A reader wrote recently asking if I could remember, and list, some early reading influences – a task that I have to say gives the long-term memory a good old-fashioned test. I’ll do my best.
Enid Blyton has become rather unfashionable these days but her name would be on that early list. As children she was sometimes all that we had access to. I unabashedly confess to revelling in the adventures of The Secret Seven and the Famous Five – granted the main characters were all ordinary children in extraordinary situations. As an aside, I also have to agree that I probably will not have her on a list of recommended reading for children today – the stories and their situations haven’t stood the test of time, I’m afraid.
Captain W.E Johns’ series of adventures featuring the ace pilot-hero Biggles was another young boy’s joy. It is interesting to learn today that Captain Johns was never really a captain. Coincidentally, both he and Blyton died in the same year (1968, five months apart.)
As a youngster growing up in a very, very small township not much else was available by way of children’s literature. If one was born voracious, one gravitated to – in my case – grandma’s wooden chest of books. It’s amazing how some feelings never get forgotten despite the passing years. The thrill of opening that large deal wood box is still unparalleled. Old, boxed-in books have their own smell, their own away-from-the-sunlight colour and their own age – that can be felt as one turned page after page. So grandma’s reading became mine. Romances written by Denise Robbins, Hermina Black and Victoria Holt!
In doing my own spot of research before this article I found that in the same year Blyton and Johns died, the great Denise Robbins – elected President of the Romantic Novelists Association in 1961 – actually wrote five novels! Yes, five novels in one year. An amazing feat, admittedly. Hermina Black, not to be outdone, wrote five novels of her own the following year.
Gran, of course, did not pigeonhole her reading tastes, which I am thankful for, with hindsight. She was an avid reader of Westerns! She loved them cowboys, as my uncle would say, in a fake American accent. Zane Grey’s Black Mesa I still remember, also all the Sudden series written by, strangely by a Brit – Oliver Strange. Then, the incomparable Louis L’Amour.
On a personal level the Western novels didn’t enthuse me as much as that other genre gran was fond of – crime and detection: the Perry Mason mysteries written by Erle Stanley Gardner – all of which I found unputdownable at that age and probably would today as well. Finding a solution to a crime, bringing a criminal to justice – these issues fascinated me at an early age and continue to do so today, in my own private writing (for competitions and personal compilations) and in my reading. By the time I’d finished with Perry Mason and also a handy collection of Sexton Blake mysteries – known as the poor man’s Sherlock Holmes – I was on the threshold of the teens.
Just around the corner lurked James Hadley Chase, Agatha Christie, then on to a bigger school in the city, a bigger library containing ‘literati’s glitterati’ – Dickens (who, too, is being talked of as being irrelevant to a techno-age generation that, to be fair, have little concept of, to cite one example, who a chimney sweep might be), R L Stevenson, H. G. Wells, Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. And Oscar Wilde! Would I change anything if I had the chance? The answer, vehemently, is no. I would like, however, at some stage to visit some of the places in these books. But there’s a saying: As a child, a library card takes you to exotic, faraway places. As an adult, it’s a credit card you’ll be needing.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.