Between the ages of five and fifteen I lived in a house on the edge of a large area of woodland in Hampshire. It had once been a gamekeeper’s cottage belonging to the ‘big house’, an eighteenth century grand manor, set in parkland, that was by that time deserted and used to store furniture. Our closest neighbours were a handful of cottages some way along the road; the nearest village – and shop – was a mile away. Back then, there were no home computers and television broadcasting hours were limited, so we – me, my sister and two brothers – read a lot.
I read the books I owned over and over again. I also read my parents’ books, devouring anything from my mother’s fragile copy of Gene Stratton-Porter’s ‘A Girl of the Limberlost’ to a Nabokov that I ploughed through when I was about twelve (I can’t recall what I made of it). There were books won as school prizes (Susan Coolidge’s ‘What Katy Did at School’), and books that made their way across the Atlantic from our grandparents in Canada to our Hampshire outpost: Alice Hegan Rice’s tear-jerking ‘Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch’ and Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Men’ – and my first, beautifully illustrated copy of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, which I still treasure.
You didn’t buy many new books back then. They were precious gifts, received at Christmas and birthdays. I often read a book a day and was always short of reading material. I read comics and cornflakes packets and encyclopaedias and I bought second-hand books at jumble sales and fetes: dog-eared paperbacks and fat, battered school annuals from pre-war days, good fun then, collectors’ items now.
But libraries were my life-line. I remember well the pleasure of going to the library, cardboard tickets in hand, and searching through the children’s section for old favourites and new friends. And when I was older, the excitement of being allowed to use the larger adult library – I felt so sophisticated, combing through the shelves.
Our nearest public library was a four mile bus journey away in Andover. We must have travelled there every week. My poor mother, who had a bad back, hauled our books home. There was also a mobile library, a van crammed with books that stopped up the road once a fortnight or so during its lengthy trundle around the villages. The books I borrowed allowed me to become a show jumper (‘Jill’s Gymkhana’ by Ruby Ferguson), or a ballerina (Posy, in Noel Streatfeild’s ‘Ballet Shoes’), or to fly with the RAF (Captain W.E.Johns’ ‘Biggles’ series)
I particularly adored school stories. I enjoyed those set in boys’ schools – for example, Linbury Court preparatory school, in which Anthony Buckeridge placed his schoolboys Jennings and Derbyshire – every bit as much as Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School and Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers. The appeal of boarding school stories is that children are able to act independently, free from their families. They can make their own decisions and have all sorts of exciting adventures. They can catch foreign spies (this was the time of the Cold War, after all), foil burglars and smugglers, and, most importantly, establish friendships without parental interference.
Then and now, I consider the most superior boarding-school stories to be those written by Antonia Forest. Her series of novels, completed in the Fifties and Sixties, centre around the Marlows. They are a naval family and there are eight children in all. Several of Forest’s novels are set in the fictional girls’ boarding school, Kingscote, but the action of others takes place in the school holidays. ‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ has been reprinted by publishers Girls Gone By, and I recently re-read it with pleasure. It tells the story of Nicola, Lawrie, Peter and Ginty, and how they foil the traitor Lewis Foley, who plans to give secrets to the enemy. What lifts the story above the common run is the depth of Forest’s characterisation and her refusal to flinch from difficult topics. She writes about fear in its differing guises and manifestations – Ginty’s claustrophobia, Peter’s dread of making a fool of himself, Lawrie’s fear of the imaginary as well as the real. The children make mistakes, suffer discomforts and feel moments of sympathy for the enemy. Though the novel is sometimes dated in its language, and though it describes a level of physical freedom children rarely nowadays experience (Nicola leaves the hotel in which the family are staying before breakfast each morning to explore the town alone), Forest’s narrative dissects the complexities of loyalty as effectively as any adult spy story.
You have to be a reader first before you can become a writer. Would I have become a writer, had I not had access to books through libraries? I’m not sure. Perhaps, but the hinterland on which I’ve been able to draw would have been poorer. It saddens me greatly that public libraries in the UK have for some years been under threat. Hundreds of libraries have had to close or slash their opening hours. It has been estimated that 443 libraries have closed since 2010, with many others around the country forced to offer reduced hours and limited services. Children whose families can’t afford books, or who don’t value books, will now be deprived of them. This seems to me a hugely retrograde step. The young and the old depend disproportionately on libraries, as I did when I was a child. Books open doors and open the mind. They give the reader new worlds to explore and allow people whose lives may be limited to see what is possible. I hate see those worlds limited, or extinguished.