Imagine my delight when I discovered a book called ‘Bookworm‘ was coming out, and my further delight on finding out it’s a memoir by Lucy Mangan, a favourite columnist of mine; she’s funny, swears in an economical yet effective manner and I’m pretty sure she was never on the netball team either (I am making huge assumptions here but, you know, bookworm). After reading Mangan’s memoir of childhood reading I wonder if all bookworms carry a common genetic code, so similar is her experience to mine.
When I was ten I walked into a lamp-post. You might imagine I’d see a lamp-post looming up before me, they don’t move around much after all, I should have known it was there. The thing is, I wasn’t looking at the lamp-post, I was looking at the page. I was so desperate to know whether the Walkers or the Blacketts would win the ‘capture the boat’ contest I simply couldn’t stop reading Swallows and Amazons even for the short time it took to walk to my Grandma’s house. The Walkers won, of course, and it was worth the painful lamp-post encounter to know that as soon as possible. I am a bookworm, you see.
So much (ok, all) of ‘Bookworm’ is enormously familiar. The introverted nature of the reader, and how weird this seems to non-readers. The ability to be elsewhere, deaf to all calls to tea, than a satellite town of Leeds within seconds of opening the pages. Where to today – Narnia? (never leave the back of an old wardrobe untapped kids!) The Lakes? Early 20th century shabbily middle-class Cromwell Road? Mid 19th century Ohio? (well you know the first two surely, and the third and fourth are ‘Ballet Shoes’ and ‘What Katy Did’).
I too was not allowed to read at the table (or, after the lamp-post incident, while walking along). I’d be chivvied from whichever nest I’d made for myself to ‘go outside for a bit’ to ‘get some fresh air’ and ‘rest your eyes’. I too was un-keen on the idea of a book club, and so – like Lucy – was not in the Puffin Club, despite being told ‘you could join, it would be nice!” No, thank you. I remain to this day happily un-reading grouped, though I quite enjoy discussing books on e.g. Twitter, which I can do from my own bed. Or in our lovely independent bookshop in town.
Mangan takes us through the stages of reading, from picture books to novels, against the background of the trials of nursery through to secondary school. School, weirdly, is not always kind to the bookish child. However, as Lucy Mangan points out, you can get away with a lot if ‘they’ think you’re clever ‘always reading, that one!’ and hardworking. Though if I had a pound for every accusation of daydreaming while reading aloud was going on in secondary school I could probably afford that extension we need for the books. I wasn’t always daydreaming, I often simply couldn’t stop myself reading ahead while someone haltingly recounted the horrors of a Triffid attack.
My Mum, who I always picture sitting in the corner of the sofa hidden behind a book was, like Lucy Mangan’s Dad, the enabler. She had an extensive – possibly complete – collection of Georgette Heyers but has since got rid of them, as I have my children’s books. Oh how we both bemoan our stupidity. It was Mum who took me and my brother to the library twice a week, and encouraged us to read. My Dad was not anti-reading by any means, and reads a lot now, but when I was young I remember him mainly going to work a lot, and doing his Open University degree/learning German/the double bass/how to build a harpsichord.
Mangan records brilliantly the agony of waiting for a book you wanted to read. I was almost totally reliant on the library having the book in and on the shelf, and on Mum to take me there (or a book could be ordered in, this would take an unspecified amount of time). I loved the library. The readers tickets; pink for children, green for adults. The STAMP CLUNK of the inkpad, I wanted to be a librarian. I can still be transported by a smell (like Proust, but less patisserie oriented) like that of Horsforth Library. Dust and paper, with a slight undercurrent of floor polish and damp duffel coats. This was originally a library of big old brown bookcases, with the grown ups’ library upstairs, the children’s downstairs in a side room with high Victorian windows. You could get lost in there for hours.
I borrowed everything; Dr Seuss, Ant and Bee, every pony book they had, Nurse Matilda with a nose like a potato, but at the end always beautiful (she is of course aka Nanny McPhee). St Trinians made me laugh out loud, A Traveller in Time (Alison Uttley) is a ‘transported back in time’ adventure and made me a big fan of Tudor Times. Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War is a sobering evacuee story. Helen Cresswell’s Lizzie Dripping, apart from the witch, had settings and people I was familiar with – northern towns with leek growing competitions, nights in front of the telly eating peanuts. I never did find a witch in our local graveyard, but you can bet I looked.
