I was five years and three months when I started school. I could already read fluently. My mother, who’d been an infants teacher, made sure of that. Toiling through the Beacon Readers – as we all had to – was therefore a bit of a bore, but I knocked them off in a few weeks and then happily got on with real books and real life. Severely bitten by bookwormery, I read anything and everything from the Famous Five and the Chalet School to the ever-informative Girl comic and annual. I gobbled up both David Copperfield and Jane Eyre before I left primary school because I’d seen Sunday teatime TV adaptations, so it was easy.
My mother liked crime fiction and there was usually a Ngaio Marsh or Margery Allingham tucked, face down over the arm of the sofa awaiting her return. At about thirteen I picked up one of her Agatha Christies and began the transition to grown up books which soon included most of Daphne du Maurier, DH Lawrence, a lot of Graham Greene, CP Snow and lots more.
Then I went to college and became a secondary English teacher. That meant that I could happily bang on about books all day and pretend it was work – and I did, for thirty six years. When I was in the sixth form a very misguided teacher told me that Rebecca was rubbish and I shouldn’t be wasting my time on it. Fortunately I knew she was wrong but it taught me something. I carefully promised every class I ever taught that they could be open with me and I would never “rubbish” their reading choices. And I didn’t. Result? Hundreds of hours of constructive two way discussion about books and I quite often read what they were enjoying: Flowers in the Attic (Virginia Andrews) and The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay), for example. I didn’t like either but I approached them open-mindedly and was able to tell students what I thought and why. Rebecca, by the way, is now set for A level. Tee hee.
As I cut my teaching back in order to pursue a career in journalism I also started to write English text books – all based on extracts from novels, poems, plays, journalism or non-fiction. Each themed chapter begins with a passage to read. And golly, how I enjoyed writing them. It was another excuse (as if I needed one) to sit at my desk reading and skimming under the guise of work. The books are now all published by Hodder under the Galore Park imprint – you can find them on Amazon. Might, come to think of it, help some families with homeschooling?
I’m convinced it’s easier to weather the privations of a global pandemic if you’re a book worm than if you’re not. It’s such an easy form of escapism. During the last year I’ve probably spent an average of two or three hours of every day reading. Since I was widowed in 2019 I’ve taken to reading at mealtimes too – the Kindle app on my iPad is brilliant for this because it props up and you only have to touch the screen very lightly to turn the pages leaving hands otherwise free for eating. But I’ve banished screens from the bedroom in an attempt to get a bit more restful sleep. That means that I habitually read at least two books at once – one digitally and a hard copy (usually a re-read) of something on my bedside. I’m currently reading Will Dean’s Black River downstairs and Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the bedroom, for example.
It was one of my lovely daughters-in-law who said (phone) to me recently, when I was feeling a bit low and lonely: “Why don’t you start a blog about all these books you read? Share it with the world. You used to inspire students with reading. There are plenty of people out there, like me, who’d love to hear it now.”
So I’ve thought about it and I’m giving it a whirl. Having set the scene today, I shall kick off Susan’s Bookshelves with thoughts about John Christopher’s Death of Grass (1956) later this week
The photograph, by the way, really is my bookshelves. Designed for, and built in, my sitting room by my can-do-anything elder son, they’re based on Cambridge University Library where he used to work.