Updated: Jan 29
Books and My Life: Prologue
This blog series outlines my life, seen through the lens of the books I have read. (Does that make it an auto-bibliography?) It includes other inputs too: writing this I soon recalled that, with books, music has had an important role in making me who I am. It has been an interesting journey and focusing on each period of time brought to the surface memories and connections I’d forgotten. It has also brought back to my conscious mind the exhilaration of reading as a young person. Reading was an important way I learned about the world around me.
Books and My Life: Part 1
I don’t know if I qualify as an early reader. I seemed to race through the reading books in primary school. I remember sitting on the swing in the garden, ploughing through the next Janet and John book I’d brought home. I recall a feeling of achievement and enjoyment in understanding the words on the page. That enjoyment, of absorbing information, has stayed with me for over half a century. I hope it never wanes.
To encourage us youngsters to read more, we had Book Club sessions after school where kids could choose books to buy from a selection laid out on the low, wooden tables that smelt at the same time of disinfectant and sick. At one of these sessions I was attracted to a book with the picture of a Viking warrior on its cover. ‘Viking’s Dawn’ told the story of Harald Sigurdson, a boy becoming a man during an adventure from Norway to Scotland and Ireland near the start of the Viking era. I identified with this lad and learned about his world and mine as he struggled to survive in a violent era. The last scene was memorable. The remnants of the crew of the Viking ship had escaped from captivity and were adrift in the Irish Sea. Each succumbed to wounds or the sea until only Harald and John, a Christian priest, remained clinging to an upturned boat. As a Danish longship drew alongside John, who had been supporting Harald and preventing him from sliding into the depths, let go himself and the Danes found only the boy to rescue.
I have recently reread all three books of this trilogy by Henry Treece, and I’ve noticed how Harald repeatedly needed help to survive to manhood. John was not the only one who showed kindness to the boy. Life requires us to accept the kindness of others. To isolate ourselves from the generosity or support of friends, colleagues, or relatives is to impoverish our lives and to negate the great truth that to live a full life we need each other.
The Vikings loomed large in my primary education. I don’t remember being interested in history before I was interested in the Vikings. A major project undertaken by four boys (me being one) was the construction of a three foot long, two foot high, Viking longboat from wood and papier mâché. We were very proud of it.
In my last primary year, though, my childish imagination became filled by the ancient Greeks. I did a project on their life, their theology, their history and their heroes. I read a book by Roger Lancelyn Green on ‘Tales of the Greek Heroes’ and was swallowed up in the stories of Achilles, Odysseus and Alexander the Great. This was possibly when I first heard the stories related by Herodotus, such as the battles of Thermopylae, Marathon and the warring tribes of Attica. Stirring stuff.
But I recall reading other books, too. On one birthday I was given the gift of choosing several books from the local toyshop. I still remember that feeling of joy as I twirled the book carousel, taking time to make my decision. Come to think of it, it’s a very similar feeling I get now when I spend time in a bookshop. Books chosen then included The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, and the Hardy Boys Mysteries.
One other memory has just surfaced of my pre-secondary school book life. I used to play football outside, either with friends or alone, and I recall a Football League handbook published by a betting company that included details about each team and, crucially, a small, coloured icon of their kit colours and style. I treasured that little booklet until it crumbled to dust.
My last comment on my primary school reading habits relates to the classic book, ‘The Big Red Rockeater Joke Book’. This is where my eclectic fund of jokes started. Its signature joke is - What is big, red and eats rocks? I think you can guess the answer. Other gems included - What did the boy say as he threw his clock out of the window? Time flies. My favourite was - What holds up a train? Bad men. I remember it took me ages to understand the last joke in the book; which was - What did the pig say when the farmer grabbed hold of his tail? This is the end of me.