Monday, 19 February 2007

The 3 R's: reading, reading and re-reading

Love of reading usually has it’s roots in our early reading experiences and the books we discovered then. Obviously, taste in reading matter grows and changes through our teenage years and on into young adulthood but sometimes, later in life, we return to the sort of books we liked when young. This was certainly so in my case.

As a child at school I read Dickens and most of the children’s classics too. And mostly I enjoyed them, although the weekly trip to the library was a treat to look forward to: this was where I got to choose. All the harmless girls-own stuff I loved and all for free. Then there were comics too, of course; another sort of anticipation and pleasure.

As a teenager I went through literary pash after not so literary pash. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were a real passion that opened the door to spy stories, fantasy and science fiction. My eldest brother introduced me to James Bond and Wyndham and I progressed to George Orwell.

That all led to more scary stuff: I became hooked on Dennis Wheatley which I read by torchlight under the bedclothes late into the night. The result was nightmares but it was so deliciously scary. However, I finally gave up on the genre when I took part in a séance with some friends and realized that maybe there was more to it all this ghost stuff than was comfortable.

I graduated to romance: Georgette Heyer and wonderful romping sagas. So much more pleasant to go to bed with. But the advent of boyfriends rendered Georgette and her like superfluous. A more serious literary phase ensued – mostly driven by school curriculum rather than any elevated taste.

Although we had to study the works of Shakespeare, Byron and Thomas Hardy these did strike a chord in most of us. However, from choice we read Lady Chatterley’s Lover (very inadequate sexual descriptions in our opinion) and JD Salinger (lots of insight into teenage angst).

Then the bright lights of London beckoned and with them Edna O’Brien: I too learned what it was like to live on pennies and could dry my tights over the gas stove with the best of them. After Edna came cheerful Monica (grand-daughter of Dickens) and then block-busting trash.

A rise in the quality of my reading matter coincided with a rise in my fortunes: my boyfriend became my husband. Suddenly everything male was in the ascendant: Hemingway, Somerset Maughan and Greene were order of the day.

Parenthood brought Fay Weldon into my life too, along with every feminist writer I could lay my hands on. This was interspersed with DH Winnacot (serious parent stuff) and Freud (more serious still) and cookery books of every type; we young women were nothing if not Catholic in our tastes.

But I finally had to stop reading much fiction when my little treasures were small because I simply couldn’t bear to put a good book down and guilt was beginning to set in (Mummy, pleeease can we have tea? Just wait till I’ve finished this chapter, darling). A similar fate befell my feminist friends: Simone sent me to sleep and the American sisterhood were making me bolshie. Neither was conducive to happy married life.

When the children were finally at school all day serious reading resumed: first came Austen, Bronte, Hardy and Dickens. The Americans (James and Wharton) and the Russians (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky) followed. Then back to the Brits: George Elliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Virginia Woolf and Rebecca West became new best friends.

But, finally, too set in my ways I joined a Book Group which has been very good for me. Contemporary novels are again on the agenda and, for the most part, it’s fun and stimulating. But it’s the classics that I always return to: the sort of books one can read over and over and see something different at each re-reading.


Saturday, 10 February 2007

Down With Books

Libraries, large and small, are in the news at the moment. The Government has announced it will cut funding to the British Library by a massive £7 million. This is appalling because it is one cultural institution that is justifiably admired throughout the world. If you want to find something out, go to the British Library.

For the Labour Party to make such a cut is particularly shocking because it was through such institutions - albeit more modest - that millions of working people had access to self-education and, ever since borrowing of books became free, visiting a library became a way of life for many.

The powers that be are very good at lip-service, however, and like to appoint 'tsars' to champion cultural pursuits. One such is a Children's Laureate and it's Jacqueline Wilson - that well-known children's writer - that currently has that honour.

And she's got the bit between her teeth: she's warned British libraries (in general) that they are failing to offer children a wide enough and large enough range of books. We certainly need someone like her to speak up for young readers.

Because what she says is right. My local library has just been re-built (for the second time) at great expense. Incorporated is a new museum, an art gallery and a cafeteria: the first 'new' library had most of that of course, minus the cafe.

But what of the area dedicated to the Children's Library: it's smaller than the last one, which was smaller than the original one in the Victorian building. Young readers are obviously considered to be so unimportant now that their area in the spanking new up-to-the-minute building is tucked away in a cramped little corner.

As an adult, you can have a cappuccino as you browse through your Italian novella but there's no room for you to get down on the floor - or even stand - with your little cherub to nurture his interest in gladiators and help him find a book about them.

We need to encourage children to read - isn't that what libraries are meant to be for: today's little readers will be tomorrows big borrowers. We should be supplying a friendly, bright and open space for the purpose.

And that's not the only problem, as Jaqueline points out. Libraries are spending money on new buildings but they're not spending it on what they should: new books. They make the excuse that young visitor numbers are falling, due to cheap books and expensive computers. But generally figures disprove this; young visitor numbers are slightly up.

It seems that every kid on the block has bought or read the latest Harry Potter; the success of Rowling's series proves that there are ready, willing and able young readers out there. These guys need a constant supply of fresh and challenging new books in as wide a range as possible if they are to keep up their interest.

Books feed the mind and a narrow diet is not very appetising. And, by the way, nobody likes being pushed into a corner.


Saturday, 3 February 2007

Memories Are Made Of This

Memory is a marvellous thing: it comes, it goes, it changes. Memory is who we are - it's our identity - it's rooted in the past but it's also about the future.

If you're embarking on a memoir then memory concerns you a lot. Although, as a writer, it's very important for me to get my facts right (on paper that is: I'm not so good when being mouthy at parties) I must keep reminding myself that this is not necessarily the most important thing. It may be the significance of the memory that's more important than the accuracy: two people with a shared experince can have quite different memories of the same event.

Radio Four is a brilliant service; there are the most interesting programmes on it, albeit at times not always conducive to work or sleep. Last week, getting ready to go out in the middle of the day, I stumbled on a programme about memory between experts on the subject. Needless to say I was late for my meeting.

Discussion about 'earliest' memories was interesting: it seems much psychology is associated with this one. I won't even go there or we'll be here all day. But events that happened between the ages of 15 and 20 tend to be those that people remember most often: a 'reminiscent bump'. It's a period of great change in our lives and memories are often associated with those changes. Music, fashion or even events like going to the fun-fair alone for the first time may feature in these.

Then there are 'self-defining' memories which are often vivid and may be associated with sight, sound or smell. I've never forgotten the smell of a sweetie shop that my grandmother took me to when I was four; I can also remember the paving stones that I walked on, the dark shop and the kind shopkeeper. Very occasionally I come across that smell and it stirs my comforting sweet shop memory. Apparently this sort of memory can affect our goals in life or our preferences: lucky I don't have a sweet tooth.

Among others there are 'flash-bulb' memories - often of major events like the death or President Kennedy or Princess Diana - where we may recall all sorts of other things that are associated in our minds with that event. For example, perhaps we remember where we were, what we were wearing or who we were with when we learnt about the event. But these 'flash-bulb' memories can also be more understated; sitting around the fire, being at a birthday party, catching fish.

Now I can suddenly see myself five years old; my brothers and I in the shallows of the stream with our jam jars, trying to catch tiddlers. And I caught the biggest Stickleback: well that's how I remember it.