The Reading and Writing Life of a Family - Gillian Clarke’s Journal
by Gillian Clarke
In December 1997 we cleared my grandmother’s house, the house where I was born and where later I lived for 25 grown up years and brought up my sons and daughter. A week before a burglar had taken the pick of the furniture. We tossed the junk into a skip, stowed what was left in the car and trailer and brought it home to unpack.
In trunks, hat boxes, shabby suitcases, very old handbags and polythene bags we found gold: the reading and writing life of a family. There were letters, photographs, diaries and books, hundreds of books, and among the adult library were the books of four generations of childhood. Here, in the heap the burglar rejected, were long lost books whose stories, poems and pictures, whose smell, weight and texture were so familiar that I felt dizzy. They were as alive and physical as my own mother, and I could smell her Pear’s soap skin and her Camomile hair as I opened them again. A Child’s Garden of Verses, my first pathetically old-fashioned, shabby little reader, The House at Pooh Corner, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Milly Molly Mandy, Little Grey Rabbit, Wind in the Willows, and Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia in ten brown and gold volumes. Best of all was my reunion with The Kathleen Fiddler Omnibus. Every leaf and face and shadow in every illustration was familiar and thrilling. I recalled how deliciously frightening they were, how I carried them off to relish in private, to become an old-fashioned girl called Morag or Aoghann, which I could not pronounce, to inhabit the cottage interiors and gaze out through the windows at landscapes where roads wound into tantalising distances.
Although every book is a magic carpet and without one I still feel grounded and lonely, no book since childhood has ever filled my inner life with such power as those books which now rose from their boxes like childhood resurrected. I was obsessed with reading. ‘Nose stuck in a book’, was the complaint. ‘Why don’t you go out in the fresh air?’ So I did, and the book went too, It was my mother’s doing. She sang me nursery rhymes and taught me to read when I was four. I wasn’t a pale, bookish child, but a sturdy, tomboyish book-worm. George of the Famous Five had something to do with that, as well as Arthur Ransome, and, I’m afraid, that Imperialist bigot, Biggles. I read up trees, and even once in the sea. I propped the book in a fissure of rock and kicked to keep myself afloat.
Today I open one of the trunks, find a lost friend, begin to read. Without thinking I find myself reading, ‘The boy rowed to the island’, but the word comes out as ‘izland’. Then the verb ‘to misle’ finds its way back to my tongue. (Past particle: ‘misled’) I cherished that mistaken work until I was in the sixth form, and have not recovered from the loss. No existing English word describes the perfidy of ‘misling’ somebody. I would argue for its inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary. I rediscover my old friend Percy-phone in the Underworld, then I find the story where when a boy took a switch with him when he went to fetch a cow, I had thought he was carrying a bakelite electric light switch on the end of a wire.
Having unpacked my own childhood, I rediscovered my children’s first books, and with them the hour between bath and bedtime redolent of Johnson’s Baby Powder and damp curls: Babar and Tintin , Rupert and Pooh, illustrations of Brian Wildsmith and John Burningham, Busy, Busy World, The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, The Hobbit and the Narnia books, and once again Ratty and Toad and Jeremy Fisher and Milly Molly Mandy.
At the bottom of the last trunk the oldest books were stowed, an incomplete set of Chatterbox annuals dating from the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the 1920s, most of them in such good condition that it is obvious they were never read up a tree or in the sea. I open them, with interest, fascination, an intellectual excitement. But they were not my books, or my children’s books. They are history, and as such I treasure them, but not as I treasure the dog-eared books that make me who I am.
(First published in Never Ending Stories, Studies in Children’s Literature edited by Christopher S. Stephens)