Childhood memories: The joy of reading

Judith Barrie from SWit’CH writers, based in Swinton at Critchley Community Hub remembers her love of reading when she was younger and visiting the local newsagents for a copy of the Sunny Stories magazine.

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting in bed with my grandmother whilst she read to me. She lived with us for a few years around the time that I was born just after the war, taking up residence in the ‘back bedroom’ while my then-teenaged brother was confined to the tiny box room. I slept in a cot in my parents’ room – just about until I outgrew it when I was almost three.

Every morning a plate of buttered toast and Rose’s lime marmalade was taken up to Grannie, along with a copy of the Daily Express and I would snuggle in beside her, cadging bits of toast while she read to me the adventures of Rupert Bear. There would be frequent pleas from her too, ‘Ooo, mind me bad leg!’ as I fidgeted and wriggled about at her side but I quickly became hooked on comic strips, and never looked back.

As I outgrew the cot, my grandmother moved out to live with my uncle and I took over the box room from my brother, whilst my mother took over the comic strip duties.

Our ‘corner shop’ only sold basic items like bread and milk, tea and sugar, potatoes and carrots, so twice a week my mother would walk into Swinton from Wardley where we lived, to do the more specialised shopping. There was a fishmonger’s, where I first saw the tidy rows of gleaming, glassy-eyed herring and cod with the wonder of iridescent scales. There was a butcher’s shop, (Chappells) where much activity went on behind the bustling counter, with vigorous chopping and slicing to be observed while waiting in the long queue to be served with our lamb chops and bacon. The chemist shop was exciting with its strange smells and gleaming coloured glass bottles, where we would emerge with cough medicine, Elastoplast for scraped knees or pills for my mother’s headaches.

But most exciting of all was the newsagent’s shop where we went to buy the latest copy of Sunny Stories, a whole miniature magazine full of tales of pixies and elves; puppy dogs and kittens; small children, just like me, having exciting adventures. It was tuppence and I could scarcely contain my excitement until we got home and my mother would read it to me from cover to cover. Each copy would be carefully stored away to be brought out time after time – treasured possessions – and the start of my life-long habit of collecting.

Swiftly following the Sunny Stories were comics like Beano and Dandy, now mixed in my memory so that I’m not sure whether Desperate Dan appeared in the one or the other, and the same applied to Dennis the Menace, Korky the Kat and the infamous Roger the Dodger. They were the first comics to make use of ‘speech balloons’ for the dialogue, and, sitting by my mother day after day, I think I must have absorbed the art of reading by some kind of osmosis. I certainly have no recollection of having been formally taught, either at home or at school. The collections of these precious items were stored in a huge (well, it seemed that way when I was four) dark oak sideboard left behind in my grandmother’s room when she left, and the magazines pored over so many times that they probably fell to pieces in the end.

It might have been a Christmas when I received my first Noddy book: Noddy in Toyland, and from then on I became one of Enid Blyton’s most ardent fans. I adored that little fellow and his improbable companions, quite unaware that he was a misogynistic, homosexual racist who has long since been cast into political exile. He even dared to poke fun at Big Ears’ big ears!

It’s such a shame that children today can’t be delighted by these lovable characters – Tessie Bear, Bumpy Dog and Mr Plod, along with various mischievous Golliwogs, but fortunately for me at the time, despite money always being in short supply, somehow books were listed high on the agenda of priorities and the beginnings of my lifelong library were assembled.

I started my next collection when I received two Famous Five books one Christmas. I don’t recall how old I was, but I remember that my mother was dismayed when I read the first one right through on Christmas day. ‘They won’t last long,’ she said. She needn’t have worried – they were all re-read over and over through the next few years as I thrilled to the mad-cap adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and their dog, Timmy. These were much more grown-up than the Noddy books and the pixies and fairies that had filled my younger years, but now I envied the Famous Five their exciting exploits, especially when a picnic was involved. I had never been taken on a picnic and relished the accounts of cucumber sandwiches, sticky buns and, always, lashings of lemonade – particularly the lashings of lemonade, which I thought would be the very height of grown-up sophistication.

Clearly, looking back, Julian was a bit gay and George, the tom-boy, was clearly on the way to a gender reassignment, but at the time I innocently adored them all and all but wore them out with my continual readings.

The next discovery was the Secret Seven, another Enid Blyton creation of child detectives. They led an even more exciting life that the Famous Five, meeting in a secluded shed, and only allowed admittance by displaying their ‘SS’ badge and giving the correct password! They had a password! This was a new concept swiftly adopted by myself and my new best friend, Joan. I sat next to Joan at school but she lived ‘across the road’: the not-so-busy-then A6 at Wardley, so it wasn’t so easy to play together without the assistance of an adult, but I had a garden shed for the ‘meetings’ which was pressed into service, and it was there that we plotted our ‘investigations’.

