Stories! Stories have had such an impact on my life and on most people’s. When I was very little, before television, there was the radio and I still remember the joy of sitting with my mother and older brother after lunch at 1.45pm and being enthralled by Listen With Mother. The radio programme was introduced by a lady with a very posh voice, Daphne Oxenford, and the immortal words, “Are You Sitting Comfortably? Then I’ll begin!” This was followed by a short reading of a story and for the rest of the fifteen minute programme I was lost in another world and my mother got a little bit of peace and quiet as her two sons, at that time, were quiet and still. It must have been bliss for her and it was wonderful for me. ‘Listen With Mother’ was followed by ‘Woman’s Hour’ and again my Mum would have a restful time and we were expected to occupy ourselves quietly.
At Stainbeck Preparatory School we spent a part of the afternoon listening to stories and it was there that I learned to read. I think, like many of us at the time, we learnt using the Janet and John series. I know that it was later criticised for having a limited vocabulary, middle class children and subject matter, being very repetitive, but I enjoyed them, I learnt to read at a very young age and most of the children during the 1950s became literate. This was probably helped by television not being widely available at the time and so there were far fewer distractions. I remember well being given a book at Stainbeck Prep. for becoming a reader. I think the whole class got one, and mine was a picture book that told the story of the Little Red Hen being caught by a fox and put in a bag. She used her scissors to cut her way out and replaced her weight by putting rocks in the bag. In the end the fox falls down the well.
My mother encouraged our reading and she would take us to Oakwood public library. The library was a large, old, stone house and like all libraries, seemed to have a certain atmosphere. We were told to be quiet in the library and we would walk through the rooms to the children’s section and there we could pick about six or seven books each. The library had a distinct smell of old books and seemed to have changed little from the outside when I saw it last year. At this very young age it was picture books and the Moomintrolls and Dr Seuss books were regular picks. The books were a little unusual, but I still enjoyed them. Captain Pugwash was on black and white TV in 1957 and so I sometimes chose some of those books.
Stories were magical and whilst listening, the rest of the world vanished and I was living the story. Teachers, my mum and the radio were sources of stories and I loved them. At school I had favourites and The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton was high up on my early experiences. We would sit on the mat on the rough floor with the rest of the class and the teacher would take us into another world. I have spent most of my adult life reading to children or telling stories and I know the power of good presentation. It is not an easy skill, but I guess I was blessed with good teachers, Miss Blackmore being my favourite at Stainbeck.
I left Stainbeck Preparatory School when the school closed and I went to Harehills County Primary at the age of seven. I must have been a good reader as Mr Harold Wilson, the Headmaster, was just starting his first day at the school. He was trying to unpack his belongings and sort his office and was caught on the hop interviewing us and deciding which class to put me in. At one point he asked my mother if I was a clever child. She had the natural tendency not to overstate and was going to say, “Oh, he’s an average boy”, but she had learnt from experience not to. “Oh yes, he’s a very good reader!” she said. Mr Wilson searched for a book and the only one he could find was the Bible. This wasn’t a children’s version so he opened it randomly and asked me to read it. I don’t remember any nerves and just read it back to him. I think my mother was pleased. The classes at Harehills were streamed by ability and, as a result, he put me on trial in the top class.
I loved Harehills School. On my first day my mother took me and left me before school in the playground. I noticed she was hanging around the railings watching to see if I was Ok. I went over to her after a while and said, “Will you please go home!” I was an awkward stubborn boy, even then, and I am sure many will say that hasn’t changed. I don’t remember any problems settling in and again the teachers fostered my love of books and stories. Harehills had a library at the back of the hall on the top level. I don’t suppose it was very big, but I thought it was wonderful. We had a library time where we could go out of the classrooms that surrounded the hall. Mine, Mr Kelly’s Room, was at the back right of the hall. Mr Wood had the next class down and that was on the left, as you faced the stage. The hall floor was rough floorboards and, as I have recounted before, the floor of the hall wasn’t structurally sound enough to hold parents sitting on chairs. This must have been great for the teachers as they didn’t have to hold events for parents. Believe it or not, they had the classes come out of the rooms and jump up and down whilst engineers measured the movement of the floor. The possible consequences stagger me, but times were very different.
