Posts Tagged ‘The Wind in the Willows’

On learning to read

December 31, 2021

The eldest of our grandchildren is now at school, and learning to read. Given that reading is such an important part of my life, and always has been, I find it strange that I can recall very little about how I actually learned to read. I remember nothing at all from before I went to school as a rising five; ours was a poor household and there was no money for books. However, when in Class 1 Miss Marvell began the process of teaching us, I do recall that it seemed quite straightforward to me, so I must have been ready or prepared in some way for it.

The letters of the alphabet were on charts high up on the classroom walls, and I remember our having to chant the sounds aloud, in unison. Shortly after this came a series of flashcards with ‘sentences’ on them, which again we were required to chant; I remember thinking they were daft at the time. The one that has stuck in my mind for sixty-odd years said, “Mother, mother, see Kitty!” and I can remember thinking, “Who on earth would speak like that?”

Eventually there were readers – the Janet and John series, I think, that we shared one between two, and took in turns to read a sentence aloud. Again I recall thinking that I wanted to read a lot more than one sentence because this new skill was so exciting and I could do it, and also feeling impatient with those who couldn’t master the words, or stumbled over them. At the same time as acquiring this new skill, we were also learning how to write, beginning with individual miniature blackboards (as chalkboards were then called) and graduating to pencil and paper as soon as our fine motor skills were good enough. Here I remember being cross about having to use the pencil and paper, because I quite liked the business with the chalk…

Yet I was never conscious that I was learning to read and write; I hoovered it all up, along with the excitement and the possibilities it opened up. I have no recollection of taking readers home from school and practising with my parents; I don’t think such things happened in those days – school was school, home was home, and quite honestly, my parents were too busy running a home and family.

When I think about it now, I realise that the ability to master and operate with text was crucial to schooling in those days, for everything came from printed textbooks, with a very few black and white line illustrations. In other words, if you couldn’t read, you were seriously stuck. I remember that in the second class, those of us who could read competently were paired up with those who needed practice, to help them and hear them read. Again, uncharitably, I found this tedious, as at the age of going on six I couldn’t see how anyone couldn’t understand those letters and words…

Still no books at home. I must have been coming up to seven when my mother realised that she could sign me up to the children’s section of Stamford Public Library, and I can truly say that from that moment I never looked back. I read anything and everything, not quite indiscriminately, but pretty promiscuously. I can remember particularly the Young Traveller series, which probably sparked off that bug – two children in a nice, white middle-class family who got taken off to lots of interesting countries and saw the sights, tried the food and learned about habits and customs: I wanted to be able to do that. I exhausted the possibilities of the children’s library by the age of twelve, at which point my mother went and soft-talked them into allowing me access to the ‘grownups’ library several years early…

There were also the small classroom libraries at school: when you had successfully completed a task, it was often easiest for the teacher to send you off to get a book to read until everyone else had finished, and the class could move on to the next thing together. Again, I hoovered up everything, and can remember being particularly interested in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, which I devoured large chunks of.

Finally, I also began to acquire some books of my own: my parents realised how much reading meant to me. I was thrilled when they bought me Winnie the Pooh, and overjoyed when Christmas and birthdays brought book tokens, with which I bought my first copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and also The Wind in the Willows. That last one I still have, a treasured item in my now vast library. And I know that there’s a certain snobbishness or superiority in saying this, but I cannot understand people who can, but do not read, and I have never understood how it’s possible to have a home without books…

What comes out of all this is my realisation of the incredibly liberating effect of education. I’m always very moved when I read about the lengths that some children in the Third World go to, in order to be able to get to school, and I appreciate my father’s determination that I should get a good education – he had four winters of school, 1922-26 and that was it…

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.

