i was a baby bible basher

THE suzi feay COLUMN
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There never was a time when I couldn't read, which seems odd. Who could have taught me? My parents were busy 23-year-olds and I don't remember doing anything more constructive at nursery school than dressing up and running up and down the slope outside the French windows, or fidgeting resentfully on my trucklebed during my mandatory afternoon nap. Perhaps I taught myself to read. One Ladybird book featuring a red-caped nurse was a favourite when I was still young enough to vomit without warning, which is why this cherished volume had a disagreeable odour and a milky crust. While I do remember the faint effort involved in learning maths - coloured blocks and so forth - I have no recollection of learning to read at school. Nevertheless, I was soon soaking up Grimms' Tales, baby Bible stories, easy Greek mythology. And Enid Blyton. Lots and lots of Enid Blyton.

Kingsley Amis says in an essay on horror films that "the essential qualification for any decent film critic is to have spent a disproportionate amount of his early life in cheap cinema seats, swallowing everything he saw in a completely uncritical way". Omnivorous childish consumption paves the way to adult discrimination. The physical act of running my eyes over print was soothing in itself - a book on optics and a guide to butterflies were as good as The River of Adventure. I tore through Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia, but I was never precocious: like Alice, I couldn't see the use of a book without pictures, and even then insensitive illustrations put me off: our ancient copy of Huckleberry Finn had engravings showing dear old Jim as a scary, wild-eyed golliwog. Classic children's book it might be, but I was 25 before I read it.

My grandfather was my mentor. He took six books a week out of the local library - I didn't find out for ages that they were always cowboy books. He read them at the table, slowly masticating while my grandmother kept up a carping third-person commentary: "Look at him, sat there! Nose in a bloody book! Doesn't even know what he's eating!" To which he would reply, "Oh, ar" and turn the page deliberately.

There was, I quickly found, something aggravating about reading, particularly for my long-suffering grandmother, in whom the twin currents of kindness and crossness continually battled. "Look," she said one day, pointing out of the window. "Snow! Lovely snow!" I replied: "Yes Grandma. And did you know that every flake of snow is made up of tiny crystals, and if you were to look at them under a microscope, you would see that each crystal has six points, and that no two of them are exactly alike?" She reeled away, muttering a curse on my infant head.

Amis brilliantly described the hostility aroused by youthful bookishness: "Reading in public was deemed rude, while reading in private was anti- social. There was a thing called joining in the family circle ... everything had to be done with everybody present." We didn't have central heating, we had a central hearth to be miserable around. I ignored conversation and the blaring telly; when I opened my book, the voices melted away, there was nothing beyond the murmuring in my mind's ear. Which is why I found myself having to take a deaf-test at the age of eight. The family had performed a series of experiments to assess my the extent of my insensibility to external stimuli when reading; apparently I only responded to my name when it was bawled from a distance of a few feet.

The deaf-test consisted in being hooked up to a tape machine and having to indicate when, and in which ear, I could hear bells of varying pitch. "She's got perfect hearing," said the doctor. I decided that if reading upset everyone so much, I'd do it upstairs. Grandma, still talking in the third person, would stand outside the bedroom door shouting: "Why she wants to sit in that bloody freezing room when it's warm downstairs, I don't know. I suppose our company's not good enough for her." (She always talked as though she were in a third-rate television play.) Even Granddad finally turned: "Mark my words, there's something wrong with that child."

Maybe they had a point. Certain ironies were not lost on me: why, for instance, did the children whose exciting adventures I devoured never themselves sit down and read anything? Now my books, boxes and boxes of them, are starting to oppress me. If I never did another stroke of work, I doubt whether I would be able to finish them. This engenders in me the depression I felt when I realised that I had enough face powder to see me to the grave. Perfume oxidises and clothes rot, but books and face powder are an imperishable reproach.

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