This was a difficult birth. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but when I wrote the first draft of this article, I found myself unable to fit this oversized, misshapen beast of an essay into a cramped two thousand words. So I started again. This time, I decided to forego the tome of references in favour of a little more rumination… as well as just talking about the books that got me through primary school. So my apologies to all the unmentioned writers and artists who gave me so much pleasure post-primary; they will all be familiar with the woes of the editing process.
Imagine my delight when, at my own birth, I was fortunate to find myself in the custody of parents who knew all the perfect triggers for stimulating a child’s imagination. Picture books were first, of course; I was spoon-fed a daily diet of visual treats. Stories or nursery rhymes, it didn’t matter; with a monstrous appetite for entertainment, my imagination demanded its feed and was not easily sated. Dr Seuss was a big favourite, our hardback edition of There’s A Wocket In My Pocket worn to tatters as my mother read it ad nauseam first to me, and then later to my brothers in sisters (she can still recite it from memory).
The same fate awaited all our Richard Scarry books, their educational content cleverly hidden behind sincerely playful characters and wonderful machines; they were books that could tell stories with their pictures alone. We loved them to destruction.
Books such as these made such an impression on my tender mind that at the age of three, I announced to my parents that I was going to be an artist. They endeavoured to offer as much support as possible in the furthering of my career, and my feverish hunger for illustrated books became immense as they produced one marvel after another. It was in my first years of school that I became inculcated with the fundamentalist certainty that books had to have pictures, a belief that with few exceptions, I have never shed.
The Richard Scarry books were only one set of tales to earn my love through the use of animals. Any story told with animals as the protagonists won my approval as I grew more confident in my reading; all of the classic fairytales of course, most often read from the admirably tough Ladybird books (back when they still represented the finest quality in children’s publishing), Beatrix Potter’s lovingly illustrated yarns, The Matchless Mice (before the sequels), John Gray’s The Day The Monster Came, or picture books from animated films like The Jungle Book or The Aristocats. I varied between shorter and wacky, and longer, more absorbing stories as my reading became more confident. I followed the eccentric adventures of Professor Branestawm, and had a fascination for absurd machines by the likes of W. Heath Robinson; bizarre devices that were as imaginative as they were impractical. And all the more entertaining if they were rampaging out of control in an unsuspecting world.
As I moved up through second and third class, I began choosing my own books wherever I could get them. Jumble sales provided some interesting morsels for a growing boy with a hungry imagination to feed. My boyish tastes were starting to assert themselves; I remember a lot of second-hand comics annuals – Dan Dare, Eagle, Tarzan, Batman And Robin, Superman; near-indestructible books that survived for years under beds and in toy boxes. Making brief comebacks as I delighted in rediscovering their formulaic stories and their polished, American, graphic illustration styles, lasting so well on their yellowing pages.
But I had also discovered Roald Dahl, and there is nothing that can be said about him that has not already been said many, many times. Reading everything of his that I could find, I was left puzzled that all young children’s books weren’t written this way, and that other writers didn’t write for every age group as he did. Like every child, I liked clear, descriptive illustration, and while I liked Quentin Blake’s quirky style, there were times when I found it irritatingly messy and short on backgrounds and detail. It’s something I notice about many modern books; that the illustration is executed in expressionistic, or avant-garde styles to meet adult tastes, rather than children’s. But Dahl’s storytelling style left an indelible impression on my own writing as it moved beyond its first faltering steps.
Most of the time, though, I paid little attention to the creators of my favourite books – everything I needed to know about them was in their work. This attitude changed little as I grew up; I didn’t read interviews or biographies, or collect a single autograph. I still have little interest in meeting my favourite writers and illustrators; possibly because they might interfere with my perception of their work. I feel the same now, about tainting the views of people who read my own work.
Mystery was the next dish on my imagination’s menu; I devoured The Hardy Boys and The Three Investigators, or the hardback collections of ‘adventure stories for boys’. Fiction or non-fiction, these were rip-roaring yarns of soldiers, spies, detectives and criminals in short story form, or as snippets from longer novels. Anything with a good pace, an engaging plot and storylines set anywhere but where I was living; these offered a near-constant escape from school and later, the onset of hormonal chaos that my early teens would trigger.
Visual input remained as important as the stories themselves, and as I settled into reading novels, I was also nosing into my father’s bound collections of Andy Capp (sloth, alcoholism and domestic violence will never be that funny again), and the cartoons of Carl Giles. Long before I understood the political context of his work, Giles impressed me with his irreverent family of misfits, his cracking one-liners and his mastery of every aspect of drawing, from caricatures to vehicles. I would browse through these books with a glass of milk, and sometimes a slice of marzipan, filched from my mother’s baking cupboard.