A tour of my library…

August 8, 2019

In previous summers, I’ve done something different in a series of posts; this year I have decided to take those of you who are interested on a tour of my library. This has been growing since I first acquired copies of The Wind in The Willows and Winnie the Pooh (which I still possess) when I was about six years old. It’s gone through a couple of incarnations, swelling enormously when I was an undergraduate and then shrinking again when I divested myself of an awful lot of books, and doing that again when I did my postgrad research. Since then it has grown gradually, reaching a peak of about two and a half thousand books; in recent years I have been trying to get to down to manageable size (!) and it’s now below the two-thousand mark…

The idea for these posts was sparked by a recent visit to Belsay Hall, a stately home in Northumberland, which has a Brideshead kind of history, as, after being commandeered for use during the Second World War and fairly comprehensively wrecked, it was given to English Heritage on condition that it wasn’t restored to its former glory, but that the shell be preserved to showcase its inner and outer architecture and design. So the library is a vast, empty room, with ranks of empty bookshelves lining its walls, and I found myself thinking, “My library could fill these shelves…”

Given that we live in a modest semi, my library is distributed around the house. There are books in the sitting room, in the hall, and in my study, as well as in crates and boxes in the loft. And there is also my other half’s library, and the books we share.

I do possess an (imperfect and incomplete) catalogue of my library. Some forty-five years ago I acquired a large bound daybook – the kind of thing financial transactions used to be logged in, in pre-computer days – and decided to use this to list all my books. Every one has an accession number, and I log the author, title, date I acquired the book, and whether it is new or second-hand. I’m approaching number 4000 in terms of accessions, so there have clearly been a lot of deletions, too; these are denoted by a pencil line through the details of any book I’ve disposed of, so there is actually a record of all the books I have ever owned, pretty much.

At some point in my early days of computer ownership I tried to teach myself how to use databases and failed abysmally, instead setting up a quite detailed and searchable spreadsheet of my library, from which titles are actually deleted when they leave my possession. A slimmed-down version of this is now on my phone with the aim of stopping me buying books twice over when I’m browsing second-hand bookshops… which does happen with increasing regularity.

The daybook which contains my hard copy also contains my reading log, which dates back to 1973, when I became an undergraduate. I log the author and title of every book I read, and the date on which I finish reading it; I also log the date in pencil on the final blank page of the actual book. So I do have some track of what I’ve read and when; a friend pointed out to me that if the reading log were put on a spreadsheet, all sorts of interesting information might be sorted and extracted: I can’t face the effort…

On children’s literature and children in literature

April 20, 2019

I’m more than a little surprised it hasn’t occurred to me to write on this theme before; perhaps it’s grandchildren that have turned my thoughts in that direction and prompted me. There are many marvellous classic children’s books out there that I’m hoping one day I will have the chance to share with the next generation: Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, The Borrowers and The Phantom Tollbooth to name but a few. Wonderful new stories appear with each generation but the old favourites will endure too, I think.

However, it it books that feature children that I am particularly interested in here. I regularly introduced my classes to Mark Twain’s wonderful The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and I think most of them got something from it; it has a lot of those things that children fantasise about: skiving chores, school and duties, running away from home, finding treasure, as well as scarier things such as witnessing a murder and being lost in a dark cave. It may be set more than a century and a half ago, but the themes still appeal. Sadly, only a couple of opportunities arose to teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is in some ways an even greater achievement, treating as it does the cusp of childhood to adolescence and adulthood, and showing us the learning that can take place at that time. Huck’s symbolic journey with Jim on the raft down the Mississippi is at times humorous, fantastical, true to life and very moving.

Elsewhere I’ve written about To Kill A Mockingbird, where once again two children have two grow up and grapple with adult issues rather earlier than they may have wished; I have no time for those who carp and cavil about this novel for whatever reason; Harper Lee creates people, time and place brilliantly to explore a whole range of ideas.

I’ve also waxed lyrical in many posts about Philip Pullman’s masterly achievement in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and also in the first volume of the new Book of Dust trilogy. There is something very refreshing as well as thought-provoking about having children as the central characters in such astonishing books, and the adults merely taking subordinate places. The process of growing up, the realisations and the learning that take place gradually or suddenly as we pass from innocence to experience are well worth contemplating again as adults; I can only wonder what the experience of reading these books first as a child, and then returning to them as a grown-up, might be like: I will never know, of course. Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines tetralogy – which I’m working up to re-reading – also has children as its central characters, although their adventures are not cosmos-changing in the way that Will and Lyra’s are in Pullman’s books.

