Books have always been an essential part of my life, well, as far back as I can recall anyway. This goes for my wife Judith too, who devours books so fast I’m surprised she doesn’t get chronic indigestion. Actually, we were busy at it first thing this morning, discussing books that is, over our boiled eggs and toasted rye bread with tahini. She’d heard on the radio that a new study has shown conclusively that reading is an important part of brain development in children. I have no clue exactly when I started reading. My mother always said I took to it like a duck to water and once I’d set off there was absolutely no stopping me. I recall (vaguely) going to London for a family holiday when I was five and Mam said I read everything in sight. Five year olds have no sense of discernment and are blissfully unaware of that awful, sadly yet to come crippler ‘appropriateness’. My parents and big brother, all quite shy in their way, smiled diffidently whenever we ascended or descended tube train escalators, whilst I, without any concept yet of an inner censor and in a voice that really ‘travelled’, read aloud all the advertisments passing-by - “Meet the Kings and Queens of England at Madam Tussauds ... Beefeater Gin ... Sirdar corsets for ladies with a fuller figure” - you get the picture.
The very first book I actually remember reading by myself, a book that is still one of my all time favourites, is The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. It was published in 1908 and the cast of characters first came to life in the bedtime stories Grahame made up for his son Alastair. It is a wonderful children’s tale about a group of anthropomorphised animals who enjoy a series of adventures together along the river bank where they live. It starts with the self-effacing and most beloved Mr Mole being suddenly overtaken by a strange wanderlust one Spring morning:
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said 'Bother!' and 'O blow!' and also 'Hang spring-cleaning!' and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, 'Up we go! Up we go!' till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.
I love this book! Ithink the above is one of the most beguiling opening paragraphs I have ever read. It’s probably thirty years since I last read The Wind in the Willows and I have just reminded myself to do so again.