On my tenth birthday my mother gave me a copy of 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'. Charles Lutwidge (the archaic form of Lewis, just as "Carrroll" is a form of "Charles") Dodgson published the book on 26 November 1865; maybe my copy was already called 'Alice in Wonderland' - I don't remember. But I read it in a single afternoon, and have been re-reading it ever since.
Some critics insist that children don't understand 'Alice', and may be frightened by its violence and cruelty. I took to it at once, loving the fact that an adult, even one from the far-off past, shared my sense of humour. I revelled in all the logical games, and the wordplay. It made me laugh till my sides hurt. Dodgson wrote it as a fantasy – a dream, of course – after telling the original story to ten-year-old Alice Liddell one lazy summer afternoon on a boating trip; but here was an adventure I might have made, and all the characters that Alice met I longed to meet too.
I quickly acquired 'Through the Looking Glass', devouring it, but somehow - Tweedledum and Tweedledee apart – its characters didn't strike quite the same chord. The tone is altogether darker. Dodgson told that story to another Alice, Alice Raikes, not rowing down the Thames near Oxford but in smoky London in 1871, and perhaps that made a difference.
Then there were the illustrations. The first drawings had been by Dodgson himself, but my copy had been illustrated by the great 'Punch' cartoonist John Tenniel. There was something off-centre about his pictures that I liked, but could never quite explain. Years later, researching my first book, I discovered that Tenniel's father had been a fencing master, and would give his son a daily lesson. The sessions were without benefit of masks, and one day the button fell off the senior Tenniel's foil. The point of the blade, flicking across his 20-year-old son's right eye, blinded it. Tenniel Junior made no sign that he had been seriously wounded, and his father, amazingly, for the rest of his life never knew what he had done. Perhaps it was that injury which deprived Tenniel's drawings of classic dimension; if so, the characters only benefited.
On re-readings, I realised that 'Alice' may be a humorous book but it raises great questions, and is indeed unsettling – principally for adults. It is a Trojan horse that undermines certainty, with Dodgson the ultimate subversive conservative. His fantasy world still has the capacity to surprise: recently I was told that the 12 sections of 'Wonderland' follow the hours of day, the 12 of 'Through the Looking Glass' those of night (thus the darker tone).
In 1960, Martin Gardner brought out his 'Annotated Alice', and I eagerly read up on the mathematical and personal allusions. Although that was fun, what I return to are the characters – the White Rabbit, Bill the Lizard, the Caterpillar, the baby that turns into a pig, the Cheshire Cat, the company at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, the Queen of Hearts, the Gryphon and Mock Turtle. They have stayed with me throughout my life.
Richard Cohen's 'Chasing the Sun' is published by Simon & SchusterReuse content