We would roam the streets, looking for anything suspicious, any kind of ‘mystery’ we could solve. Once we found the hoof-prints of a horse in some mud and tracked them until they ran out in the grass field at the top of the street – clearly someone was up to no good! Could there be gypsies? On one occasion we spied a large number of small cardboard boxes on the back seat of a car parked at the top of the street – a rarity in itself as almost no-one had a car in those days. There was clearly smuggling going on here, or even worse, they could have been the loot from a robbery.

We arranged to investigate further by meeting ‘in the night’ – a time of half-past ten was agreed – when we could creep up to the car and hide to see if the ‘smuggler’ came out and provided any more clues. I stayed awake until I heard my parents go up to bed then crept down the creaking stairs into the hall. I silently opened the front door and peered out into the darkness. There was not a soul around. I decided the time wasn’t quite right and went back to bed to wait another half an hour. Unfortunately, I nodded off as soon as my head hit the pillow and we never found out what heinous crimes had been committed at the top of the street.

The leader of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven was Peter, an awful bully who thought nothing of reducing the girls to tears if they forgot the password, or otherwise just behaved like soppy girls do. Probably he’s been banned as well now, but I feel blessed that I had the chance to read all these wonderful stories.

Somewhere along the line, my parents bought an entire set of children’s encyclopaedias: Newnes Pictorial Knowledge. Ten volumes of pure delight, covering every aspect of the world that any child could ever want to know about: ‘Romance of History’, ‘The Story of the Human Body’, ‘The Kingdom of the Seas’. Lavishly illustrated, there were colour plates showing flags of the world, different gemstones, British birds; so much to fill any rainy day. But my favourite section was ‘A Children’s Treasury of Verse.’ Beautifully illustrated, it was here that I learned ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, ‘Home-Thoughts from Abroad’ by Robert Browning and ‘There was a Naughty Boy’ by Keats (which I can still recite, if pushed).

Looking back, they were gloriously politically incorrect. The section on ‘A Guide to Good Manners for Boys and Girls’ contains such gems as: ‘If a lady drops something in public, a gentleman will at once pick it up for her, raising his hat as he hands it back,’ ‘A gentleman should always give his arm to an elderly lady when walking with her,’ – ‘elderly’ probably meaning sixty plus.

There was a section for handicrafts: ‘It is important to remember that if a child allows his hands to grow up useless he will never be able to train them afterwards.’(!) There were instructions to make model ships, kites and a simple electric motor – for boys, of course, and instructions to knit, sew and embroider for girls, together with diagrams to make a weaving frame in cardboard (best left to a brother if one available). There is a lovely pattern for girls to make an apron, probably a good idea as she would be wearing one for the rest of her life.

These encyclopaedias were my treasured possessions and it was with horror that I watched my mother pass them on to my brother’s children, who were barely past toddler stage, watching helplessly as pages were torn out and beloved stories scribbled on. They very quickly hit the bin. I mourned their loss for years until 1995 when I was on a cottage holiday somewhere in Cumbria. I wandered into a second-hand book shop and found a whole set for sale. I had just been made redundant and money was tight, but I would have gone without shoes for a year to get them, and so they were brought back home to take up their rightful place in my collection, where I still get great pleasure in perusing their pages from time to time.

Of course there were my favourite Flower Fairy books; Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan; endless Enid Blyton books of fairy tales and the adventures of Malory Towers but by the time I was about ten I had moved on to the classics. The Secret Garden and Little Women were great favourites, but one birthday I requested Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell as a present, only to discover that my friend Joan, whose birthday was very close to mine, had requested the same thing. So we solemnly exchanged carefully wrapped copies to each other of identical books. We were both very happy with this arrangement.

Tragically, early the following year – 1957 – Joan’s mother died in the Asian flu’ epidemic. She had been a healthy young woman, probably no more than in her early thirties, and it seemed that our carefree childhood years had come to an abrupt end.

In 1956 my father had joined the Companion Book Club, a fairly new concept in those days. One book a month was delivered – no choice in the selection – but soon the oak bookcase in the living room was full of thrillers, mysteries and adventure novels, together with WW11 memoirs like Reach for the Sky by Douglas Bader and Boldness be my Friend by Richard Pape, the latter being the account of three years in a German prisoner of war camp. The Surprise of Cremona by Edith Templeton was my first, but by no means last, experience of armchair travel.

I suppose these books were my introduction into adult reading and as I look round my house now, sixty years on, with every room crammed with books, every flat surface supporting its own untidy pile of paperbacks, reading continues to be one of my dearest interests to this day.

This story is taken from the writing group’s most recent anthology Memories Unlocked, which is available from Amazon and good book shops around the world.

Do you have memories that you’d like to share with our readers?

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