Ten Books

Everybody’s doing it. Ten Books That Have Stayed With You Since Childhood. Ten Books That You Feel You Should Have Read But Haven’t. Ten Books That You Have Never Read But Are Pretending You Have For The Sole Purpose Of Impressing Your Online Friends, Most Of Whom You Haven’t Met.

The lists have varied, but for the purposes of this exercise I’m sticking to the childhood one. Just because. So there.

Lots of people have done very impressive lists that read more like Guardian articles on the subject of ’Ten Books Children Must Read’ (or, more accurately, ’Ten Books That Adults Think Children Must Read, which isn’t necessary the same thing). I would love to be able to join them, these children who seemed to read nothing but classics, with their Secret Gardens, their Emils and the Detectiveses, their Swallowses and Amazonses.

I did read, and enjoy, those books, and quite a few more (Stig of the Dump! Bloody marvellous book). But they’re not the ones that jumped unbidden into my head, whose spines broke through overuse, whose characters swam around in my head when I was supposed to be learning the pluperfect indicative of ‘video’ or exactly how to spell hipotenuze hyppotineuse hypotenuse.

These are they.

Charles M. Schulz – Peanuts
Charlie Brown and Snoopy – twin idols of my childhood. Charlie Brown, for his uselessness, a quality to which I felt ideally suited to aspire; Snoopy, for his Snoopyness. He was loyal – how many other dogs would strike up an enduring friendship with an incomprehensibly monolingual bird of indeterminate species? His fantasy world (“Here’s the world famous fighter pilot doing battle with the Red Baron”) mirrored mine (“Parikian comes in, bowls, and there’s his hat-trick and England have won the Ashes!”). And he possessed the enviable ability to kiss pretty girls on the nose and get away with it.

Besides, you’ve got to love a beagle with a van Gogh in his kennel.

Dr. Seuss — The Cat in the Hat
A cat.
A hat.
A catty hat.
A hatty cat.
A natty batty snowball-splatty
Ever-so-slightly twatty cat.
But memorable, for all that.

Roald Dahl — Danny, Champion of the World
All the Roald Dahls, of course. Or at least all of them that had been written when I was a child, which means James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, the insuperable Fantastic Mr. Fox.

My obsession with him led me to read his adult short stories at a slightly earlier age than I was supposed to, but I like to think he would have approved.

Today, coincidentally, is Roald Dahl Day. Treat yourself – read Danny, Champion of the World.

photo 4 photo 3

Laura Ingalls Wilder — Little House on the Prairie
Eleven-year-old me was a little bit in love with fifteen-year-old Laura. It was one of the great loves, doomed from the start by geographical and temporal realities over which I had no control. I might, freed from parental control and afforded an unlimited budget, have found my way to de Smet, SD, but the impracticalities of time travel would have put an end to any prospect of finding Laura and wooing her.

And anyway, what chance would I have had? In These Happy Golden Years Laura marries Almanzo Wilder — rugged and manly son of the soil, farmer boy, good with horses. I could boast little more than an obsession with cricket (see below), Grade Four piano, and a fair to moderate ability on a skateboard, virtues that I think would have counted for little in the Land of the Pioneers.

The only thing we had in common was that both our dads played the fiddle. Perhaps we could have talked about that.

Playfair cricket annual and, later, Wisden
Cricket lends itself well to statistics. Boys of a certain kind love lists. I was (am) a boy who loved (loves) cricket.

Ergo, Playfair (only pocket-sized, yet still more full of gems like “D R Doshi 8-7-1-1” and “Zaheer Abbas 216* and 156*” than Kevin Pietersen is of himself) and later Wisden (weightier, more grown-up, with page upon page of magnificently arcane details jostling alongside serious articles about the state of the game and match reports of MCC vs Old Salopians) were staples. Wisden still is. Is there a better way to while away half an hour on a November afternoon than to spend it perusing* the list of players who have scored two centuries in the same Test match?

I don’t think so. And neither do you.

*OK, memorising. Go away.

Book of British Birds
Fond as I was of birds, there was a part of me that regarded twitching as a competitive sport. How many birds had I seen? Was it more than my friend Michael? (Ornithology was the only area in which I could possibly hope to compete with Michael, nauseatingly adept and competitive as he was in the sporting arena, and perennially lazy as I was in the intellectual. We achieved joint top marks in the school General Knowledge paper, an achievement only slightly undermined by the fact that we had blatantly cheated — or, as my magnificently sagacious and kind form teacher put it when he explained that our scores were to be expunged from the records, “collaborated”.)

Where was I? Oh yes, competitive ornithology. How strong were my binoculars? Would the acquisition of stronger binoculars enable me to see MORE BIRDS?

There was something of the statistician about me as I leafed through this large volume, with its beautiful representative illustrations of every single bird it was possible to see if you lived in the British Isles. The distribution maps were a source of endless fascination, showing where you could see each bird. How I yearned to see the dramatic Golden Eagle, impossibly romantic and distant, with its few nesting pairs in the north of Scotland.

But I loved the small birds too. Wrens were common enough for the sight of one to be a pleasure rather than an excitement, but I still remember the moment I saw a goldcrest by the vegetable patch in our garden, its eponymous distinguishing feature wonderfully visible and making certain identification a cinch. Most of my twitching life before and since has been a case of fantasy and guesswork.

“Is that a tufted duck or a wigeon?” I asked myself as I peered at an indistinguishable blob through my (not strong enough) binoculars across the marsh flats of Suffolk, near my great-aunt’s house. “Maybe I’ll just put down both.”

Tick. Next up: the avocet.

I mock myself, but Crikey aren’t birds wonderful? Except starlings. Starlings are bastards.

Willans and Searle – Down With Skool!
It’s frankly astonishing that anybody from my generation can spell anything.

Truth be told, I was more of a Fotherington-Thomas than a Molesworth. Chiz chiz. Wot a weed.

Richard Scarry – What Do People Do All Day?
What do people do all day? They lounge around looking at the pictures in a Richard Scarry book, mostly.
Dogs dressed as traffic cops!
Families of pigs driving to the seaside!
Watermelons cascading off colourful trucks and squishing the cars behind them!
Lowly Worm!
You had to be there.

Goscinny & Uderzo – Asterix
If you didn’t love Asterix I don’t want to know you.

Unless, that is, you loved Tintin instead.

Some people loved both, but most people, when pressed, would belong to one camp or the other. It was like Jane Eyre vs Pride & Prejudice. But with menhirs and magic potion and incompetent detective twins and hard-of-hearing professors.

Dogmatix vs Snowy in a bone collecting contest. Discuss.

Eleanor & Herbert Farjeon (illustrated, I now discover, by Rosalind Thornycroft – Kings and Queens

photo 1 photo 2Slightly left field, this. For me, at least.

I hated history and was famously useless at it. I couldn’t remember which Henry was which (still can’t) and it was all frankly a bit of a blur between 1066 and the 1830s. There was a Civil War in there somewhere, wasn’t there? And that bloke with the wives. And plenty of wars with France. And Scotland. And everyone really.

But the gaps in my knowledge were no fault of Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon (and, lest I forget, illustrator Rosalind Thornycroft). With deft (well, deftish) poems and vivid illustrations they charted the history of the English (and later British) monarchy in easy-to-follow-even-for-historical-ignoramuses double spreads.

Couplets like “Sign, King John, or resign instead! / [And King John signed]” and “This time it was Henry who / hopped the twig, and a good job too” are burned into my memory (somewhat against my will).

Books, eh?

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