The Library was housed opposite Central Methodist Church in the ‘Mechanics Institute’. I had questions; “what is a mechanic Mum? what does Institute mean? why did they need an Institute?” For words are the bookworm’s buttered toast, always there, but if slightly different – sourdough maybe, instead of white sliced – they must be fully chewed over and savoured. The library eventually moved into a modern concrete, floor to ceiling plate glass windowed and green metal hand-railed palace, and I still loved it, but in not quite the same way. I still don’t know how I’m not a librarian. Ook.
It may have been Mum’s idea to buy us books instead of buying comics. As a mother now myself I can understand why; £5.99 for Minecraft World? When you can get this Alex Rider novel for only £1 more, get the book, child, it’s a no brainer! “Book of the Month” as we called it, while delightful once the Actual Saturday of Purchase came around, only added to the delicious agonies of waiting. Off we would troop, all four of us, to splash about in the freezing Bradford University Swimming Pool (you can imagine how I LOVED this part of it) after which we’d have a machine hot chocolate and then, FINALLY, get to the bookshop.
A whole tranche of my reading from the age of about eight to twelve carries in my imagination a slight whiff of chlorine; Noel Streatfield’s ‘Gemma’ Series, Nancy Drew, the E Nesbits, especially The Railway Children.The Enid Blyton ‘Adventure’ books and Mallory Towers. The Secret Garden (read every month for a year) and Tom’s Midnight Garden. Towards the end (thank God) of the swimming interlude I found Judy Blume’s ‘Deenie’ and ‘Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret’, Robert Westall’s “The Devil on the Road” and “The Machine Gunners”. I was starting to move on from ‘children’s books’ to more grown up fare, there was no such thing as Young Adult fiction in the early 80s. I became fascinated by John Wyndham’s science fiction. The likes of Colleen McCullough, Barbara Taylor Bradford, James Herbert and Stephen King novels started to make the rounds, I was going to the big library now.
It’s all there, my future reading self; theatre stories, adventure stories, detective stories, fantastic happenings to ordinary children. Where is my carpet, and where is my phoenix? I would wonder, and still do. I loved, and love, tales of people being whisked back in time, or away by mythical beings, ghost stories, magical tales, family sagas. I don’t and never have liked horror due to ‘The Rats’, that was enough for me.
Like Lucy Mangan I too have a son, he’s called Alexander as well – it’s a brilliant but quite common name. I am trying my very best to encourage him to be a reader. I nearly said ‘make him be’ there, but I learned early on that he will not read a book if he doesn’t like the look of it, but if he does, will read it/them over and over again (yes you, Harry Potter). I did have the joy of ‘Tiger Tea’, many Mog books, The Very Hunger Caterpillar and Dr Seuss again (I’m no fan of The Cat in The Hat either, Lucy, but I love The Sleep Book). I refused to read the ones about the trains, but his Dad was happy to. The Jolly Christmas Postman so delights me every year it makes me have a little happy cry, though Alex is ten now, and I may have to read it on my own this Christmas.
Alex has long been finding his own favourite books; J. K. Rowling of course, Cressida Cowell’s Dragon books, Liz Pichon’s Tom Gates stories, boy spy Alex Rider’s action packed adventures as related by Anthony Horowitz (it always helps to see your own name in a book). We let him get on with it, happy in the knowledge that most nights he falls asleep with a book on his face, or we hear the THUMP as one falls to the floor from a sleeping hand,
Bookworm is a fantastic read. When other bookworms read it they will understand it completely. Maybe if/when (I hope when) non-bookworms do, they’ll gain an inkling as to why we bookworms are how we are. For now, though, I’ve done enough writing, and shall go and read for a bit. Or go through the handy booklist at the back of Bookworm and find all those stories – there are so many stories – I somehow missed back in my childhood. Antonia Forest, I’m starting with you.
Bookworm is published by Square Peg.