Tessa Waite’s residency blog
A beautiful sunny day in Hay brought a stream of visitors to The Story of Books. With the help and support of the wonderful John, I invited visitors to share their relationship to childhood books. The conversations that ensued were fascinating, touching and intriguing.
Carolyn brought in her copy of Fairy Book, a well-loved large format book, almost the size of a small child. It was full of line drawings with brightly coloured watercolour washes of pixies and fairies. She described these images as becoming almost real to her. The characters appeared to her during her play, as real as playmates. She remembered with pleasure the intensity of her repeated contact with this book.
John remembered the grim fascination he had for Strewell Peter (Der Struwwelpeter) by Heinrich Hoffman with its powerful illustrations – in particular Little Suck-a-Thumb with the gushing blood. He also loved a copy of the Greek myths which had intricate, exotic illustrations. What he described as the ‘slow absorption’ of these static images fed his fantasies about the characters and led to the making up of stories about the characters – conquest, conflict and eroticism.
Her abiding memory was of an edition of The Water babies by Charles Kingsley, possibly with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. The dreamlike, watery images captivated her. She remembers the theme of the conquest of danger and the idea that things can change and move on.
He remembered the intensity of reading as a young child. As a seven or eight year old he loved Emil and the Detectives. Re-reading them as an adult he found them rather dull with not much happening. It was the little details that enthralled him as a boy. He reflected that as a child all that is needed is some small details, little interactions, as these become expanded by the young reader, making little details enormous, powerfully fuelling the imagination.
Helen remembered a book of fables and in particular The North Wind and the Sun and their competition to decide which is the stronger of the two. The challenge was to make a passing traveller remove his cloak. However hard the North Wind blew, the traveler only wrapped his cloak tighter to keep warm, but when the Sun shone, the traveler was overcome with heat and soon took his cloak off. This story has stayed with her. We discussed the power of warm encouragement over harsh words.
A visitor from Israel, Nava described bookshops as having a calming influence on her. She recalled how much she enjoyed her uncle’s bookshop. It was from this shop, at the age of 15, that she got a book of the late works of Van Gogh, which she loved to look at for their drama and power.
Later when she was getting married, her husband’s aunt was working in a bookshop and invited her to choose a book as a wedding present. She chose a book of Johannes Vermeer paintings with really good reproductions. She loved the soft northern light in the images – so unlike the strong Israeli light. She pondered the impact of these Dutch interiors on her career in interior design. When I asked her if she still had these two volumes she replied “these books are in my sitting room, they are living with me.”
Penny remembered the excitement of going to buy a book as a child and the thrill of having her library ticket punched.
Epaminondas, by Sara Cone Bryant was a book that enchanted her. She was intrigued and fascinated by the different faces and mannerisms of the characters. Epaminondas was portrayed as simple and stupid and there was comfort in that for her as a young child – a sense of solidarity.
Her childhood affection for these stories is now overlaid with guilt, a corrupted innocence in finding the ‘other’, skewed by prejudice. These stories reflect the values of the time in which they were written – all sorts of other attitudes and ways of being. As an adult she recalled the experience of being on a bus in Malawi as the only white person and the screaming of a child on seeing her – the impact of difference. Reflecting on the terms of black and white and the associations to these words, often used to refer to bad and good, is an ongoing dilemma.
Chris remembered the feel of the thick textured paper of The Dog and the Diamonds, Mary Cathcart Borer, as his first hardback book.
At the age of 11 he walked over the mountain from Tredegar to Rhymney to buy a Welsh book. He was fascinated by Welsh but didn’t speak or understand it. He bought Dai y Derwen by Joseph Jenkins, a 1930s volume with pen and ink drawings. This book had a boy and a donkey on the cover so he assumed the the title meant Dai the Donkey. Later having learnt Welsh as a young man of 19 or 20 he was able to read the book and discovered its title, Dai the Oak.
Chris is now a writer. He allowed himself to steal from his savings to buy books.
