The Independent/Scholastic Story of the Year: I discovered a Brave New World of books: Steven Berkoff talks to Jenny Gilbert about his childhood reading.
Friday 16 April 1993
I was born in Stepney but was evacuated to Luton, which had the added advantage that the schools were better. The whole family joined me eventually, but at the beginning I was alone. My sister, who used to read all the time, introduced me to Mark Twain when I was eight or nine - Huckleberry Finn I think was the first. I remember being intrigued by the names in it.
There were always books around at home, mostly from the library. My mother and my sister were readers, but they mostly took out detective stories. I liked anything to do with mysticism or foreign travel - I loved Kipling's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.
We had a book called The Supernatural Omnibus - I remember the title because I was puzzled by the bus. It was an anthology of horror stories. There was one by Dickens, another by Edgar Allan Poe. I found them so compelling I couldn't read them at bedtime, so I read them in the early evening. Every sound in the room became something terrifying. It was like a drug. It both horrified and attracted me. Since then I've always loved tales of the macabre - the outer reaches of human experience.
I probably went through a period of not reading in adolescence. But then I started reading my mother's books and was amazed I could actually read them. Through my associates on the street I began to get interested in what you might call literature. We used to hang around outside coffee bars discussing what we'd read. We thought we were Bohemians, existentialists. Brave New World knocked me out. Brilliant. Then After Many a Summer, Antic Hay . . . I ploughed through Huxley.
At 17 or 18 I discovered Henry Miller. I thought it was the most incredible writing because the vocabulary was so rich. It sent me to the dictionary. I'd got a hard-cover book with blank pages inside, and in it I wrote down all the new words I learnt words like 'ambergris' and 'fuliginous'. It was my personal vocabulary book, and by then my first desire was to be a writer. I've still got that book.
Steven Berkoff is currently making 'Decadence', a film starring Joan Collins. His latest book, 'Coriolanus in Deutschland', is published by Amberlane Press at pounds 9.95.
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