the place, subsequently attempting to diagnose me from the window… Dad, funnily enough, wasn’t confident with his diagnosis, and when I got worse found someone that would actually step foot in the place. However, my abiding memory is screaming the place down when he tried to listen to my chest with a stethoscope. I’d never seen a black man before – remember it was 1970, and I was very young…come to think of it though I hadn’t seen a stethoscope before either, which when the freezing cold thing was put on my chest whilst running a very high fever, might have contributed to the hysterics! By the time he’d arrived and seen how ill I was, I was too poorly to be moved to hospital. I nearly died, and as a result was convalescing for some time afterwards, hence the late start. Anyway I digress - as always!
When I started after the start of school term aged around 5, no one would sit next to me because of all my spots. Even worse, they’d all started their budding friendships – I was sooooo on the outside… My integrating into the class was stymied even further when it became apparent that I could already read (and knew the alphabet ‘properly’ – not the new phonetic system that was being introduced. – I point blank refused to use that when spelling out words…yes – belligerent already, as well as awkward…!) This made the reading period more than a bit of a challenge for the teacher. There she was, ready to start everyone on the Ladybird ‘Peter and Jane’ early reading books and I was reading them cover-to-cover in less than a minute flat! Bless her, she quickly realised that a bored Jacqueline Winterburn was NOT a good idea and gave me the key to the book cupboard into which I dived, head first, happily blasting my way through the Schofield and Sims ‘Through the Rainbow’ reading collection. These were a series of colour coded books that oddly went further than the breadth of rainbow colours into Silver and Gold – I think that was the first time the words ‘Indigo’ and ‘Violet’ slipped into vocabulary and I can’t hear them without visualising that wonderful old cupboard and the tiny metal key to the lock. Another completely different memory in there is of a poor girl called Samantha who was always farting – the teacher kept a can of air freshener to hand and sprayed it not only in the general area of the offending smell, but also all over the poor girl! Personally, I’m not sure what smelt worse – her farts or that air freshener…
So, from that point in my life books became my best friends, non-judgemental and always there when I reached for them, giving me hours of escapism. I don’t remember the words in books ever being too hard for me to read – if they were interesting enough I kept going until they were finished, if they didn’t capture me after the first page, they were put down again, a habit that’s still with me today when choosing new things to read! Mum and Dad weren’t very big readers at all – Dad’s passion was the daily paper, which he pretty much read cover to cover - in fact that’s probably where I learnt to read – sat on Dad’s knee while he read out the paper. This meant of course that my reading material was limited at home. My long suffering sister who’s 10 years older than me, had to go through the heartbreak of seeing her beloved books be subjected to her little sister’s habit of scrawling all over anything that had paper content with whatever writing instrument she had in her hand, (I also scribbled all over her dolls – especially their feet – and of colouring in any shape on any page of anything – including the spaces in letters… I hope that she knows that when I got a little older, I deeply regretted it, as her books became my books. Over the years I looked with horror at what I’d done to them. Even now, I’m fastidious about the condition of our books, hating it when the spines get cracked on paperbacks, or their covers get a little dog-eared – and as for folks folding the corners down as place holders – get a bookmark!!!
Once we moved out of the pub and she went school, then moved to Manchester, her books became my most treasured possessions, eventually taking pride of place in my bedroom on top of her old school desk (I had that until my late teens). I read ‘What Katy Did’ and ‘Little Women’ hundreds of times, (I must admit that after a first reading ‘Oliver Twist’ just looked at me – I’ve never liked Dickens – well maybe ‘A Christmas Carol’…), ‘Five Children and It’… even ‘The New Encyclopedia for the Younger Generation’…Her copies of CS Lewis’s Narnia books were read so many times the glue on the spines failed, and the pages started to fall out... I also remember Enid Blyton’s ‘The Little Picaninny’, which I loved, and an odd little collection - ’40 More Tales’ - oh, and ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’ - the full version I might add but in modern English.
Once I had access to libraries I must have devoured over 100 books a year - I remember in one summer holiday I read all 12 of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books and all 9 of Tove Jansson’s Moomins books – they were fantastic! Other classics greedily consumed included – ‘James and the Giant Peach’, Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator’, Louisa M Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ and ‘Little Men’, ‘What Katy Did Next’, and then I found other collections to work through – ‘Anne of Green Gables’ et al, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books…
My relationship with some of those early books is a very close one, and I happily return to their pages. They’re old friends that welcome me back, ready to let me once again travel with them on their adventures and discoveries, sharing their hopes and their fears, their tears and their joy. Some will never be donated to charity, but have their permanent home on our bookshelves. Books like Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence – these were an early present from my sister that I had to rebuy a few years ago – just like her original set of Narnia books, they were read so much they disintegrated – it took over 20 years for it to happen but if I wanted to be able to easily read them again they had to be replaced… I also possess a hardback version of the Narnia books, with beautiful coloured versions of the original drawings.
And that is how my love of books and reading started. Long may it continue!