Every Sunday, when I was a child, a sprout appeared on my plate and every Sunday I refused to eat it. Much later, when distracted one day, I popped a sprout into my mouth. I did the ladylike thing; I chewed it, I tasted it, and I found that I did like sprouts after all. Mushrooms and olives were not an issue during childhood because in our house they were classified as “foreign”, and therefore never appeared on the menu. Though I disliked them when I did come across them, they are now my favourites. Similarly, I devoured Enid Blyton, fairies and princesses with the best of them. But I consider that it was the mavericks, the mushrooms, sprouts and olives, of my reading experience that formed my reading and writing character.
My first seminal book was The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley, read when I was around seven years old. I found this book (or, as my mother would no doubt have said, “I found it before it was lost”) hidden in the bottom drawer of the sideboard in our dining room. The Devil Rides Out is described by Wiki as “….a disturbing story of black magic and occult”. The Duc de Richleau and Rex van Ryn rescue Simon Aron from devil worshippers. Little pup sucking on the dark side as I was, I’m sure that in my innocence a lot of the book must have gone over my head. I was very pleased with my find as I’d searched the house on a regular basis and the only book I’d ever found previously was: “Flower Growing for Profit & Pleasure” by R L C Footit. To take a hidden book, to read a little bit and then to hide it away; I cannot recommend it enough. I missed out on the Lady Chatterley censorship, being more of the Frankie Goes to Hollywood generation, even so I affirm that censorship certainly adds a little frisson to one’s aesthetic appreciation.
The next cosmic shift in my reading world came when a cousin passed on some unwanted books. At that time I described them as “boys’ books”. They included: The Otterbury Incident; Emil & The Detectives; Joey & The Helicopter; and The 1001 Arabian Nights (with full and detailed colour illustrations). They were good books. However, the one that pulled me in, the one I read over and over again was “Dear Pig…” by Nathaniel Gubbins; illustrated by Laurence Scarfe. Nathaniel Gubbins was a popular columnist in the 1940s (Sitting on The Fence, in The Sunday Express). One reader regularly wrote to Gubbins and addressed him as “Dear Pig” because he was so disgusted with the column; hence the title of the book. I recall that even when the reader was bombed he still managed to drag himself out of the debris to post his letters to Gubbins.
One part of the book takes a satirical look at Mr Worm (Gubbins) and his wife. Whilst I enjoyed this, the part of the book that I related to the most was the section about a Mr and a Mrs Bird. Mrs Bird was often portrayed as weeping, with a reddened beak. Her husband would fly off to the Tree Tops club, or to visit a much sexier bird with lipstick on her beak who always wore a flimsy negligee. I related to the flash lightening of marital strife. I am not insinuating that my Dad had a mistress. However, the situation of the mother stuck at home with the chicks; whilst the man had the freedom to come and go as he pleased, struck me as being a scenario very close to home.
Many other books enthralled me during my childhood, but I remember fondly these savoury trespassers that left their muddy footprints on the spun-sugar environment of my girlhood reading memories.
The Devil Rides Out; Dennis Wheatley, 1934
The Otterbury Incident; Cecil Day Lewis, 1948
Emil & The Detectives; Erich Kastner, 1929
Joey & The Helicopter; Robert March, 1962
The 1001 Arabian Nights
Dear Pig; Nathaniel Gubbins, 1949, Illustrated by Laurence Scarfe