I wonder if we always remember the moment we learn things for the first time? I know that I do. I loved stories as an infant and remember Listen With Mother and other radio and, later, TV programmes. When I started Stainbeck Prep School at the age of four I loved the teachers reading us stories. Teachers such as Miss Cowling and Miss Blackmore would read stories to us and there was something magic about sitting and listening. The skill of reading was fostered with a range of books and my favourite from my young memory was The Faraway Tree Stories by Enid Blyton. It is not politically correct nowadays to love Enid Blyton stories, but I did, and they have a firm place in my heart.
We started to read with Janet and John books. Now, again, these are disregarded by educational experts nowadays, but I loved the pictures and whether the stories were relevant, or showed cultural diversity, meant nothing to me. Being able to read, ‘Run Janet, Run, followed by Run John , Run’, was a wonderful sense of achievement and, like taking your foot off the bottom of the swimming pool, it was the hardest step and it got easier from then on. At the end of that first year at Stainbeck we were presented with a book each and mine was about a Little Red Hen who was caught by a fox and she managed to escape with the use of her sharp scissors that she kept in her apron. I loved it and it was mine.
My mother would also take us to the library at Oakwood and it is still there and looks as if it hasn’t changed. I loved to go and look through the shelves to pick books to take home and we would leave with armfuls. The Dr. Seuss books stick out in my memory as do the Moomintroll books and Noddy and Big Ears. Strange stories and illustrations, but I was eager to explore them. A walk back home through Gipton Woods couldn’t go fast enough.
By the time I left Stainbeck and started at Harehills, at the age of seven, I was quite an accomplished reader. Mr Harold Wilson was the new Headmaster and when we saw him to enter the school he was trying to sort out his office. It was his first day and he was a bit flustered. He asked my mother if I was an average student and she told him I was well above average. I think she thought this would help me to get into a top streamed class. He asked me to read to him and the only book he had handy was a copy of the Bible and he chose a section and I dutifully read it to him. He must have been impressed as I was put in the top class.
The library at Harehills County Primary was at the back of the hall. It was a series of shelves and we were encouraged to borrow books. By this time I was reading novels, with few illustrations and, of course, The Famous Five, Secret Seven and the Mystery stories were some of my favourites. I quickly read them all and I wanted to live their lives with adventures at the seaside, smugglers and Gypsies. By the time I entered Mr Kelly’s class in Year 3, I was with him in Year 4 as well, I was looking for new challenges and I remember choosing The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I knew nothing about it, but the cover suggested it would be something I would like. Well, it was a revelation! It was magical in a way that no other book had ever been. I was lost and I think I read it almost all in one night. CS Lewis had bought my soul with his book and I searched out the other books in the series as soon as I was able. I loved them all, but they were never quite as good as the first one. Being taken from one world to another and finding yourself in a world of talking animals, danger, even death, was sublime. As a child, and even now, I become immersed in a good yarn in a way that film and television can never match. Reading is not a passive activity. It is mind transference. A good writer pictures what they write, and if they are successful, the reader will see the same pictures in theirs. The reader is part of the process, whereas the viewer of a film just is a receiver. At least that is how I see it.
Reading became a time I looked forward to and after the Narnia series I was desperate for similar books. I remember choosing a book called The Load of Unicorn. The title seemed to hold possibilities, but when I read it I was disappointed that it was a historical children’s story about an apprentice to William Caxton. I was disappointed, but I still read it and experienced a new genre.
After Harehills I moved to Roundhay School and there was a good library there. I was changing rapidly and reading novels had less pull on me. There was sport, science and soon girls and music. I probably read the least for pleasure I have ever done during the time up to the Lower Sixth, that was, until we had Classics in General Studies and the teacher, can’t remember the name, was speaking about Greek legends and, for some reason, spoke about Norse legends and then said that if we enjoyed them, then we should read The Lord of The Rings. This would have been in 1971-2 and the books hadn’t become the mega-famous books and films they are today. They were creeping into popular culture, I discovered afterwards, with Led Zeppelin referencing characters in some of their lyrics. I was intrigued and I went to the library to seek out the books. There were three thick, hard-backed books in the series and I took out the first, The Fellowship of the Ring and took it home. I read the first chapter and, just as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe had captured me at Harehills, Tolkien did at Roundhay.
The book was scholarly written, full of history, vivid descriptions and challenging vocabulary. It was a major step up from CS Lewis and I went through the three volumes in quick succession. I then sought out other books and read The Hobbit. I found this much less of a work, but still enjoyable. From then on I was an avid reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy and would always look forward to reading. I have read so much, some fantastic and some much less so. Isaac Asimov, Herbert and many others were great writers and great thinkers. Arthur C Clarke was the first to envisage communication satellites and, without science fiction ideas, science and technology would not have the targets that they do.
Finally I spent my working life reading other people’s stories to children and twenty years ago I thought I would have a go at writing a children’s novel. It came from an idea that I had, linked to an incident in the school. From that my first novel, Wickergate, was written. I entered it into a competition here in Perth where the first two winning entries would be published. The entries could be novels, biographies, plays, poetry or picture books. My book was third and I got a lovely letter from the judges. I did nothing with it until a few years ago, when I retired and then re-edited it and self published it on Amazon, through Kindle. Guess all those years of reading have done me some good, but unfortunately reading has never made me a good speller.