Updated: Jan 29
This blog series outlines my life, seen through the lens of the books I have read.
At the age of eleven I left primary school and had to commute to grammar school by train, 12 miles each way, every day for seven years. Aged 13 or 14 I saw someone on the diesel locomotive reading ‘Lord of the Rings’ (LOTR) by JRR Tolkien. It looked a very grown-up novel, and very thick. I think I had already read ‘The Hobbit’ and was gripped by Bilbo’s journey to confront the dragon Smaug with a group of gold-hungry dwarves. After reading that, I didn’t feel ready for the sequel. But by the time I was 14, I was avidly devouring LOTR so much that I remember finishing an exam in our first floor classroom and immediately pulling out the book to read another chapter rather than preparing for the next exam.
I think I’ve read the story four times now. On one occasion I wanted to reread Sam’s welcome home right at the end of the book when Rosie settles him into the chair by the fire and plonks the youngest child on his lap. What a brilliant ending. ‘Well, I’m back he said.’ From that I reread the whole of the last chapter and I was hooked and so had to start all over again from the beginning. Maybe it was while reading the book this time through that my mum was in hospital, being treated for emphysema. She routinely went to Brompton Hospital in London, but I remember once she was staying at a large house cum hospital in the country. LOTR was filling my imagination. I was too restless to stay long talking to mum, so I left Dad and my sister, Brenda, in her room and went out to wander through the wooded grounds. It was autumn, and I kicked dead leaves and felt the change of season twanging my restlessness. It was a powerful feeling. The wind called to me to journey, or to travel, or to new horizons, but I was too young. I have felt this restlessness many times since and it has led me to accept challenges and adventures, but none so perilous as the one Frodo and Sam had.
Among the things that struck me in LOTR is the mixture of good and bad in people. Boromir was a good man with a weakness that undermined all his nobility. Saruman was a wise wizard who was seduced by power. Even Gandalf knew he was weak and could be tempted to wrong choices. I was always impressed with Sam’s loyalty to Frodo and, for me, the hardest sections of the book are those where Frodo’s mind has been poisoned against Sam by Gollum.
I read a lot of books in my teens. ‘The White Company’, by Arthur Conan Doyle, was very enjoyable. It painted life in the late mediaeval period, perhaps, in colours that were too bright and unblemished. Everyone seemed to be motivated by honour and fairness, which was so unalloyed it was a little troubling. But it was also refreshing to plunge into a story such as this. Alleyn is a clerk who enlists with a company of archers who are off to France to fight as mercenaries. Samkin Aylward is the jolly archer who takes Alleyn under his wing and teaches him what he needs to survive.
I remember getting home after an all-night hike with the Boys’ Brigade and settling down to read another instalment of ‘John Carter, Warlord of Mars’, or one of that series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. These were amazing stories, full of adventure on another world. John Carter was a hero on Mars with great strength due to the lower gravitational force on that planet. The world was well described and full of weird creatures and colourful peoples, and Carter had to survive and win acceptance as an outsider. While reading these books I was listening to classical music that was being used to test the radio signal for Capital Radio. There were a couple of two or three hour music loops that were used, and so I got to recognise and appreciate this music. The piece that particularly associated itself with the John Carter stories was the New World symphony by Dvorak - quite appropriate, really. Other, equally evocative pieces included The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, by Dukas, and Borodin’s The Steppes of Asia.