The books of youth

March 5, 2011

I thought I’d continue Reminiscence Season here on Channel Old with a post about books. Out of nowhere, this incredulous email has just arrived from my brother.

“Hey, am I remembering correctly? Did you take on holiday to Tunisia a hardback copy of Bravo Two Zero?”

I’m afraid I did, and thanks for remembering that I had it in hardback. This was 1994 and probably the first ‘grown up’ book I read, and I loved it. I loved everything about it. I loved the astonishing war story, and I especially loved that it was the size of my head and had textured flames on the cover. Brave Two Zero came out in 1993, when I was 13. Now clearly there are many questions here, and to avoid asking them we were trying to remember what my brother took on that holiday. We think it might have been the equally literary Gridlock by Ben Elton.

Something weird happened between childhood and the burgeoning adventure of adulthood – something marked by that Bravo Two Zero fascination of the 93/94. I think the gear-shift that takes place every so often in the unravelling of childhood can be felt – even re-experienced somewhat – through our memories of the books we have loved. And sooner or later we must all abandon the dog-eared tales of magic animals for the charms of an unlikely squaddie. Or must we? Yes, we must. Here’s how it happened for me…

Before Bravo Two Zero, back in 1993, there was a lot of Douglas Adams in my life. There were all the Hitchhiker books, the Dirk Gentlys, the stupid Meaning of Liff thing, and Last Chance To See, all in a matter of months. Off the back of that I flirted with other easy sci-fi like John Wyndham and the Red Dwarf books, but honestly, Robert Rankin? I couldn’t go through with it. Terry Pratchett was something that happened to other people, too. But there was something else, something with puns, what was that? Was it this? It was! (And having read that Wikipedia page, I may have to give it another go.)

And yet rewind just one year, to 1992, and suddenly it’s all ponies, as far as the eye can see. Saddle Club was the anodyne horse girl’s brand of choice, but my best pal and I thought Jinny was wonderful. The series by Patricia Leitch (who I see was just as obsessed with horses as we were) starred a petulant teenaged girl living in gorgeous rural Scotland who rode to school every day and sold her prodigious drawings of horses via the kindly proprietor of the local shop. She really was living the dream, but I loved her because, brilliantly – and like me – she was also kind of a loser:

“Jinny and her Arab mare, Shantih are well matched. They are both temperamental: neither of them like listening to anyone other than themselves. Jinny’s early history with Shantih is one of hopeless longing. She longs to be able to ride the mare, but cannot. To make her hopelessness as a rider even more obvious, Ken, who lives with them, can handle Shantih effortlessly”

Zip back to 1991
First year at secondary school. Do you know, I went in for the book review prize every year but never got it. I pushed it as far as I could. I even read The Naked Ape to try and get their attention, but the bitch just didn’t believe me. Anyway, before I get too angry – in 1991 I think we did The Ghost of Thomas Kempe in English lessons. There’s a thing in it about everyone’s footsteps having a different signature, which stayed with me. The Owl Service was creepy, but ultimately unsatisfying. I am David and The Silver Sword were, to be honest, simply magnificent. Must revisit them.

1990 The Usborne Puzzle Adventures were a huge favourite with me and my pals (pictured). Anything with adventures, crimes, etc – we were there. Around this time, my brother and I were both very into The Three Investigators – a series of unusually perilous kids’ books which, oddly, featured frequent cameos from Alfred Hitchcock. (The Austrians seem to have filmed it?) I found my reading record from the time, and evidently this was the year of the inspirational yet practical My Side of the Mountain, dreary Greyfriar’s Bobby and took-me-all-year-to-finish Watership Down. Blitzcat was quite serious, but a treat because all little girls love WWII. They actually do!

In 1989 I loved Blind Flight – a novel about a blind girl who has to land a plane after a bird strike, and the Mirrorstone – a gorgeously illustrated kids’ book by Michael “Monty Python” Palin with actual HOLOGRAMS in it! I devoured Jan Mark’s creepy short stories Nothing To Be Afraid Of, and unwittingly borrowed the strange almost-child-abduction story Your Guess Is As Good As Mine from Droitwich library, along with a book on how to be a hairdresser – which was the plan at the time.

1988 I am quite little now. At bedtime we had things read to us like the Hobbit and The Once and Future King but I couldn’t really follow any of it. I loved the Woof! book(s?) regardless of whether it was any good, purely because I was very keen to turn into a dog. For years, I could think of nothing better, so how thrilling when someone actually made a show about that exact thing! Then there was The Worst Witch – they were great, great. I stole a book about medieval knights with funny names from Weston Super Mare library. Oh, and Choose Your Own Adventure, of course!

1987 Hm. This is going back a bit. Can’t think. Where did we live in 87? I definitely remember my brother had the Frosties diary for 1987. I probably read that.

1986 Stories on tapes, rather than in books. A lovely story about a girl who loses a golden ball. The one about the mean giant who hates children playing in his garden. The cat who lied about feeling ill. Something about a black and white dog whose colours flip when he gets dirty. Stories from ballet. It’s all merging into one big wobbly gas, to be honest.

1985 aaaand, let’s stop there.

I showed you mine. Come on then – let’s hear about your pre-teen book youth? I’m particularly interested in the unusual ones, don’t tell me you read The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe. Also, what are the age-inappropriate things people stumbled across? Alistair reminds me he read “Mario Puzzo at Grandpa’s and Riders at Grandmas” probably before the age of twelve.

3 Responses to “The books of youth”

  1. Beano Says:

    I read Punch. I read a book about Jeremy Jukes.
    Jeremy put salt in his mother’s tea and ran away in shame. I broke an egg and hid in a tool shed until it got too hot.

  2. Jane Johnston Says:

    OMG – this post (and most-of-the-evening discussion in the Johnston-clan household) sure is stirring the sands..
    For me c.13, fighting mice & moles (Redwall, Duncton Wood, Nimh) and anything about historical cats (Blitzcat, Alchemists Cat) made the inevitable leap into twisted fantasy horror. James Herbert, King, J G Ballard, about 500 “Point Horror” books (the one about the haunted car still makes me freak at the first glance in a rear view mirror), segwaying into John Fowles’ The Collector and Christopher Pike’s Sati God, I loved Christopher Pike. Obviously tried as a spoddy kid to get into William Gibson, but they didn’t have Neuromancer in my library. Settled a bit later for Idoru, but that sure wasn’t any good. It was however Japanese, so spawned Manga trips to Manchester and cutting my own fringe.

  3. enemyofchaos Says:

    Can I interest you in The Mouse and his Child?

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