Now we are (round about) sixty
Filed under: Children's and Young Adult Fiction
Five RSL Fellows remember the books they loved as children.
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
I can’t remember when I first got to know the stories from The Jungle Book. All I know is that from the earliest age I wanted to be Mowgli. I was fascinated by the difference between tamed and untamed animals. I wanted to live among wolves and panthers, feel the terror of the tiger, and swing from the treetops with the monkeys. I still feel the desolation Mowgli felt, when it was made quite clear that he did not belong in the jungle and must eventually return to his own kind, only to find he is rejected by them too. ‘I am two Mowglis,’ he says, and the last line of ‘Mowgli’s Song’ which ends the remarkable story ‘Tiger! Tiger!’ is, ‘Ahae! My heart is heavy with the things that I do not understand.’
Of course, there were other stories which comprised The Jungle Book, the most famous of which is probably ‘Rikki-
Tikki-Tavi’, about the mongoose who fought single-handedly with the dreaded cobra ‘through the bathrooms of the big bungalow in Segowlee cantonment.’
In a world where nature and all her animals are depleting fast, Kipling’s respect and admiration for all life, so beautifully evoked in The Jungle Book, still retains a fascination and nostalgia for me.
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
As a child, the book I returned to repeatedly was The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis. I read it so often that at one point I could recite the first couple of pages by heart. It is darker in tone and bleaker in outlook than most of the other Narnia stories, and one section of the book in particular kept drawing me back. The evil queen is trying to persuade the heroes of the story, Jill, Eustace, Puddleglum and Prince Rilian, that the Overworld, that Narnia, that Aslan do not exist and are mere figments of their imagination. She drugs them with sweet-smelling smoke, honeyed words and soothing music, all the while trying to convince them that they are wrong. After a courageous act, Puddleglum tells her that, even if she’s right and none of those things exists, he’ll still keep believing in them and himself. That message stayed with me and served as a mantra for my future endeavours. When others tried to tell me I’d never pass my exams or ever be a published author I hung on, sometimes clung on, to a belief in myself. If Puddleglum could do it, then so could I.
A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
I have no memory of actually reading my first and favourite book, but its images haunt me to this day, nearly seventy years later. It was Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, and it was always read to me – or rather gently chanted – in a soft, slightly husky voice by my adored mother (herself half-Scottish and a published poet), sitting neatly at the end of my bed in her slim flowery-print dress, on what seemed to me then like endless summer evenings, with the curtains drawn against the light outside, and the birds still singing in the echoing garden beyond, a situation vividly recaptured in the very first poem of Stevenson’s collection, ‘Bed in Summer’:
In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day…
Many of the pieces that follow – ‘The Lamplighter’, ‘Where Go the Boats?’, ‘The Land of Counterpane’, ‘Windy Nights’ – still sound in my head like songs, the words known by heart and locked safely into place by their sure, perfect rhymes. Paradoxically, all of them were promising to take me far away to a quite different place, a glowing open-air world of excitement and adventure, as in the poem ‘Travel’:
I should like to rise and go
Where the golden apples grow;
Where below another sky
Parrot islands anchored lie,
And, watched by cockatoos and goats,
Lonely Crusoes building boats…
Which is exactly where the adult Stevenson himself went, and where years later I tried to follow in his footsteps.
Just William by Richmal Crompton
Just William made complete sense when I was a child. The boys wandering the fields – that was me and my friends, before the building started and the fields became rows of houses. The pecking order and politics of the gang were very familiar, although ‘politics’ back then meant my father shouting at men smoking pipes on the television. Big sisters tyrannised the neighbourhood, and getting into trouble was inevitable, one big commandment: thou shalt get into trouble. We were like William when we were outside the house, and this was where William became heroic: he was still William when he went back inside. He fought for the right to be William, and he always won. More importantly, he was always right. Just William was a manifesto. I read it again recently. It’s still very, very funny and William is still heroic.
Folktales from the Upper Indus collected by Rev. Charles Swynnerton
Although I grew up in Karachi, the Anglophone nature of my household meant that my childhood reading was dominated by the likes of Peter Pan and the Narnia Chronicles. But there was also in my library a blue hardcover called Folktales from the Upper Indus. In some ways, this too was a product of Britain, having been compiled and translated from oral stories by one Rev. Charles Swynnerton, and dedicated to Victoria, Empress of India. But it was also the first book I read which had stories drawn from the nation in which I was living. I have a strong memory of reading it, and of being disturbed by how little I liked it. In particular I was upset by all the gouging out of eyes in a number of stories. Was this what stories from my nation were like compared to the more appealing ones from England? It was several years later, when reading the original Grimm’s tales with all their violence, that I remembered those Upper Indus tales with all their magic and charm and violence and understood that my over-protected childhood sensibilities hadn’t been prepared for them. And yet what a strong memory I retained of that first reading – something new and visceral in the world of stories was revealed to me by that blue hardback which I remember now with great fondness.