My life with books

By Sara B

   The first memory I have of a book is pretending I was engrossed in one as a small child whilst sitting on a bus with my mother. She was a great role model for reading as she was rarely without one herself, and there were shelves of them all over the house, so it is little wonder I copied her.

   Somehow, she taught me to read before I went to school (sadly my own children didn’t allow me to replicate this feat).  I remember missing out the reading schemes of the early nineteen seventies, so the exploits of Janet and John and the variety of colourful pirates (Gregory the Green and Rodney the Red et al) were things that my classmates stumbled over whilst I soared ahead with the classics.

  Alongside the bookshelves in our house filled with a host of ‘Readers’ Digest’ collections, (a notable source of books for my parents), specialist encyclopaedias, coffee table books about the world, space, animals, ancient civilisations, history, my mother’s romances and my father’s westerns, I had a shelf. At that age they were filled with fairy stories, ladybird books, and Bancroft classics; a range that Woolworths sold which were simplified versions of classics meant to appeal to children; Ivanhoe, the Last of the Mohicans, Treasure Island, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and the like.

I think between us we had a pretty good selection of a slice of human knowledge on those shelves.

  A large chunk of my formative years was spent curled up with a book. Apart from those I had at school, my friends were the characters. In fact, it took me a good ten years before I realised that the other children on the street all knew each other and played together, so my adventures were vicarious ones in my head inspired by the tales I devoured from books.

   There were some childhood classics which completely obsessed me; Alice in Wonderland, the Narnia stories, Alan Garner’s wonderful blends of history and myth, Winnie the Pooh; that curious blend of tales which seemed on the one hand to be aimed at much younger children yet written with that unusual avuncular tone. While the neighbourhood kids could be heard racing around the streets, seen climbing the tall trees over the way, or romping around in the fields at the back of our houses, I was acting out Lewis Carrol’s tales in the back garden, following an imaginary white rabbit in my blue nightie (the best thing I could find to dress up as Alice) or bossing my own toys about in the style of Christopher Robin.

   By the time I got to my teens, I became interested in ghost and horror stories. One of the most terrifying books I ever read was the best seller the Amityville Horror, marketed as a true, although it has since been debunked. I was there with the exorcist, the pan books of horror stories, I must have had all of those, and anything Stephen King wrote at the time.

   When I started doing A levels (including English) I discovered the joys of Hardy, Eliot and the Brontes – Jane Eyre was my first original classic after watching the seventies serialisation of it with Michael Jayston. (Darcy eat your heart out).

    But above all of those, there are two books which fascinated me as a child which heavily influenced the adult I became. The first was a dictionary. A great fat, red tome with over a thousand wafer thin pages; ‘The Universal Dictionary of the English Language edited by Henry Cecil Wyld.’

It had finger holes carved in the edge of the pages so you could easily select the initial letter of the word you were after. The thing that fascinated me about it was that it was etymological. So, it didn’t just provide the current meaning of the word, it also told you from which language it derived, how it had changed over the centuries, and other words that may be linked to it. From this I learned that a lot of our words were not only influenced by Latin and Greek, but old Aryan, Sanskrit, and a host of others, including two great European branches of language summarised as Germanic or Romance. I learnt of the Great Vowel Shift, how history and influenced our words, and many other things simply by randomly looking up the meanings of words. I actually used to read the dictionary for pleasure.

   The other highly influential book in my young life was a ‘Readers’ Digest’ publication called ‘Myths and Legends of the British Isles.’ It had a selection of essays on such things as ghosts and hauntings, fairy lore, superstitions in the home, the language of flowers and animals, heroes and villains.

   The main part of the book went through every county in the UK describing any interesting stories on old folk customs, any hauntings, superstitions, strange stories, tales of witches or other supernatural beings. Here I learnt about the bugganes and glashans of Ireland, Black Shuck, a famous demon dog that haunted the lanes of Anglia, Black Annis, the evil hag who clawed a home out of rock near Leicester, the boggarts of Yorkshire, the night that Essex was visited by the Devil when he left his footprints in the snow, all the stately homes that have screaming skulls, numerous hills created and spires twisted by Satan on his travels. In fact this was the first time I ever heard of Borley Rectory, the most haunted house in England, where Reverend Foyster and his wife Marianne were tormented by poltergeists. Hmmm. There might be a little bit more to that story.

   It’s hardly surprising that I went on to do a degree in English, leading to twenty years as an English Teacher doing my best to instil a passion for books and language into the young people in my classes. (Shame the government kept poking its nose in to that vocation but that’s another story), and here I am now, writing my own.

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