I was once a child. That seems a bizarre statement but I do sometimes actually need to remind myself that those photos my mum keeps in a purple box beside her bed are of me. It is truly another life and I am disturbed that I can remember so little of it. From the age of 13 I kept a diary – a small red notebook filled with rapid scribbles – so I have a clearer picture of how my time was spent, but as the most exciting thing that happened to me each week seems to have been the trip to the launderette with my dad I still don’t feel I know the younger me very well.
This may not seem important on the face of it. We are encouraged to live each day ‘in the moment’ or embrace the future and whatever it holds for us. Very few psychologists would encourage us to dwell on the past, repeat old mistakes or hanker for the simplicity of childhood when we need to take responsibility for ourselves as adults. However, as I write more – and more often – these gaps in my memory are frustrating. We write from experience; not just those life changing events that are etched forever in our minds or birthdays and anniversaries that are simply a mark of being one year older, but the minutiae of everyday life and how we lived it.
I have been working through different ways of recalling what was important to my younger self, the child of the early 70’s and those pre-teen years after which rites of passage seem to come along on an annual basis. High school, puberty, boys, exams, exams and more exams – no wonder we lose interest in remembering the small things. No, I have concentrated on being 9, a whole year that I may as well have slept through for all it has added to my mental memory box.
And I think I have found the very best way to recall everything I need to get the middle-aged me writing; I have compiled a reading list.
It is too often used as a meaningless cliché, but I have loved books all my life. There are boxes of old books in the loft which I hoped would one day interest my children, but alas Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket came along and the Famous Five and the Lone Pine adventures were condemned to gather dust. But like songs, or smells that trigger memories long pushed to the backs of our minds, books perform the same function, for me anyway.
So what was I reading at 9? Looking through my box of books I find the following titles which I know I read long before senior school but which have print a tad too tiny for me to have read much earlier..:
Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen.
The Enchanted Wood, The Magic Faraway Tree and The Folk of the Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley, with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone
The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm by Norman Hunter
The Armada Ghost Books No.s 2 and 3.
Five on Finniston Farm by Enid Blyton
The Bunty Annual 1972
Looking through this list has brought back clear memories of family holidays to Herne Bay and Hastings. I remember trying to read in the back of the dark blue Vauxhall Viva that always smelt slightly of petrol and therefore induced regular bouts of car sickness. There was the caravan site we arrived at to find the owner had died, so an air of understandable gloom added to the leaden skies. It was on that same holiday that I crawled under a fence and put my arm right down into a fresh, substantial cowpat. Mum scrubbed away at me in the long green wash huts with lemon soap that made the smell even worse…
I can also vividly remember unwrapping the Bunty Annual at Christmas, knowing what it was (I was given it every year from the age of 7 to 17 I think..) but anticipating the thrill of opening it for the first time and reading the Four Marys latest adventure just the same. It was a comic my dad bought for me every week, but he actually enjoyed reading it himself…
Now I recall my mum reading to me from The Land of Green Ginger and giggling along with her at the characters names – Rub Dub Ben Thud and Tin Tack Ping Foo. From this is sparked a memory of her reading to me from Wind in the Willows and I can see myself waking up to find she had nodded off with her head on my pink candlewick bedspread, book still in hand.
And The Enchanted Wood, an old hardback edition, green cover and well-thumbed pages (probably inherited from an older cousin) is the first book I remember reading to myself, over and over again. The story of three children (in my edition called Joe, Bessie and Fanny but now updated to Joe, Beth and Frannie….) uprooted to live in the country and discovering Silky and Moonface and the wonderful worlds whirling about at the top of the Faraway tree was quickly followed to my little library by its sequels. The only place to read these precious books quietly was in the bedroom I shared with my sister. At this time we were living on the ground floor of our suburban semi in London, the top half being let to a sitting tenant who had come with the house. She had the bathroom and toilet, so I am reminded of the dark wet evenings going to the outside loo, locking myself in with the spiders, and of having a bath a week on a sunday evening when Miss Ransom was at church… (and this was the 70’s not the 50’s…).
And I could go on, but I won’t, as it would bore you and I have made my point. All these memories triggered by books and luckily for me I had a childhood full of them. Most of the books in my list are still in print and read by millions of children so I am prompted to wonder what will be the triggers for similar memories when our children hit their middle years? Can we trust that it will be books? Or will it be a DS game, or the latest version of FIFA whatever for Playstation 3?
I hope not. The number of children’s books available and the joy people still get from reading to their children and seeing them grow through books suggests there is hope yet. A love of reading engenders a real love of writing and like our childhood memories, both are something to treasure.