Of children’s books, memory and writing

October 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

When was the last time you read a children’s book? I do not mean read a children’s story to your son or daughter, grandchild, niece or nephew. No, when did you last read a children’s book for the child in you?

Life has a funny way of making us see with new eyes or read with a new voice. Earlier this year I stumbled across some of my childhood books. My siblings and I were clearing out dad’s flat. After dealing with his clothes and the kitchen we tackled the traces of dad’s life that would really tug at the heart strings: the book cases.

As with everything else, dad had simplified the process with his meticulous instructions – for somebody who died unexpectedly, logistically he was remarkably well prepared! Based on his knowledge of us (and some frank but arguably morbid conversations) he dictated from beyond the grave the division of key sections of his library: military history and classics for brother one; art and history for brother two; science for sister; the Muriel Sparks, “Thomas library” and other theological titles for me… Dad’s notes took care of about half of the books. The rest we divided between ourselves or allocated to friends based on interests and memories, and the remaining ones went on the charity pile.

Just as we thought we had completed the books, brother two emerged with a box from the cellar. It contained the remainder of our childhood books: the ones that had survived us flying the nest and mum’s regular donations to charity and the local children’s hospital. On a day that was already emotionally charged, it was yet another discovery that triggered the tear ducts.

It was a strange juxtaposition: on the one hand I found relics from my childhood; on the other I had a strong sense that my child status was slipping away forever. With the death of the last parent I had in a way become an orphan. I may be grown-up, perfectly capable of supporting myself but nevertheless the sense of being parentless is very profound. And what followed has been an unconscious trawling of my childhood.

A character from my childhood: Milly-Molly-Mandy*

The rediscovered children’s books proved surprisingly helpful at a time when I was trying to salvage fading memories from the quicksand of grief. Turning the brittle pages of the 1950s School Friend annuals, I remembered family holidays in England, scouring second hand book shops, handing over two pounds and hugging a new treasure, carefully wrapped in a paper bag, until I could find a quiet spot. And stumbling across Joyce Lankaster Brisley’s delightful Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories I could still smell the resin of the large conifer I sat under on summer days, reading the stories of a little girl in a pink and white dress to my dolls.

I should not have been surprised at the power of these children’s books to conjure up vivid memories! Mr M is always amazed at how far back I can remember passages of my life, but for me narrative memory – as opposed to snapshot memory – began at three and a half when I started learning to read. I remember sitting next to my mum slowly deciphering the first Peter & Jane book. Or the sense of delight at receiving the first book from Father Christmas that I could read all on my own! I can still see it today: the 1978 Twinkle annual with its blue cover and a little girl in red pushing a pram.

One of my many Enid Blytons

Many books would follow of course! Enid Blyton novels galore including The Enchanted Wood and The Children of Willow Farm, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes… Re-reading some of those old favourites not only brings back happy childhood memories, they also remind me of a time when my imagination ran wild, unfettered by inhibition or expectation, and when the oddest things in my small universe piqued my curiosity.

At a time when I am nurturing my writing habit and learning what routines and rituals stimulate my creative processes, I am acutely aware that the urge to write was sown back in the late Seventies. What is more, rummaging through my writer’s toolbox, I realise that my return to creative writing coincided with me stumbling across childhood traits and instincts in my own cellar and attic, dusting them off and gently polishing them back to splendour. Treasures such as childlike wonder, a galloping imagination and a sense of whimsy and enchantment…

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