It’s a truism that our childhood years form us and shape the adult that we eventually become; we don’t realise this is happening whilst it is actually happening, and we are perhaps rather more eager to leave childhood and childish things behind for the more exciting and ‘real’ world of adults. Only as we grow older do we realise the meaning of the true innocence of those childhood years which we can never have back. Perhaps it is the experience of raising our own children, and enjoying our grandchildren, that provoke us to contemplate what our past did to us; understanding and acceptance are all that we can acquire now, as time marches on…

On old favourites

March 11, 2017

I’m sure everyone has these. I have more books than I care to think about (sometimes) and I’ll certainly never now have the time to get around to (re)-reading them all. But among them are some books I have loved for many years and which I treasure with a great fondness. Childhood favourites are The Wind in the Willows – my copy is certainly the first book in my library and I can still recall buying it with a Christmas book token when I was seven or eight years old. I used to fantasise about living in Badger’s underground home, so cosy it seemed. And I discovered a brilliant audio version, yes, on the librivox website…

Then there was Winnie the Pooh, which I loved; I recently bought a new copy to be able to read to my new grandson, in a few years time. Somewhere I have a copy of the Latin translation, bought as a curiosity many years ago. And The Borrowers, which was serialised in a children’s magazine when I was very young. I bought my elder daughter the omnibus edition and we shared it as a bedtime book but never got to the end together before she became too old for bedtime stories…

I also loved Professor Branestawm’s adventures, unable to read them without collapsing into hysterical fits of laughter; I still wish I could imitate him and send the gas company an envelope filled with mashed potato instead of a cheque paying the bill.

Grown-up reading seems rather different to me: as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown out of, or beyond some of the books that moved me greatly when I was younger. I haven’t lost Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund and will revisit it every few years for as long as I’m able: it meant something else to me when I was a mere student, and now in my older age it holds very different but just as significant messages for me. I shall also return regularly to Oscar’s adventures in The Tin Drum, to the reflectiveness of Adso in The Name of the Rose, and the magical world of Maldonado in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And – I’m still not sure why, but Josef Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls demands to be re-read, if only for its magnificent swearing. And if I was to pick out one SF novel, it would have to be Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars: anyone who can project us a billion years into the future earns my respect. Finally, you won’t be surprised to hear, nothing will separate me from Sherlock Holmes (in this existence, at least).

Where I’m heading, I think, is towards what has made me love these books for so long, to come back to them so many times. They’re not the only ones that I re-read, by any means, but they means something different and special to me. I suppose that I must have read them at various crucial moments in my life. That’s certainly true of the Hesse and the Arthur C Clarke; I just can’t remember about the others. Some of them are brilliant novels that are on many lists of ‘the greats’, others are probably only great to me. What they share, for me, is the ways they open up life and experience, reveal the vastness of our lives and the universe.

Oscar remembers, recreates a vanished world, a place that no longer exists. Many other novels do this, too – Lampedusa’s The Leopard, for example. But the haunting picture of the lost Danzig is overlaid with the many tragedies of its inhabitants: the Jewish toyshop owner who commits suicide, the mixed communities which in the end could no longer co-exist, the Germans who had to leave.

Hesse shows us a friendship which lasts many years, a lifetime, in fact. So do many novels. But he also shows what attracts these so very different characters to each other and what sustains the bond across the years when they are on their separate journeys, and somehow manages to link these two men to the wider human condition, our needs for companionship and understanding.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to play a game with myself. I have to downsize, perhaps eventually move into some sort of sheltered accommodation, and can only take a hundred books with me: what would I choose from the thousands I currently have? All of the ones I’ve mentioned above would be on the list. It’s a bit like returning to childhood, which is where I began this post: I still have my very first bookcase, which my dad made for me when I was about seven: I gradually filled it up as I grew up. It might just hold a hundred books.

On learning to read…

March 10, 2015

12906602197481I sometimes think about the process of learning to read, and how astonishing it is, because it opens up a whole new world beyond the real, physical world, to a child. There’s normally controversy about how it should be done, especially in England, where education has long been a political football; as my wife was a primary teacher, we sometimes discuss the issue and compare notes on our experiences.

