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.Reuse content