This is how I became a reader, and then a writer.
Reading came first, but not easily. Perhaps I started school too young – only 4 – but my mother always told me that I had had all sorts of readiness tests done, and I should have taken off like a shot. She blamed my teacher, Miss Benson.
Miss Benson had beautiful light fluffy hair and I loved her because she was so pretty. I loved her even though she was often cross with me, and once I even wet my pants in front of the whole class because when I asked her urgently ‘Can I go to the toilet?’, clutching at my crotch and hopping about, she kept me waiting until I got the phrasing right. (‘Please may I …’)
Our key text in Preps was a reader called ‘John and Betty’. They jumped and ran. They had a cat called Fluffy and a dog called Scotty, who also jumped and ran. I failed to learn to read (or Miss Benson failed to teach me) in Preps, so I went into the less than bright class, a Prep/1. I failed there too, so I was sent off to Remedial Reading with the Infant Mistress. I can’t remember her name, or much about her, except that she was an older woman, not pretty, without fluffy hair. I used to sit right in front of her, staring straight ahead between her legs, utterly fascinated by the stockings gartered just above her bulging knees, her pale thighs and saggy knickers.
I didn’t learn to read from her, either, and by Grade 2 my mother, who had been a primary teacher, lost patience and taught me herself. Her method ignored John and Betty. She bought some Puffin books – proper story books – and read part of the story and then left it to me to finish. The breakthrough text was called Rom-Bom-Bom and it was something about a tiger and a drum. It turned out I could read after all.
With the immense confidence that gave me, I thought I could then read anything. From the bookshelf I picked Ulysses by James Joyce (it had a lovely curved bow on the spine), but I couldn’t make head or tail of it; I moved on to Oblomov by Goncharov but got a bit bored. I did better with Orlando by Virginia Woolf, and read perhaps 20 pages before I lowered my sights to children’s books. I must have read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess near the end of Grade 2, when I was 7, because that was when I wrote my first story. In the book, the heroine Sara tells the littler children at her school a fairy tale about princesses and mermaids. In post-modern terminology, I appropriated Sara’s tale, and wrote:
Once a princess sat on a old white rock and stared at the bluey-green water. Out of the sea rose four Mermaids with flashy silver tails. The Mermaids swam about in the crystal-green water and dragged after them a fishing net woven of deep-sea pearls. On it stood a prince who said to her “Will you come down under the sea and marry me?” The princess sat on the white rock and stared in amazement and slowly said “yes’. So she stepped onto the carefully woven net and the Mermaid dived under the sea. The Mermaids left them on the pure white sand in the middle of a shiny gold cave and swam away. The prince picked up a handful of sand and sprinkled it over her. Immediately she grew a tail. Soon they were married and lived in a palace made of pink coral and pearls and shells.
I still have that story. Very neatly printed in brown biro, with an illustration of prince and princess with tails and crowns outside the coral palace. Beginning writers are often exhorted to write from experience, and in a sense I was. I was still so very close to the fairy-tale world of my earliest childhood. Plump and sturdy, with dark almond eyes, black hair and fat red cheeks, I was nevertheless a princess. Why not? And a mermaid, too. The sea, with its waters both bluey-green and crystal-green, was just over the sand-dunes outside our back gate. I spent hours and hours swimming underwater, following little fish, with my hair waving around my face like black sea-weed. When I was very little, in stormy weather, I sometimes thought I saw my sister mermaids riding the waves far out beyond the pier.
I didn’t hit my stride as a reader until Grade 3 at Campbell’s Creek Primary School. The classroom was fully supplied with Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven series and, even better, in the library, a dim, imposing room with lots of dark wood panelling, were the Billabong books by Mary Grant Bruce. I was off and away, a serial reader.
And sometime in Grade 3, I also became a writer. That is, I fell in love with words. Not just stories; words. I tried my parents’ bookshelf again, and found something with a likely-sounding title. The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame. I opened it and read:
The masterful wind was up and about, shouting and chasing, the lord of the morning. Poplars swayed and tossed with a roaring swish; dead leaves sprang aloft and whirled into space; and all the clear-swept heaven seemed to thrill with sound like a great harp…
I think that’s all I read. I still have not read much further. I didn’t want to or need to then. I wrote:
The winds woke up
From their summer sleep
And tossed the leaves about.
Still wet with dew
The grass was swaying
From left to right.
Below the wild flowers
Filled the grass with colour.
Oh wicked winds!
What magic do they bring!
What magic! It was like magic with words and I have never forgotten how exciting it was. I was going to be ‘The Reluctant Blogger’ but I think ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ fits just right.