As the days grow shorter and that annoying rain lashes at the windows, the urge to cosy up with a favourite book (or two) reasserts itself. And I’ve been taking a good look at the importance of books in my life. I was lucky in that I was encouraged by my parents to read from an early age. I was an only child, not gifted with making myself popular at school and already considered a bit weird by my classmates because music occupied a lot of my time. I was not up to date with their tastes in music or tv, so close friendships didn’t come along until much later. As I found I much preferred the worlds within my books, I wasn’t too bothered by this. I had, as some of my teachers were known to remark, a lot of imagination. I’m not sure they all meant that as a compliment. It’s interesting to realise, looking back, that certain books….and the teachers who introduced them to me…have lodged themselves firmly in my mind ever since. In a Perthshire primary class, Mr Gray began to read out loud Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Kidnapped. His delivery was such that I hung onto his every word…..and even now I can quote from it. It was also in his class that I happened to win a prize for my recitation of a Robert Burns poem, in Scots. As the only “sassenach” in the class, this was ironic but nonetheless an honour I enjoyed. I began scribbling numerous stories.
Mrs Elizabeth Tweedie was a formidable woman with a twinkle in her eye. Bubbling with enthusiasm and vigour, she taught me English at Perth Academy and encouraged further my scribblings. She wrote on my final report that year “keep writing, Jane!” I never forgot those words of encouragement. And here I am, Mrs Tweedie….resolved to keep at it.
I couldn’t wait to dive back into my latest book each day. They became my real friends and I felt a huge sense of loss as each one was finished and I had to resurface. An unforgettable moment that remains with me was when someone cleared out their book collection and I was given three bulging carrier bags of random books. And what treasures I found within! The complete Narnia Chronicles. This appeared to me like the world I had been waiting for. I re-read them throughout the years and they are very special to me. The Mouse and His Child made me cry, as did The Velveteen Rabbit. Written with such simple beauty. Ring of Bright Water was also in that bag of goodies. I don’t think I have ever cried so much over a book as that one….especially when I went to see the film, despite its inaccuracies. Black Beauty was a sure fire tearjerker to such an animal softie as myself. And I was entranced by Charlotte’s Web. I’m deeply grateful for the existence of these gems.
I like to think I already recognised the feisty female characters predominant in such classics as Jane Eyre and Ballet Shoes. And Anne of Green Gables felt like a bosom friend indeed. I already had in my bookcase What Katy Did and the two sequels. Of course they are somewhat dated now, but the message within is essentially valid. I much admired Jo March in Little Women. She was determined to forge her own path, doing what she knew she did best.
There’s something enticing to a child about any delicious food references in stories, and I was no exception. I was somewhat surprised in later life to discover the actual taste of goats milk and cheese, having fantasized about Heidi’s satisfying mountain meals! And one of the best descriptions of a picnic turned up in The Wind in The Willows. Ratty’s idea of the basic necessities to be enjoyed on a river outing were mouth watering. I loved these characters, especially the house proud Mole, in his cosy little home. I can still hear his rare outburst of irritation … “Onion sauce!”
The Little House on The Prairie series offered a window onto a family who really had very little, yet made the most of everything. I can still remember the vivid picture the author’s words created of Christmas and birthday treats of intense but much valued simplicity. Still a very valid reminder today. I devoured both my own and my father’s allotted quota of library books most weeks, and progressed to Dickens, which I initially found hard going. But what a world he painted! A Christmas Carol became a Christmas Eve tradition for me. I found horrible fascination in Scrooge closing his bed curtains and awaiting the ghost. And then I read David Copperfield. Laughing at the bizarre names and traits he gives many of the characters, although the grim background is never far away.
Further up the school, I remember the revelation of learning to read and analyse poetry and Shakespeare. There’s a special thrill in peeling off the layers and finding the depths of meaning often concealed within the language…..just like paintings. So many dimensions. I was fast discovering a thirst for the past and authors like Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer popped up in my reading pile. Any timeslip novels were eagerly consumed…I still love the idea of travelling back in time. If I spot an antique carved wardrobe, I get that tingle.
My reading tastes remain as wide as possible. I’m a great one for armchair travelling…..in the current era that is. Expeditions, biographies, romances, folklore and myth, history and comedy. I still dare not take a Bill Bryson out in public with me. The last time was on a train journey where I got some very funny looks because I kept giggling.
I think one of my greatest thrills (and current ambitions) would be to write a novel and see it in print. A new friend. I’d like to take this opportunity to give special mention to someone who has just published her latest crime novel…..Paula Williams. (Please see the link in my Menu). Murder Served Cold comes out officially next week but my copy arrived early and I read it in one day! That should tell you something about the quality of excitement within the covers! So bravo to Paula….great inspiration for me.
It has been a joy to list and remember all my favourite childhood books again. I will be working on replenishing my collection ready to be dipped into at will. Kindles really aren’t for me. The feel of the page, the smell of the book…and not relying on a battery. I nearly always have a book in my bag, along with my notebook, for those dead moments between recording sessions or to calm my nerves on a flight. And there’s one beside my pillow every night. Who can be lonely with so many worlds to enter at will? I believe that passing on my love of reading to any future grandchildren will be one of the best things about entering that next stage. Guiding, as the small face lights up with wonder as we open the door into the ultimate escapism …… there can be no better gift.