Treasured and battered old friends: revisiting the books of my youth

13 May 2020 - 10:53 By Margaret von Klemperer
Lockdown has compelled the writer to look back at some of the books that shaped her youth.
Lockdown has compelled the writer to look back at some of the books that shaped her youth.
Image: Yulia Grogoryeva/123RF

Enduring another day of lonely lockdown, I begin to wonder what on earth non-readers are doing with themselves. Watching Netflix or staring at the wall – which sometimes seems to me exactly the same thing? Or marching solemnly round and round their house to try to keep their steps up? (I admit I’ve been reduced to that but it sure isn’t fun.)

But for readers, there’s a whole world out there, or, rather, in here. How did we get here? What makes some people addicted to books and others not? Make no mistake, it is an addiction – you buy them, stockpile them and watch them encroaching all over your house.

Thinking about it, I guess it begins when, as a child, something you read catches your imagination and whirls you away. And you realise there are a million lives you never dreamed of, waiting to be claimed as your own. The people you meet in the pages live in your imagination, which is why films of favourite books are such a let-down. These are not the people I saw when I lived their lives.

I have an early memory of being given Mary O’Hara’s glorious My Friend Flicka – and being deeply incensed and slightly frightened by the blurb which said something about: “for horse lovers from nine to 90”. I was only eight. So wasn’t I supposed to love it?

I still have my battered old copy, but the red and yellow dust jacket with the offending quote has long gone. One of its main strengths for me was that, as a book for children, it gave the adults real thoughts and feelings. They were proper people, not the slightly absurd authority figures that writers like Enid Blyton created.

Around the same time, I got into Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. I no longer have those: my copies are now in my son’s house. Another favourite was The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff’s evocation of Roman Britain.

For a long time I was part of that world, until I was whipped away to the Prince Edward Island of Anne of Green Gables. How I longed for red hair!

I’ve often wondered whether, if I re-read those wonderful books of childhood, they would still resonate - or would I be embarrassed at the naivety of my small self?

I’ve often wondered whether, if I re-read those wonderful books of childhood, they would still resonate - or would I be embarrassed at the naivety of my small self?

Certainly, The Eagle of the Ninth is as good as it ever was, and lives on my shelf of “comfort reading”, to be returned to when the going gets tough – it might be coming out soon.

And reading Swallows to my two small grandsons, still too young to read it to themselves, I was fascinated by how much they understood and how much they loved it, though it’s as well they are still too young to raise an eyebrow at one of the characters being called Titty.

Of course now, the children’s father would be locked up and his kids taken away for the infamous telegram he sent, giving them permission to sail on their own in the Lake District: “Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers won’t drown.”

It ties in with Alison Lurie’s view in her excellent book on children’s literature, Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups. The best books are the ones where the kids take control.

When I was around 11 or 12, my best friend’s aunt gave her a pile of battered, green cloth-bound novels by DK Broster. She read them first, and then handed them over to me, and for a whole summer we read together, often lying on beds or the floor, immersed in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, until we were chased out of doors by our mothers, to play games where we were skulking in the heather.

Many years later, well into adulthood, I found copies of The Flight of the Heron, The Gleam in the North and The Dark Mile in a second-hand bookshop. Would they have dated and would I cringe at the sentimentality? No. The best writing can stand the test of time. In fact, Broster’s historical research was exemplary and though now my favourite would be The Dark Mile, which it wasn’t then, they are still a great read.

Later, in my high school years, I would move on to TH White’s The Once and Future King (and here the adaptation that turned into the musical Camelot is an exception to the rule about adaptations); Gone With the Wind, where I had the obligatory teenage sob over Rhett and Scarlett; Annemarie Selinko’s Desiree and Anya Seton’s Katherine. With hindsight, I was obviously into historical fiction.

And setworks began to join the growing pile of books I couldn’t do without. Pride and Prejudice, of course, and Albert Camus’s La Peste, set for A-Level French and a huge relief after my inept struggles with Racine and Moliere. I still have both French and English editions – the English one probably to help my inadequate French with the nuance of that brilliant book. It is, of course, one which resonates strongly right now.

Over the years, my tastes have changed, but those are some of the books that launched a lifetime of reading, and made me the person I am today. I nearly always have a book with me, to stave off boredom and ease the pain of a queue.

Most of the ones I have mentioned are still in my house, treasured and battered old friends. In fact, to while away another locked-down day, I think I’ll go and organise them, and some others, onto a special shelf all of their own.

Published in the Witness (11/05/2020)