A Book I Read As A Youngster That Launched Me Into A New Genre of Reading
What led up to those times? The War, meaning World War II, ended with village-wide victory parties on VE Day and VJ Day 1945. I was five. My family, my mother, my two older sisters and my younger brother, had lived through the war in a two bedroom apartment next to my grandparents and cousins. My siblings and cousins all went to school at an elementary school around the corner. I did very well there and easily passed the eleven-plus which proved so difficult for the rest of the family. At that stage I was still reading books for children whenever they were available.
My father, a complete stranger to us all, was demobilized sometime in 1946 when he was 39 years old. Neither he nor we adjusted well to each other. We moved to a three bedroom two story house in council housing in the river bottom outside the village. I went on to high school and began reading diligently. I read the adventures of Bigglesworth, a boy who flew an aeroplane. I no longer recall the name of the author. He, for no doubt the author was a man, he used the same device at the end of each chapter. He left the hero, Bigglesworth, in peril. The next chapter took up elsewhere with other characters. "Meanwhile in the desert..." The following chapter quickly extricated Bigglesworth from danger. This is a tiresome device and easily overcome by reading only alternate chapters.
When I tired of Bigglesworth, who I knew would never fail, I turned to The Saint stories by Leslie Chartaris. Simon Templar also never failed. Superheroes are, after all is said and done, boring. I turned to the plethora of war stories that came out in cheap paperbacks about the time of the Korean conflict. Here were real people in real danger. Many of the characters in these books did not return, but they tended to be badly written.
As I sat in high school class one summer day, a school master gave us a list of suggested "good reading". I was tired of bad reading. I wanted literature. I wanted something more modern than Dickens. I wanted some post war stuff, no more H.G.Wells and Kipling. He offered his list with a sense of humility rare in English school masters of the day. His list included poets and prose authors. Among the list of "good authors" were two Americans, Steinbeck and Hemingway. It was difficult for an English school boy to identify with Hemingway. Certainly he was very readable but that old stigma of the boring superhero was still there. Steinbeck, on the other hand, had more believable characters. There was more whimsy in his work. There was also a kind of anti-authority thread to his writing which was appealing to one who occasionally sneaked up the down staircase.
One night, with the wind blowing the rain against the windowpane beside my bed, I read Tortilla Flat (pronouncing both l's) all the way through. It launched me out of the war story realm into real literature. I worked my way down the school master's list. I rejected some authors. I added some others recommended by friends. In that group I especially remember Mary Woods and her Gone to Earth. Siegfried Sassoon gave me a better picture of the horrors of war. I turned to the Russians, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pasternak. I read some French authors in translation, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and François Sagan. I enjoyed the stories of William Saroyan. Later I turned back to England and read everything I could get my hands on written by Thomas Hardy.
I tend to read by author, at least until that person has no more to say to me. I spent the period between marriages reading Hermann Hesse. Magister Ludi, or the Glass Bead Game still guides me through the nonsense of bureaucracies. Lately, I have been reading authors with Asian roots V.S. Naipaul, in whom I quickly lost interest, Michael Ondaatje who cannot write enough for me and Salman Rushdie and many Indian, Sri Lankan and Parkistani writers.
This road, this habit of reading well written books, was initiated by a gentle school master's suggested reading list. It picked up as I explored American authors and took off when I lay in bed, my feet on a hot water bottle, the wind and rain pounding the window pane and my mind magically transported to Monterey, California a place where I could conceivably retire. There, I will sit on a deck reading till the light fades then watching the sunset into the Pacific thinking of myself as a school boy, reading in bed.