A couple of days ago I read a piece in The Guardian, where writers were asked which books they would give to their younger selves. Newspapers and magazines seem to be awash with this kind of stuff, now, and I have to admit I’m a bit of a sucker, in that I can’t resist playing along.
So which books would I give to my younger self? Well, as a little kid, I didn’t read story books. Although I did have a healthy appetite for factual books. A child’s illustrated encyclopaedia, for example. A Pageant of History – a gift on my tenth birthday – still retains its magic more than half a century on.
After a bout of influenza, when I was about eight years old, my attention was grabbed by comics. A neighbour’s son donated a huge pile of them in the wake of my illness. A generous gesture, and a fine tonic. I remember sorting them by issue number, across my eiderdown. Then I read them in sequence, savouring every episode in every story, over and over again.
As I grew older, so my love of writing grew. Now perhaps you think that would make me an avid reader of children’s novels, but it didn’t. I was seduced by phrases and mesmerised by the descriptive power of words, but I didn’t have the staying power for a whole book, no matter how slim a volume it was.
I was probably twelve when I read my first book, cover to cover. After my mother remarried, I inherited a small collection from my much older stepbrother. I became a huge fan of Malcolm Saville. “The Fourth Key”, “Saucers Over the Moor”, “Young Jonnie Bimbo”. I can’t somehow imagine offering any of the Harry Potter books to my twelve year old self. When I fell for a particular author, my entire life was full, with no room for anything else. Weeks of Agatha Christie. Every Gerald Durrell book, over and over. Leslie Thomas, and Spike Milligan, the first two authors to render me helpless with laughter.
Most of the books I was enthusiastically recommended to read were a bit of a damp squib, with the exception of “Catch 22” and “Cider with Rosie”. Discovering for myself was where the joy lay. The thrill of jumping from Sassoon’s “The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston” to Henry Miller’s “Rosy Crucifiction” and “The Air Conditioned Nightmare”, to the complete works of H.E. Bates, and Graham Greene was like discovering one buried treasure, one after the other. Later, it would be Keith Waterhouse, Clive James, Kingley Amis, and Tom Sharp.
Today, I still hop from one thing to another. No particular genre, no outright favourite author – although there were passages of Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” that were such a delight, I read and reread them, drinking in the magic and filling my head with widescreen images, and language in full technicolor – no real pattern or preference.
I’ve just moved on from David Hepworth to Robert Webb, and I’m looking forward to Cordelia Fine and Fiona Mozley, in due course.
No, I’m stumped. I can’t think of any book I would give to my younger self. Either there wouldn’t have been time or room, or I would have been going through one of my prolonged spells of having been distracted by something other than reading.