Marie and Emyr
Marie described the joy of being immersed in stories connected to the natural world, being taken away. It began with Beatrix Potter, her delicate images which belies the darker undertones within each story. She loved Black Beauty, the sadness and the struggle. She and Emyr are passionate about wildlife and look for stories to inspire their nieces – a book on birdwatching has inspired one of them to buy some binoculars. A story/rhyme that they all love is the crazy story of ‘The Old Woman who Swallowed a Fly’. The imagery conjured up by the story gets everyone laughing.
For Jane, reading The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown at the age of eight or nine was a revelation. It tells the story of seven young people in three different families who form an amateur theatrical group, the Blue Door Theatre Company. The children write, produce, direct and act in their own plays, each of them harnessing a particular talent. She read and reread it, really connecting with the excitement of being able to do something, to make it happen. It was not just the actors that were important but the whole backstage creation that enabled a performance to be a success. It described the technical side of performance, the mechanics of putting on a show. It was around this time that together with her sister and a group of her sisters friends, she spent a summer putting together a show. They had a wonderful dressing up box which included evening dresses, dinner jackets, big skirts etc. Dressing up was very much part of life – becoming somebody else. Together they created a performance and charged the neighbours to come and see it.
At school Jane always enjoyed drama, enjoying being involved and performing. The first time she saw a theatre production was aged 12 in the village hall. Gwent Theatre performed ‘The Threepenny Opera’. She described this as an amazing experience that blew her away. She joined their youth group and found that everything that goes on backstage was where the magic happens, transforming people and things.
Jane went on to become a stage manager. Experiencing the adrenalin rush in the moment just before the curtain rises, backstage is where she feels totally at home.
His Rupert annuals were where the magic happened. Phil enjoyed the surreal events that took place alongside the cosy comfort of Mr and Mrs Bear. They in someway reflected his own parents who in post WW11 sought comfort and stability. Despite this Phil enjoyed freedom to roam and play. The stories of Rupert as a protagonist at the centre of the action were inspiring. The story could be read by looking at pictures, you could read the simple rhyming phrases or read the full text. In rediscovering these books through sharing them with his children, he was surprised by the overt prejudice in the way characters were depicted and over simplification of complex issues. Despite this he still enjoyed the magic in the fantastical. The surreal and the everyday still sit side-by-side in Phil’s life.
Nicky brought in her childhood copy of Peter Pan and Wendy, retold for little people by May Byron with the approval of the author, pictures by Mabel Lucy Attwell, a book that had been given to her father in 1932. It was a beautiful well-loved edition with glassline paper inserts covering the full page illustrations. Nicky remembered being read to as a child by her grandfather with his rough, deep voice.
This book was the first one that she read by herself. “Suddenly it’s YOUR story!”
In Swallows and Amazon by Arthur Ransome, James reflected, two groups of children are encouraged to explore the outdoors by themselves – to go camping, make fires and to sail. This inspired him. The book was not gender stereotyped and contained strong family values alongside children developing their independence and learning through their mistakes. He remembered part of the story where the mother is consulting the father, who is away from home, regarding whether to let the children go sailing on their own. The father replies via a telegram which reads: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN. James found this attitude of trust in the children’s capabilities an inspiring central theme.
Realising that the book was set in the Lake District around Derwent Water, as an adult James went to look for the location. He also went on to study at university and joined a sailing club. The other club members were surprised to learn that he was a beginner as he seemed very comfortable in a boat. James realised that through the descriptions in Swallows and Amazon he had learnt so much about sailing and he was able to translate this into practical action. He went onto take part in off shore races, including the Fasnet race and had the opportunity to join the Olympic team.
James crystallised the story of Swallows and Amazons as “exposure to opportunity and risk”. This is something that he has carried with him and which continues to be central to his work and life.
Tessa Waite will be at The Story of Books at 20, Castle Street in Hay-on-Wye, HR3 5DF next Thursday, 11th October, from 10am to 5pm. Please drop in and share your memories of a favourite book from childhood, or one that sparked your imagination. Memories and images can also be sent in via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or posted on social media or to the address above.