The Chronicles of Narnia started casting their magic when I was about eight years old, and I remember the wonderfully bittersweet moment when I finished The Last Battle at about three in the morning, wallowing in the final glory of it, but despondent that the Narnia stories were over forever.
I think it was probably around this stage when I began dreaming of some day doing for other readers what these writers were doing for me.
My insistence on seeing the world through the eyes of animals continued, too; held in rapture by the likes of Watership Down, The Wind In The Willows and later, The Plague Dogs. But by now, my interests were becoming more analytical. I had my heart set on being a zoologist; based purely on the fact that my parents had scientific backgrounds, so it followed that I should be a scientist too. And the only science that really appealed was one that offered the prospect of tracking down rare creatures like the colobus monkey (no developed thumbs), or the okapi (looks like a cross between a short-necked giraffe and a zebra). Non-fiction books on animals started taking up more and more of my shelf space, particularly anything well-illustrated and descriptive. And if said animals were dangerous, nasty or outlandish, all the better.
Unwilling to give up my taste for a good story, however, I found a perfect compromise in Hal and Roger Hunt’s exploits in Willard Price’s excellently informative Adventure series, starting with Whale Adventure, moving on to Gorilla Adventure, Lion Adventure and… well, you get the idea. There were a lot of them, all with equally unimaginative titles, and like Frank and Joe Hardy and their detective contemporaries, they had years of escapades without ever getting any older. And I loved them all.
Having already been entranced by The Hobbit, I now tackled Lord Of The Rings. As with Dahl, I would only be repeating what so many have already said about Tolkien, but I remain LordoftheRinged to this day.
Together, my reading, writing and illustration were reaching unhealthy levels of obsession by fifth and sixth class. Despite being a relatively good boy, I was at one point sentenced to detention for a whole week – the crime itself has faded from memory, but given that most of the boys in my class suffered the same punishment, it must surely have been some prepubescent venture on the scale of The Great Escape. When my parents descended on the school to remonstrate about the harshness of the sentence, my teachers responded by saying ‘he hardly goes out anyway’.
I was taking comics more seriously too. Battle was my staple read, on order at the newsagent next to my school. It was a varying collection of Second World War adventures – until the introduction of the Action Force supplement – its internal pages still printed largely in one or two colours on old-fashioned newsprint. Johnny Red was one of the best series, but the saga that left the most permanent mark was Charley’s War, written by Pat Mills and illustrated by Joe Colquhoun (though, believe it or not, I didn’t know their names for years). Unlike so many of these British WWII series, it was realistic, human, painstakingly researched and packed with equal parts action and down-to-earth drama. Colquhoun’s art was perfect, just perfect, and for years to come, remained the standard by which I judged all other black and white comic art. But I still loved books, and this was the best time in any child’s life for reading; where you are able for more mature novels, but are still unhampered by the cynicism of adulthood. My appetites varied wildly, from Ted Hughes’ beautifully simple The Iron Man (now skilfully reworked in the animated film The Iron Giant), to the dark and gritty The Silver Sword. From modern literature like Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, to battered, out-of-print relics like Masterman Ready, found on a dusty shelf at home among my parents’ mass of books.
My passion for the big screen was also moulding my tastes; I sought out books of films – adapted either to or from – and sometimes I was introduced to old treasures I had missed on my earlier trawls through the shelves, like Dracula or Tarzan. My mind produced all the images I needed for Gremlins, The Neverending Story, and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (tantalizingly printed as the original screenplay), but I particularly coveted those with the eight pages of full colour stills bound into the centres.
I had always been plied with the classics as I grew up, like the obligatory Treasure Island, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Moby Dick. Jules Verne, though, had a special place in my heart, and not just for well-known books like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and Around The World In Eighty Days. There were also for lesser-known gems like From The Earth To The Moon (with wonderful chapter titles such as ‘The Permissive Limits Of Ignorance And Belief In The United States‘), and Clipper Of The Clouds, where he imagined the forerunners of the helicopter and the space station. I still marvel at his foresight and that of H.G. Wells, and they taught me that if writers are to foretell the path of society in the future, they have to look beyond the predictions of today’s science and politics.
But by secondary school, my tastes were maturing towards adulthood, and while I continued to dip into children’s books out of a sheer love of the storytelling, the imagination and imagery, I would never again experience the magic of reading with the innocence and open mind of a child. In gaining the complex palate and motives of adulthood, I have lost that ability to give myself entirely to a story… and I miss it dearly.