If it hadn’t been for libraries this blog wouldn’t exist and I would be a very different person. I have my mum, another avid reader, to thank for this. Every Saturday morning my father would drop us in Scunthorpe and go off to play football. We would do some shopping in the market, pay Radio Rentals for the telly and then best bit – we would go to the library and change our books.
In the 70s/80s the library was a very odd looking building that visitors entered through a glass pyramid. A type of working class Louvre, usually covered in poo from all the pigeons in the square! However, it was the magic gateway to culture for me. A place where the message board advertised local gigs and theatre productions and downstairs housed an art house cinema, where Mum famously fainted after being overcome by Kevin Costner on the wide screen. We were a low income family, living in the middle of nowhere in Lincolnshire. Dad’s basic wage from the drainage board had to keep all four of us and the pets. Books were loved but not a priority in the budget, so I had to wait for Christmas and birthdays to get book tokens. This building was my holy grail of reading and I read classics, comedies, books about growing up. This was my window on the world and it didn’t matter if I didn’t like one, I could just put it to one side and take it back the following week. Mum would go upstairs to choose her books and I was left to browse on my own and I could take all the time I wanted.
After the library we would grab a sandwich and get the 336 bus to Ashby where my grandma and grandad lived. We would stay there until Dad picked us up at teatime. In spring and summer I might sit out in the garden or in Grandad’s shed which always smelled of shallots and had a pair of curtains at the window. While he pottered doing jobs and I would read my book. Or in the colder months we’d be inside, with the gas fire on so high it gave me a headache, and my Grandad in his red all-in-one (he was ahead of his time when it came to onesies). He’d watch rugby league or an old black and white film, while I read or we would read together. Grandad was very fond of pioneer stories, adventure novels and Wilbur Smith.
These are just a few of my book choices from those earliest days of picking my own books and cultivating a love of reading:
Little Women: This was the first book I read after completing the reading scheme at school. School had the first book, but I went to Scunthorpe Library to read the next stage of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy growing up in civil war America. I borrowed this series so many times that I still know each girl’s story off by heart. Of course Jo is my favourite. I wanted to be a writer and have a room to work in with lots of books. However, I also grew to love Amy despite her haughty character and snobbish tendencies. These early attempts to seem genteel were affected and often satirised by her older sisters. Yet, Amy grows from there. She keeps a certain steeliness and determination to succeed, but becomes kinder, softer and more vulnerable. Her interest in the finer things though give her a certain polish, she is cultured and this gives her opportunities. Good Wives shows this growth. I love how this series seems to stay relevant for every generation, with the latest film taking an interesting, more feminist slant than before. I love this Puffin ‘In Bloom’ edition of the book.
What Katy Did: I chose to read about more 19th Century growing up with Katy Carr and her house full of brothers and sisters. Katy’s mother had died and her father worked long hours as a local doctor, leaving the siblings to run a bit wild. Until her father’s sister, Aunt Izzy takes over as housekeeper. The strangest thing about reading this series was Katy’s accident on the garden swing that leaves her paralysed. I had an accident and broke my back at a similar age and was temporarily stuck in bed. I remember wanting to be like Katy or her mentor Cousin Helen who was always cheerful and helpful, even though she was in constant pain and a wheelchair user. In later years I wrote about the illness of Katy and other 19th Century heroines such as Beth March and Pollyanna. They all learn to be well behaved and Christian young ladies through suffering, if you read them from a feminist viewpoint. Back then though I just loved the sequels to Katy’s story – the secret societies at school, the trunks of goodies sent from home, Katy’s travels across Europe, particularly the Venice carnival. I’m sure it was this book that made me determined to visit Venice when I was older.
The Bagthorpes Saga: For humour I always enjoyed James Herriot’s stories, and later the Adrian Mole diaries, but the Bagthorpes were in a league of their own when it came to comedy. The four siblings William, Tess, Rosie and Jack were the children of writers – capable Agony Aunt Mrs Bagthorpe and the stressed out and highly strung scriptwriter Mr Bagthorpe. The whole family are always getting into scrapes with Grandma and their psychopathic four year old cousin Daisy behind all sorts of nefarious schemes. The siblings are all busy with accomplishments that Mrs Bagthorpe calls ‘strings to their bow’. All except Jack. Jack is the ordinary sibling, who enjoys walking his dog Zero and doesn’t really excel at anything. Aided by a hedgehog like housekeeper, Mrs Thorndyke, the Bagthorpe family lurch from one disaster to another; fires, floods, hauntings and kleptomaniac four year olds! I read these books over and over.
Pippi Longstocking: Pippi was one of those marvellous heroines who is an orphan so has no restrictions to her imagine or what she can get up to. Pippi Longstocking is only nine years old and lives all by herself with a horse, a monkey, a suitcase full of gold, and no grown-ups to tell her what to do. She’s wild and funny and her crazy ideas are always getting her into trouble! She devises adventures for her new found friends Tommy and Annika. Pippi performs at the circus, is reunited with her long-lost father, and takes her friends Tommy and Annika on a trip to the Canny Canny Islands. She also finds a squeazle, gives a shark a good telling-off, and turns 43 somersaults in the air. I loved her sense of adventure and wanted to feel as free as she did. I love the new gift editions illustrated by Lauren Child, they seem to capture the spirit of Pippi perfectly.
The Moomin Sagas: Oh how I love the Moomins! Today I have a Moomin dress, light box, mug collection and many other reminders of Tove Jansens eclectic characters. The Moomintroll family live in a tall blue house in Finland and are peaceful, happy creatures. Moominmamma is an earth mother type, always willing to feed another at her table and often taking in other creatures to help, such as the Hemulen – a tall, cross dressing botanist with depressive tendencies. Moominpapa likes nothing better than a quiet day fishing and smoking his pipe. Moomintroll is their son and has various friends such as Snufkin, a green clad, flute playing traveller who often wanders off to have adventures. Moomintroll’s love interest is the Snork Maiden, a Moomin with curly eyelashes, blond hair and a few cuddly extra pounds that she worries about (I feel a great affinity with her). There are adventures with eclipses, hobgoblins and comets, but it is the characterisation of these varied creatures that has always stuck with me and their philosophical musings on life. I’m considering a Moomin tattoo, perhaps Little My?
I’m thinking of a combi Moomin and reading tattoo to represent this childhood love of reading, all started with a library card.