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Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
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Sunday, 18 August 2013

Give me a child until...

The Guardian's been running a series; Books That Have Influenced Me. Much rarer, I would have thought, than books that have proved merely enjoyable. I could only come up with Swallows And Amazons. But not for obvious reasons.

My mother read S&A to me and the images took years to develop. Only now are they recognisable. Only the Walker children (the Swallows) influenced me.

The four Walkers are autonomous and mainly adult-free. The environment is dinghy sailing, demanding skills and self-reliance. John is the eldest, invested with authority and competence. Susan is deputy leader, domestically skilled and given to a more caring version of John's authority. Titty, as  I recall, is literary minded and fanciful. Roger is the youngest, untutored and impulsive.

Like many children I cultivated an imaginary circle of friends. The closest, and most reliable, was called John. That fable grew. I realise now that, young as I was, I dimly saw the Walkers as an ideal version of society. Benign authority directed towards shared aims, protective of the young - though many years passed before I summarised it that way. Adolescence brought disillusionment but I think I was comforted by that ideal up til then. A genuine influence.

WIP Second Hand (28,485 words)
Chinelo looked up at the building. “You’re on the third floor, aren’t you? I’ll help you take up some of these boxes.”
It took three trips each; medical books tend to be heavy. Chinelo, slightly overweight, slumped on Francine’s couch and breathed heavily. Otherwise the midnight building throbbed silently. “Got a pop?” Chinelo asked.
Francine looked in the fridge. “How about lemon squash with fizzy water?”
“Why do you complicate your life? For God’s sake, you’d have to make that drink. Can of Coke you flip the ring-top and you’re ready to go.”


  1. For me: Mountains of the Midnight Sun, Showell Styles - 1954, borrowed from Bradford Public Library around the date of publication.

    An inspirational account of organising a small private expedition to an unexplored peninsula of Arctic Norway. I never did anything as grand, but the book has influenced and enhanced my enthusiasm for the outdoors ever since.

    The author was a writer of rather poor fiction as well as being an enthusiastic, but modest mountaineer, but the fact that he had basic writing skills, and an appealing naivety made this a classic for me.

    In later life, before Abe Books and Amazon, I commissioned a secondhand bookshop in Whitehaven to find a copy for me which they did and they charged what seemed to be a fortune at the time, but Mountains of the Midnight Sun has been re-read several times and has an honoured place on my bookshelf.

  2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn -
    How to cope with people and situations life presents us with.

  3. The Rupert Bear books because I can remember the precise moment when I realised that I was reading one to myself without the prompting of a grown up. I can read, I said to myself, and I have been reading with mounting pleasure for the past 75 years.

    I am afraid I can not be precise about which of the bears aventures I was reading at the time.

  4. 'Les Petits Enfants Bleus' when I was about six, because it showed how you could make a house inside a cabbage if you were small enough.

    'Small Rain' when I was about 14 because it was all about falling in love with an unsuitable man and because it quoted that poem.. .'Western wind when wilt thou blow....'

  5. 'Les Petits Enfants Bleus' when I was about six, because it showed how you could make a house inside a cabbage if you were small enough.

    'Small Rain' when I was about 14 because it was all about falling in love with an unsuitable man and because it quoted that poem.. .'Western wind when wilt thou blow....'

  6. Sir Hugh: I read it myself, possibly before you did, but by then I was already drawn to rock-climbing. I can't remember what book most influenced me: many Frank Smythe books were written in the thirties (notably the Spirit of the Hills 1935) so I could have read them at any age. I remember asking for Climbs In The Canadian Rockies as a birthday present and I note it was published in 1950 when I would have been 14 - 15. I seem to remember seeing it reviewed in The Sunday Times.

    Out of curiosity I've just Googled Showell Syles and I never realised how prolific he was. 88 novels, 41 non-fiction. Mountains of the Midnight Sun was published in 1954, the fourth non-fiction; his last was in 2002.

    Given the awfulness of the Filthy Lewker novels, which seem to have started in 1951 (Death On Milestone Buttress) I'd hesitate to pick up any of the later ones.

    However, what a project for you. A complete collection of SS.

    Ellena: I was aware of, but never read, ATGIB. Probably believing it to be a girl's book. Do you re-read it? These days I'm less sexist - could it speak to me, do you think?

    Joe: The format of the RB books was strange: the pictures, the rhyming couplets, and the blocks of text at the bottom of the page. I recall one of the couplets (picked out when I was rather more knowing):

    Two young girls were standing there,
    And one of them had pretty hair.

    I am not surprised about your epiphany. RB occupied a specific landscape and if the price of entering that landscape involved learning to read, unassisted, then so be it. I believe a pornographic version of RB figured in the Oz trial. Much as I supported the defendants' stance I still suffered a mild attack of violation at learning this detail.

    Natalie: Not that it matters but were you already reading when you met up with LPEB? Your reasoning makes absolute sense to me; I was especially drawn to small worlds within large. The original illustrations that went with Peter Pan are one example out of many.

    You do not cite the author of Small Rain although this is often typical of young (youngish in your case) readers; it is the book that matters, not the later impedimenta we accumulate. I have just Googled and I assume it was Madeleine L'Engle, a name as exotic as your own, and which must have attracted many readers on that basis alone.

    Your reasons for enjoying Small Rain ("unsuitable man") represent one of the enormous divides regarding male/female reading preferences. "Can't she see she shouldn't be doing this?" I can imagine myself saying had I read it. Novels taught me that girls/women did strange and inexplicable things quite beyond my ken. Leaving me at an enormous disadvantage when I sought to bridge that gap in adolescence.

  7. Feeling very American here...I've never heard of "Swallows and Amazons." For me, it was Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women;" I was and am most like Jo, but named after Beth, who tragically and slowly dies without uttering a word of complaint; apparently my parents also considered "Meg"(too bossy) and "Amy" too self-absorbed. A close second would be "The Secret Garden."

  8. Beth: "was and am most like Jo". Was the influence osmotic, then? Are you saying you read the book and became - accidentally or intentionally - like Jo? Who from my glancing knowledge of Little Women (I was born a fella after all) resembled a sort of domestic and female version of Superman. I can understand why, given the polymathic aftermath of your life, you would agree with this resemblence but how much are you like Meg and Amy?

    Incidentally Will Self, something of an experimental and contrarian novelist, also contributed to the series and alluded to Dandelion Days by Henry Williamson (author of Tarka the Otter). I enjoyed but can't say I was influenced by DD. However Self goes on to describe the dilemma he found himself facing when Williamson was revealed to be a Hitler lover. Posing the question can experiences in our life be contained in time-tight compartments?