I found reading in class horribly dreary and dull – the bits where everyone had to take it in turns to read, that is. Some children found it quite challenging and stumbled through, few read aloud well, with expression, and it was so much slower than reading to oneself. I wasn’t alone in reading ahead, keeping one finger in the page we were on. Of course, the teacher was wise to that and would snap out “next word!” to someone she spotted engrossed in a later page.
On the whole, though I disliked the books we were given to read. I can only remember a few, but was completely put off the author in every case – until I got to the age of public exams, that is.
The first was A High Wind in Jamaica – which must have been very well written, because I still remember much of it, much as I disliked it. I’ve been trying to analyse why, without actually having to read it again. For a start, I don’t think it helped that I came from a small family – the sort of banter that went on in large families was outside my experience, not in a good way … I remember a conversation about telling whose clothes were whose by their smell, and about catching ringworm by riding horses bareback, both of which rather revolted me. The only character I liked, John, was killed off, and then his siblings put him right out of their mind and blanked the accident from their memories, which I found peculiar. Emily herself, the main character, I disliked. I’m sure I didn’t understand the undertones of the captain’s advances towards her, but probably found it disturbing – and it was again when Emily stabbed the Dutch captain, and when she condemned the pirate captain to death by crying in court about the blood when he died. Even the end, when she was portrayed amongst other blameless children of her own age, I found creepy.
Nada the Lily. Another horrible one, as far as I was concerned. A lot of brutality, which I wouldn’t necessarily have minded (I remember taking A Coral Island in my stride and in that, a boat was launched using live – for a while – humans as rollers to haul it down to the sea) but I found it unpleasant – the narrator was accused of lying and had to put his hand in the fire. If he’d cried out and snatched it out, it would have proved he was lying so he didn’t, even though he was. Nada’s death was terrible, holed up in a cave with a rock trapping her. I disliked it and was also bored by it and have never read anything by H. Rider Haggard since (he lived very near here and I know his family and would never dare admit that to them, especially to the one named Nada.
Worst of all must have been Redgauntlet, because I don’t remember anything about it at all. Even reading the synopsis doesn’t remind me, and I was the sort of person who quoted lines from books and could place them – ‘near the bottom of a right-hand page, about two-thirds of the way through the book’ and so on, after a first reading. Again, I’ve never read any Scott first, not even Ivanhoe.
Things looked up considerably when I was taking O Levels. Inexplicably, the set book was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. Having loved it from when I was a small child and read it many times, I already knew it well and it was certainly a doddle. Hardly great literature and I’m not sure why it ever made it to the public exam syllabus. The poetry was First World War, which was much more demanding, and the Shakespeare was Richard III, which I also loved.
There were so many good books about when I was in my teens. Writers such as Nevil Shute, Monica Dickens, A.J. Cronin, Daphne du Maurier, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, JD Salinger, William Golding, Joseph Heller – and they’re just the first that spring to mind. I read classics too, of course, from Conan Doyle and Tolstoy to Thackeray and Horace Walpole and lighter stuff such as Dick Francis, PG Woodhouse and Georgette Heyer. Mark Twain was a favourite (our dog was called Huckleberry, though the cartoon hound had something to do with that, I admit) and so was Saki, whose levity and wit, interspersed with the deftly sardonic, still appeals to me no end. We named another dog Bassington and a third Clovis, after Saki characters.
Oddly, I’d never read Jane Austen, which was very lucky because I came upon her at just the right time, when I was sixteen and taking my first A Levels. Emma was the set novel and we studied Romantic poets, particularly Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge. Also Hamlet – now, who can go wrong with the Prince of Denmark? And the blithe Wife of Bath, for the Chaucer. How lucky I was. I swept through the syllabus and took the exam after one year instead of two.