A friend of mine – the wife of a former Rector, as it happens – used to refer to me quite fondly as a tomboy. It wasn’t a word used about me as a child, as far as I know, though I was determinedly not a girly girl. I rather despised dolls, for instance, though I liked my cuddly toys. I didn’t dress them up or anything, I think I just cuddled them and took them to bed. I only remember once having a tea party with them, when two or three boys were round for the day and they rather enjoyed doing something quite different, just as I liked going to my friend Lawrence’s house, where I could play with his cars and trains. I never had any myself – if my parents had had any idea how much I’d have liked them, they’d have bought me some, but I was firmly of the upbringing that to ask for things was greedy and rude. I can remember very few toys or games that were gender-specific.
Maybe if I’d looked less girlish I’d have been called a tomboy, it’s impossible to know now. I just don’t remember that sort of stereotyping. But I had long, blonde hair, was shy and quite sweet looking – on the other hand, I was usually dreadfully messy, my hair was wild and I liked nothing better than getting messy. I put a photo up, a long time ago, of me in our slipway, in the water tugging at a dinghy – I still don’t think that’s gender-specific and I’m very glad no one ever tried to categorise me. I think that happens more now than it used to, now that they’re even aiming Lego specifically at boys or girls.
The books I read weren’t girls’ or boys’ either – or rather, if they were, I didn’t care one way or the other. I read Mallory Towers and Chalet School books just as much as Billy Bunter and Jennings (mildly interesting that the girls’ ones are identified by the schools and the boys’ by the characters), girl-orientated pony stories, such as the Jill’s Gymkhana series, and the Biggles books. I read everything I could – my parents subscribed to a children’s book club and the monthly book just arrived. Since my sister was – indeed, still is – five years older than I am, there were already plenty of books on the shelves for me to start with. They also bought a lot of books. I read Arthur Ransome, Michael Bond, Lewis Carroll, Malcolm Saville, Willard Price, Rudyard Kipling, Enid Blyton, anything I could find. By the time I was eight or so, I was getting rather more ambitious, or possibly pretentious, and convinced myself I read Shakespeare for pleasure. Starting with Lamb’s Tales, I moved on to the real thing – the first I tacked was The Tempest, which must have gone way over my head. Then I had a go at Pilgrim’s Progress, which I found such a struggle that I had to limit myself to a page a night.
I loved stories of Greek and Roman myth and history too. My parents bought the Encyclopaedia Britannica and I amused myself for hours, opening it at random and reading about whatever I found. Or I’d start with one item and follow links. Was that unusual? I’ve no idea. I liked non-fictiojn generally, whatever the subject, though probably animals appealed most.
I’m not sure now if this was an unreservedly good thing. I liked some books more than others, obviously, but I wasn’t particularly discriminating in terms of quality. I know that I often would read about doing something rather than actually doing it.