Once a week we had radio assemblies and we would go into the hall and the large old radio was turned on. The assembly started with some classical music and the then there was a bible story, dramatised for the radio with actors. The stories were things like Daniel and the Lion’s Den, The Fiery Furnace, The Good Samaritan. They were religious and had a moral to educate us. These would be followed by a prayer and I think we all recited the Lord’s Prayer. I used to look forward to the radio stories.
My first memories of books from the library at school were Enid Blyton books. I just loved them. I read very Secret Seven, Famous Five and the Mystery books multiple times. The content had everything for me: old houses, wild coasts, gypsy camps, smugglers, treasure and children working to solve mysteries and having adventures. Of course, their lives were very different from my own, but they lived how I wanted to and did what I wanted to. They sailed little boats around the coast, went camping, cycling and climbed down to caves in cliffs. The books were simple to read, short enough, but made me want to go to bed so that I could carry on the story. After lights out, the torch would come out and my brothers and I would read under the covers, probably not good for the eyesight, but brilliant for the imagination and comprehension skills.
The most memorable time in Harehills library was when I came across ‘The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe’ by C.S. Lewis. I had no idea about the book, but the cover intrigued me. I took it home and after the first few pages I was captured. This was truly wonderful and I never wanted to get to the end. It had everything: the big old house, the old, slightly mad house owner, the game of hide and seek, entering the wardrobe and walking into another dangerous mythical, magical land. I rushed back to school after the weekend and found the rest of the Narnia series and, bit by bit, I read every one, several times. The first book I read, I believe, was the best, but I enjoyed all of them. Fantasy books had become my favourites and after this I had my first disappointment. I searched for similar books and found one called, ‘The Load of Unicorn’. I thought this would be similar, but it turned out a disappointment. It wasn’t a fantasy book at all, but an historical children’s novel about medieval printing and the load of unicorn was actually a load of printing paper.
Moving to Roundhay School saw changes in my reading habits. For a start, the library was much more formal. It was very quiet, we had to sit and read, work or be getting books from the bookcases. Books were checked out and library cards removed and stamped, but it wasn’t somewhere I found very enticing. To tell the truth, there were far more interesting things to do than read, or so I thought. There was sport at first, homework to do, at least the bare minimum, pop and rock music and far more important, girls! Reading was clearly at a disadvantage when compared to these, but some books did offer some appeal. Here We Go Round the Mulberry Tree was a film, with a risqué reputation and so I got a copy and to be honest, was sadly disappointed. My Grandmother had bought a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence just after it had won the court case and was found not to be obscene, from a bookshop across from the police station at Chapel Allerton. It came in a brown paper bag, which I didn’t understand at the time. As a teenager I got a copy and ploughed my way through it. What a load of rubbish, I thought, and still do. These ventures into other forms of writing left me sadly disappointed and then I discovered some science fiction in the Roundhay Library. Isaac Asimov, Clarke, Herbert were names that took me into alien and exciting worlds. They were brilliant writers with visions of the future and comments on the present. I found a new reason to read and I read a lot. However, it was in the sixth form in the mansion where we were doing a classics class for General Studies A-Level, when the teacher told us about the Lord of the Rings. It was just a passing comment in the lessons, referring to legends and myths, but I was intrigued enough to look in the library. There I found three hard-backed books, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. I took them out and it was another magical moment. These were books written for adults about a world of magic, evil, betrayal, love, murder and friendship. This was the final piece for me. My life would and has never been the same.
Reading is not a passive act, but a creative one. The art of the writer is to transfer the vision he or she sees in their imagination, into that of the reader. The success is when the reader experiences the same journey. When I write I relive the experiences I am retelling and I hope you share some of the experiences and see them as I do. Not everyone likes the same stories, some don’t like to read novels, some don’t like to read at all, and that is fine. I still get the same pleasure from a well written story and it can be much more satisfying that watching TV or films as they leave little to the imagination and are a much more passive activity. I thank my parents and teachers for encouraging me to read, read widely and through that, want to write myself. If no one reads it, it doesn’t matter, as I love it!