I went back to my own experience. Firstly, I have no recollection of being read to at home, whereas this is nowadays a joy to children and their parents. There were no books, although I’m not completely clear whether this was a class thing, because of lack of money, or because books for small children were not widely available during my childhood. So, learning to read happened at school, beginning in Miss Marvell’s class in my case, with an alphabet frieze around the top of the classroom walls to chant together, and flashcards which she held up for us to recite – ‘Mother Mother see Kitty’ being the only one I can remember, thinking it a rather odd statement to be making, even at the age of five… In Mrs Harvey’s class we read together, read aloud individually, and she read to us, which I loved; my picture is of it all coming together pretty quickly and without any real difficulty. I do recall having to help one or two of the ‘weak’ readers with their books. What thrilled me was the discovery of longer books, with actual stories in them: I was hooked very quickly.

I was enrolled in Stamford Public Library at an early age, and often made daily visits to get another book to read. I discovered science fiction written for children, and loved the idea that there might be other worlds out there. It was there that I came across the ‘Young Traveller‘ series, in which a (nuclear, white, middle class) family of parents and children visit different countries of the world and are introduced to different foods, traditions and practices, and see the main tourist sites. All very wholesome, and illustrated by inset pages of black and white photographs. But I am not surprised that I love travel, and travel writing in my later years.

I worked my way through the classroom libraries in school, reading pretty much everything, including large parts of the ten-volume Children’s Encyclopaedia by Arthur Mee. Once you had completed whatever task the teacher had set for that session, you got sent off to pick a reading book… bliss.

I began to acquire books, slowly, and my father made me a small bookcase for my bedroom – I still have it. I loved the relatives who sent me book tokens for Christmas and birthdays, rather than the usual boring stuff. One of them bought me The Wind in the Willows – the oldest book in my library – and another bought me The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (and we all know what that led to!). I also read comics, hoovering up the adventures of Dan Dare, although I don’t think my parents fully approved of this sort of literature.

I think things are rather different nowadays. Libraries are a shadow of their former selves in this individualistic and consumer-oriented age; printing techniques have developed enormously to allow the production of beautiful children’s books; schools are tackling some of the issues connected with poverty and class attitudes to education. For me, learning to read set my imagination free for life, and, as a child, it was at least on a par with the discovery of Lego…

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.

The Test of Time

March 5, 2014

The last small digression (for the moment) is about what stands the test of time. I’ve often wondered, and had my students discuss, what books written today might still be read in a century’s time. How can we know what will survive? For example, the blockbuster of recent years, the Harry Potter series: will children in 2114 still be reading the books, in the same way that (some) children are still enjoying the books of a century ago and more, like The Wind in the Willows, or Winnie the Pooh?

Novels and writers very popular in my younger years have vanished almost without trace: I’m sure some dusty secondhand bookshops still harbour the thrillers of Alastair MacLean or Arthur Hailey, but then thrillers possibly aren’t going to last very long. I remember how fashionable D H Lawrence was in the 1970s when I was at university, and have long been aware how he has almost disappeared from view. And he is/ was a serious writer, writing about serious themes and ideas – love, relationships between men and women. Not enough, it would seem.

Shakespeare wrote plays about love; many writers today write about love, perhaps tragic love – The Time Traveller’s Wife leaps to mind. But can we expect that novel to survive the test of time? And why won’t it?

Writers from centuries ago clearly have an advantage: Shakespeare and Jane Austen have already lasted, and have been hallowed and canonised by academia, so they are hardly likely to fade into obscurity – the longer a work lasts, the more it’s likely to continue to last, if you see what I mean.

I have often thought that it cannot just be the subject matter that ensures a work’s survival, for there are a limited number of themes out there, and all have been repeatedly used: one of the most interesting analyses of the last decade was Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, in which he explores that very idea, that everything written is basically a variation on an age-old trope. So that leaves character, style and language, perhaps?

We aren’t capable of seeing the wood for the trees, possibly. The SF writer Theodore Sturgeon was famous for stating that 95% of science fiction was crap, but then 95% of everything was crap: we are surrounded by a lot of chaff which will be winnowed away somehow by the passage of time…

In the end, I think there has to be an original treatment of a theme or subject (Shakespeare notoriously lifted others’ plots!); there have to be powerfully conceived and developed characters as opposed to stock ones who are merely the vehicles for a plot to unfold; there has to be something in terms of the way that a story is written (yes, language and style) that can set a work apart from all the others that surround and swamp it.

So, from my three best books of the twentieth century (Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose) which will someone, somewhere, be enjoying a century from now?

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