Posts Tagged ‘Mary Plain’

On learning to read

November 22, 2020

I now have a grandson at primary school who is beginning to learn to read, that first step to the opening of a huge world… I’ve written before about my learning to read, and also the importance of my local public library in fostering the enjoyment of reading in my earliest years, leading to so much pleasure throughout my life. So what did I read in those youngest years? Our house was not a house of books when I was a child: there was no money for such things…

Winnie the Pooh is probably one of the earliest books I can remember. It was a birthday present. I liked the stories, but I also liked what they offered to my imagination: I pictured myself living in the wood, in Pooh’s house and Rabbit’s hole. I laughed my head off at the impossible spellings Owl conjured up when he wrote Eeyore’s birthday card… I learned that books stimulated my imagination and made me laugh. Later on, at sleepovers – we didn’t call them that, in the old days – my friend and I struggled to read the adventures of Professor Branestawm to each other without totally creasing up in helpless laughter.

Another book I loved in my youngest days was The Wind in the Willows. I know I’m showing my age here, but there wasn’t anywhere near as much literature written for children way back then. Again, it had my imagination in overdrive: how I wanted to live in Badger’s home – it sounded utterly safe and magical.

Teachers at school are supposed to provide “extension activities” for brighter pupils; in my day, there was a bottom shelf of random books for us to be invited to read if we finished a task early, and that was fine by me: I worked my way through everything on offer. I can still remember a series of books about a bear called Mary Plain who had all sorts of adventures, and I have often wondered if these ancient storybooks is where the idea for the much more successful Paddington Bear series came from…

There was also the extremely worthy and edifying Children’s Encyclopaedia, nine hefty tomes filled with what seemed like a random assortment of articles on all sorts of subjects. There were also puzzles and tricks and scientific experiments described. I read my way through every page that interested me in all of these.

There were comics. I was allowed one a week and started with Jack and Jill. It was marvellous to be allowed down the street to the newsagent’s rabbit warren with my fivepence every Monday by myself to go and buy it. Later, when a more edifying and educational magazine called Treasure came out, my mother moved me on to this. Eventually my parents came across a part-work, Knowledge, which would build up over four years into a veritable encyclopaedia, to be bound into volumes. I think I devoured every word, in weekly doses…

Comics had to wait for the hairdresser’s, while I waited my turn to be cropped, and also for the annual visit to my grandparents where I could catch up on months’ worth of the Eagle which my uncle used to hoard. Here I came across Dan Dare and the Mekon: maybe my earliest encounter with science fiction? And when I got to secondary school there were the commando library comic books, Lion, Tiger, a whole raft of war stories, sf and sports stories (these last I really didn’t care for, just like sport itself).

There were newspapers at home and these too were hoovered up, although obviously I was selective in what I read and often failed to understand. There was the Daily Mail (!) every day, and the News of the World and the Sunday Pictorial at the weekend, though eventually my mother forbade the News of the World as too salacious.

And then there was the public library, for my parents could never have afforded to keep me in books. Often, especially during the school holidays, my sisters and I would go nearly every day, and I’d end up reading their books, particularly Enid Blyton, as well as my own choices. I went for the usual boys’ stuff: the Jennings series about life at boarding school, Biggles’ tales about warfare and flying, although I’m sure the greatest influences on me from those years were the amazing Young Traveller series, where two children and their parents ended up visiting almost every country in the world and introducing the reader to history, geography, culture and food of so many different lands, and the astonishing sf series about the Secret Planet, which really did get me hooked on science fiction for good…

They were magical days, magical times and magical books, and I’m sure that I can remember them in such detail testifies to the formative effect they all had on me.

My A-Z of Reading: S is for School

December 10, 2016

School was where I met the joys of reading. There was the alphabet frieze around the walls in class one, as we chanted our letter sounds, building them up into words. There were Miss Marvel’s bonkers flashcards which we chanted aloud: Mother, Mother, see Kitty! Even then I thought, but who talks like that? Why can’t we have real speech to chant? Janet and John readers, late 1950s gender role stereotypes.

