Anne has been browsing through Stephanie Alexander’s magnificent coffee-table book, Cooking and Travelling in Southwest France. She is trawling for ideas for a dinner party. I used to delight in reading such books, this includes gardening ones. They added ideas for me to turn into practice in the kitchen or outside. Now, I have to balance frustration at my inability to work in either sphere with the interest of the subject matter.
Anne and I share a love of books. I don’t know when I first learnt to read but in my Granny’s words ‘that boy has always got his nose in a book.’ I’m grateful for my widowed mother who never stopped me except to make sure I'd got next morning's kindling in. Early on she bought me a reading lamp, waking in the night I would click it on and pick up a book. She’d growl but did not never remove the lamp.
One of my first books was Winnie the Pooh. That old favourite like nearly all the others was based in the northern hemisphere. I grew up on tales of Christmas snow and a land full of squirrels and elves. Even the Whitcombe & Tombs story books were about such characters as Hiawatha and Ivanhoe, full of breezy optimism and damnation to evildoers. There were gaps, I never received an Enid Blyton or Beatrix Potter, I presume Mum saw them as books for girls.
Very early on I began consuming books from the Little River public library. Exhausting the children's section, Arthur Ransome and Robert Louis Stevenson - (Kidnapped seemed boring, I lacked the necessary Scottish historical knowledge) - I turned to the adult section, Idries I particularly recollect, especially his tales about diving for pearls off the north coast of Australia. Then I discovered Westerns, Zane Grey and Max Brand, again a world of heroics and the triumph of good. This led me to Bulldog Drummond, the Saint and Edgar Wallace.
I wish my teachers had thought to get me writing but in those days there was no concept of creative writing. My reading assisted a tendency to day-dream without the discipline of writing to force me to assemble my thoughts. Give me a macrocarpa stump or a rock and I would sit introspective upon it rearranging the world to universal acclaim. After all Richmal Crompton's William who was one of my heroes used to do this, sending out conquering armies, despatching cutthroats with a wave of his arm, catching spies or giving lectures.
Sydney-based Dymocks reissued Crompton's books in cheap war-time paper. Each Christmas and birthday Mum put one in my pillow-case. (We never had stockings, just a pillow-case at the foot of the bed). I still possess a few William, battered, marked and marmite-stained, evidence of continual re-readings, a love-affair with fiction and a good plot that I still retain. Crompton's stories like Milne's Pooh tales are superbly crafted - they resolved the conundrum that had been set up, a Heffalump captured or William ripping up his school report to leave a trail to help his aunt out of the woods in which he convinced her they were lost.
I had no early sense of any scale of critical value - that came much later. In fact I have often secretly harboured the heresy that it was for the better not having an anatomy of criticism forced into me early. Unless one has read many books how can one work out which are the good books? Haphazardly I devoured my grandfather’s David Copperfield along with his John Buchan, Steele Rudd, Ryder Haggard, H G Wells and Left Book Clubs. It was not just books. There were as well paper-back Westerns, the Press, the Auckland Weekly News, simple school readers, Pop's Bulletin, Mum's New Idea and any comics I could scrounge. Mum brought me a Bible. I kept getting stuck in Levicticus, doggedly I'd set out to read it from cover to cover again.
Bill Manhire claims that such eclectic reading is a very New Zealand thing. The class system of the old country helped determine what you read. The fact people like myself read across all the boundaries reflects our classlessness and our artlessness. This last idea is mine, it would be unfair to put Bill's label upon it. I was and am a print junkie - more accurately a story junkie. I rarely fail to finish a book nor do I walk out on a movie, TV is fatal once I see the beginning of something.
From day one Anne and I had read together and argued about books. An ideal holiday was a bach at a beach, Anne on the sand on a rug with a book and I in a deck-chair up the bank also with a book. The day, after a few years living together, when we agreed to merge our books was a red-letter day, symbolising as great a commitment as a wedding ceremony. We each had treasures we wanted to retain. Decisions were made amicably but sometimes involved considerable discussion.
Having finished Humphrey McQueen’s book on Australian social history, I tossed up whether to re-read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility as I’d promised myself when watching the DVD of the movie or to start A S Byatt’s The Children’s Story which had been languishing on ‘to be read’ shelf for a while. I went for the Byatt. I should have read it earlier. It’s gripping. It’s the world of Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, William Morris, the Fabians and that strange assortment of Russian anarchists, artists and free-thinkers of the late Victorian era when childhood was seen as a magical place. In the William books these people were objects of interest and scorn. But they were real, they shaped an era, soon to be overtaken by the carnage that is called the First World War.
Byatt’s prose glitters. A description of a cottage garden ends with ‘a haze of forget-me-nots’. Exactly right. The book opens in the museum, which is now called the Victoria and Albert. It quickly switches the scene to the rambling place in Kent that is the home of Humphrey and OliveWellwood and their large weekend party. There are performances of Midsummer Night’s Dream and magic lantern shows. The extensive cast of children and adults reveal a complex medley of emotions, desires and needs. I, as reader, even at this early stage, sense below the bounty and illusion there are dark under-currents ranging from infidelities to incompetence and imperfection. Why? The children, each responding in different way to the changing situations, provide the hints. In their own world of make-believe they see through the make-believe of their adults. What is real and what is not? That is the question.