Arrival: Love of Literature

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For a variety of reasons, I was a late reader, only mastering the art when I was about eight and a half years of age, but what joy it gave me when I eventually learnt to decipher print. It was in a small village school, where I was sent due to family problems that I learnt to read by a process of total immersion. The class teacher read to us in the morning whilst we followed in our books. Then we were put into small groups according to our ability, where we read aloud to each other with a good reader leading the group, and in the afternoon there was silent reading and even a bit of writing. I suppose we did some Arithmetic somewhere, but I do not remember it, and neither can I remember a time when the time’s tables ever presented any problems for me. Like Macavity, I could do long division with no trouble at all, but literacy eluded me.

Beginning in the bottom group, I rocketed to the dizzying heights of the top group and even became a “leader” of a group. I could have burst with happiness. Like every girl of my age, Enid Blyton was my Saint, beginning with The Faraway Tree, progressing to the Famous Five Books and then to The Twins of St Clare’s, and Malory Towers. In my teens, my taste became a little more sophisticated. On one family holiday, I discovered the entire Poldark Series in the bookcase of the Bed and Breakfast we were staying at and binged on the lot. I always loved detective stories so Agatha Christie (Poirot, Miss Marple), Margery Allingham,(Albert Campion), Dorothy Sayers,(Lord Peter Wimsey) Ruth Rendell, (Wexford ) and best of all, P.D. James (Dalgliesh) were all consumed. Not that I ignored the classics; at my local library I discovered Dickens and read all his novels as well as the Count of Monte Cristo and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

A funny memory I have of myself is lying in bed when I was supposed to be sleeping, but, with the aid of a torch, attempting to read Wuthering Heights when I was far too young for this piece of literature. I had heard it was a love story and thought it might educate me into the adult mysteries that my parents insisted on telling me I was far too young to understand. The copy I had was illustrated by the most horrific woodcuts, great for a novel that is about domestic violence, certainly not love. Those engravings gave me nightmares. It was not until I re-read the novel years later that I fully appreciated its genius.

When at high school, we girls discovered the Angelique series by Anne Golon, a kind of marshmallow porn, far more informative about what we wanted to know. The books were passed around, then returned for the next girl to read. Every evening I would read this titillating stuff and then hide the book under my mattress until finally the novel was finished and it was time to give it to the next girl in order to pollute her mind with impure thoughts. A few days after I had passed it on, my mother came to me and said in sweet tones, “You know, Elaine, you do not have to hide your books, I found it quite enjoyable!” I wished that the floor would swallow me up! My mother had been removing the book from under my mattress, reading it in the afternoon and then carefully replacing it before I returned from school. Looking back, I hope she had completed her reading before I passed the book on.

These kinds of historical romances were known as bodice-rippers for obvious reasons. I must say, though, they were mild stuff compared with our modern Shades of Grey. Even when I was in my last year of school I was still so innocent that I had to plough my way through all of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to find out what the naughty word was.

I have heard some rather grumpy adults claim that young people no longer read, but only look at screens. Not so in my experience. I have two granddaughters who read (and write) continually and for their own entertainment alone. A third granddaughter, whose first year of school has been so often interrupted, has learnt to read quite well enough to entertain herself, following the example of her older sisters. I like to think their Nan has played a part in this, but I suppose I must grudgingly give some credit to their parents, who are never without a book by their beds. Technology has its place, and not only for the young. As one’s eyes become dimmer, try the magic of audiobooks where once again one can re-discover the magic of being read to and this time by the finest actors. Effortless enjoyment. A book at bedtime with one’s eyes shut, but beware the Sandman. Finally, I must thank all those teachers who have guided my voyages in the “realms of gold” by suggesting what I should read next and especially, of course, that teacher in the village school who flung open the gates to Paradise.