Teachers read stories to us, as a reward for good work, and at the end of the day, when we were tired from all that school work. It was a treat; I don’t remember it happening at home. Certainly we didn’t get sent home with readers. There were small class libraries: I worked my way through everything. I remember a series of a couple of dozen books about a bear and her adventures – Mary Plain, she was called. Long before Paddington was ever invented. Eventually I moved onto the boys’ books – Biggles, and Jennings, and the earliest science fiction I could remember, the Secret Planet series.

There were factual books, too, to feed my quest for knowledge. The vast and even then ancient Children’s Encyclopaedia by Arthur Mee, patriotic, imperialist and I don’t know how many other kinds of ideological unsoundness, but a huge reservoir of information which I greedily hoovered up.

There was Stamford Public Library, with a children’s section which I soon exhausted – the vast Young Traveller series, where two white, British, middle-class children visited countries all over the world and I learned about them, sparked my interest in geography and travel. My mum persuaded the librarians to allow me to join the adult library several years early…

School, of course, brought more than just reading: there was understanding and interpreting what I read, right from the very earliest days of comprehension exercises. And eventually it would bring other languages, too: Latin and French for starters.

In my later years, I have realised just how much of my early schooling was focused on that key skill of learning to read, and developing an enjoyment of reading. Yes, there were lots of other subjects, too, but the ability to read fluently was vital in all of them. Books were a natural part of the surroundings, and the treat when one finished a task successfully before the rest of the class – choose a book to read. My teachers fostered my love of books and reading, and, along with the town library, provided what a financially poor home could not; when people run down our education system and public services, I remember what they provided for me.

Children’s Books

September 26, 2014

A recent challenge on Facebook asked me to name ten books that had stayed with me. Being advanced in years, that gave me a fair bit to reflect on: The Wind in the Willows made its way into the list. And then I posted it, and carried on thinking about how and what I read as a child…

I was a voracious reader; I read my sisters’ library books as well as my own (as a family we didn’t have the money to buy many books) and ran out of books to read in the children’s section of Stamford Public Library and was given a special dispensation to use the adult library at age 11.

The first book I remember I loved was Winnie the Pooh; then came Kenneth Grahame‘s classic, which I still love, and which, incidentally, is available as a marvellous free recording from the librivox website, and a serialisation of The Borrowers in a children’s comic I read at the time. I remember reading that aloud with my own daughter some 30 years later: the omnibus volume was so long that we only got halfway through: she was a reader of her own by then. I devoured all the books in the classrooms at school: I remember the adventures of a bear called Mary Plain, that continued through lots of books, ages before Paddington became a hit. And there came boys’ books, too: the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge: humorous adventures at boarding school years before I actually went to one. Biggles – how many books were there? – by Captain W E Johns, and then a curious discovery of a series of novels about the ‘Secret Planet‘ which must have been what kindled a life-long love of science fiction. There was also a many-volume series called ‘The Young Traveller in (supply name of country)’ which perhaps interested me in travel, another passion which has stayed with me throughout my life. Two children – a boy and a girl, of course – and their parents travelled through a country, visiting its interesting and historic places and learning about them, meeting the inhabitants and sampling the food; all good, wholesome fare for a child, and opening his eyes to the way that people and places could be different.

At some point Sherlock Holmes came along, too, in the form of a paperback for five shillings, bought with a Christmas book token (remember those?) from a relative: again, I never looked back, as many of my students, and my own children can testify.

When our own children came along and we read to and with them, I was astonished by the much wider range of books available, and the colourfulness, too: my childhood books had been full of words, black on white, and perhaps some monochrome photographs in a centre section if I were lucky. Books encouraged my fantasies and unleashed my imagination; books showed me other worlds and other ways to be; books made me think…

I realised how early the joy of words had come to me, how many of my lifelong pleasures had been triggered during my childhood days. I had the run of a library, and was encouraged to read as much as I wanted at school, and I loved it. Books are magic.

%d bloggers like this: