Recently I was invited to give a short talk at the Castlemaine Word Mine (have a look at castlemainewordmine.wordpress.com/ to see what it’s all about). I got the title of my talk from a book (of course). The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford is a hybrid of, amongst other things, memoir, literary history and criticism and biography, and a record of the children’s books that ‘grew’ the author.*
I began my talk with the key books of my early childhood. When I was four I began school and encountered John and Betty (the Victorian Schools 1st reader). In grade 2, I started to read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Yes, I did. No, I was not a child genius. I’ll explain.
All sorts of things grow a person. There are the real experiences and events, the rock-like solid structure of your life – your family; where you live; how you live. Rock-like? Solid? I only have to talk to my siblings to find out that there are many subtle and some gross differences in the way we experienced those. And then there are the unreal experiences – the dreams and nightmares, the fears and fantasies. I can probably point the finger of blame at my father for the fact that I’m still scared of the dark. It wasn’t the Hobyahs for me – it was the Swarbies. The Hobyahs came out of the bush but we lived by the sea-side and the Swarbies, according to Dad, lived in the nearby Carrum Swamp. I vaguely remember that they had pointy heads and were bluish-greenish and rustled in the reeds and rushes. The moral of the tale was and has always been – little child, don’t wander off and get lost or drowned or stolen.
The pointy-headed Swarbies, Rat and Mole and Mr Badger, Snow White, Orlando the Marmalade Cat, Max and the Wild Things, Little Red Riding Hood…before I could read, I was already enmeshed in the world of story. Not only was I was read to, but I was allowed to free-range on the bookshelf. I spent hours with art books, looking at reproductions. Before I was five, I had a favourite dying saint – Saint Sebastian; my adult self sees him as kinkily homo-erotic, bound to his post not very well-covered with gauzy cloth, six-pack and multiple piercings – but more to the point, I had images of heroes and heroines galore from secular portraits of the great and glorious; from paintings of history and myth and legend; from the many juicy Old Testament tableaux (head on a platter, anyone?) plus of course the pietas and annunciations and nativities… My imagination seethed with details – jewel-encrusted sleeves, a ferret bright eyed in a woman’s arms, billows and folds of silken cloth, men with pointed ears and goat’s legs, winged babies with fat pink bottoms…so it’s perhaps no wonder that, after all the wonder and magic and splendour and excitement of that world, to be thrown into the cold water of ‘learning to read’ John and Betty at Bonbeach State School with Miss Benson came as a bit of a shock.
John and Betty. It was a kind of torture. I didn’t get it. Perhaps I didn’t want to get it. John can jump and Betty can jump went on and on and on, miserably, bewilderingly, like the school day itself with its Cuisenaire blocks and folk dancing to scratchy records and finger painting and those powerful, unknowable runes on the blackboard. Just looking at it, with its orange cover and illustrations of disturbingly bland fifties suburban conformity, gives me the chills to this day. I started school at four, and was far too immature and dreamy for the whole project. I wasn’t a bright child bored. I was a dopey child mystified.
But…when finally I could read, I could read ANYTHING. This time I free-ranged the novels in my parents’ bookshelf, trying Ulysses and Oblomov, understanding some of the words but not penetrating much beyond a page or two. Then I picked up Orlando. I think I must have read twenty pages. Again, without understanding much but – and I remember this clearly – finding words that skimmed, hummed, glittered and shone. I discovered delight in words. I fell in love with language.
But, not being a child genius, I couldn’t go on. And thank goodness, not long after that, my mother gave me The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett to read. And followed it with Seven Little Australians and the Edith Nesbits and the Laura Ingalls Wilders and The Phantom Tollbooth and Alice in Wonderland. School libraries gave me the Billabong books and the Secret Seven mysteries. I was immersed in Children’s literature from classics to crap. None of what I read had quite the brilliant humming-bird language of Orlando ( I had to wait till Form 6 Literature and The Leopard for that) but some of it approached it… and by the way, bless you, Saint Enid, for the bliss and balm of Popular Fiction.
I was launched and running, back on track, reading as if my life depended on it. John and Betty and Orlando were the starting points, and and I have never looked back.
*One of the Castlemaine Word Miners has loaned me a great little UK publication called Slightly Foxed which deals with people and their Significant Books. It’s great fun.