Books: a book that changed me

DIRK BOGARDE on 'The Swiss Family Robinson' by Johann David Wyss
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My father, who was the first art editor of the Times, spent his Saturday mornings going about the junk shops of Lewes in Sussex near where we lived. I always went with him because in one particular junk shop I could buy bound copies of Chatterbox for a penny. Since I was desperately trying to be a writer I thought I'd better read, and Chatterbox was filled with a year's supply of literature.

One Saturday morning when I was 13, in 1934, something caught my eye among a pile of Chatterboxes. In a faded green leather cover with gold embossing was a picture of a young man of about my age struggling with a giant boa constrictor. I bought the book for a penny. It was crammed full of exciting illustrations of a family, father, mother and four boys, escaping from a terrific storm at sea. Their ship was wrecked, and they were the only survivors. They made a shelter from a sail on the first night and after that collected pieces from the sand which conveniently got washed ashore. It was all absolutely improbable and tremendously exciting, which is why I was passionate about it. They built themselves a house in a giant "banyan tree" to protect themselves from wild beasts.

I longed to be a writer but unlike Jane Austen I found it impossible to write at "a desk in the hall" - a wooden house such as Mr Robinson's would be perfect. So I decided to build a house for myself at the top of the orchard, where no one could come near me. I rather predictably called the house Trees. I built it from an old cold-frame and pieces of furniture from the house and from the rag-and-bone man in the village. I could write here (dreadful poetry and one-act monologue plays for myself to perform). At this stage in my life I wasn't sure whether to be just a writer, an actor or a poet - simple choices! However, Mr Robinson and his house in the trees pushed me in the direction of writing, which is why that book changed me. The poetry was incomprehensible and the monologues were pretty dire too - but at least I'd started.

I couldn't possibly read the book now. For years it was my bedside book, but the years led to the war and that led to a general break-up of everything, including my childhood. I couldn't recommend it to anyone unless they were passionate about wild animals and DIY and ship wrecks: no modern child would give it credence. But it's a rollicking good adventure, far better than Kidnapped or Treasure Island, and if you can find a copy you may be influenced to build your own private world, as I was.

It still has an influence on me today, to some degree. I tried acting and now I'm trying to write. I built my own house and sat in it and wrote my monologues and read them aloud for hours to the uncomprehending apple trees, and it changed me from an apathetic youth into an ambitious one, at least - if over-ambitious.