This week I’ll be chairing a Book Week Scotland event at Stirling Central Library. It’s a ‘ThankBooks’ panel, featuring several writers (Alan Bissett, Lisa Ballantyne, Billy Letford and Shari Low) who will be talking about a book, author, character or library that made them what they are today.
Preparing for the panel has made me think about my own early reading and writerly inspirations. I was a bookish child: here’s me with my nose in a big book of fairy tales, one of my favourites when I was little. Perhaps no surprise that when I came across Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories as an adult I loved its exhilarating, weird, erotic feminist retellings. Who can forget the moment in the title story when the mother gallops, gun blazing, to snatch her daughter from the hands of the murderous Marquis? Or the ‘wily, perspicacious and resourceful’ Puss-in-Boots, who ‘can perform a back somersault whilst holding aloft a glass of vino in his right paw and never spill a drop’? (After reading this stuff, real life is always going to seem a little grey.)
My favourite book of all as a little girl was J M Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy, which I read innumerable times. I had an edition with the Mabel Lucie Attwell illustrations, and my parents copied me out a flying Peter Pan on a big piece of paper, which I had stuck to the lampshade in the middle of my bedroom. In my head, though, the story was much wilder than the charming illustrations suggested: the interloper boy who steals the children away from the security of their home to fly across the skies to Neverland couldn’t be tamed. Many years later, I delighted in Geraldine McCaughrean’s official sequel, Peter Pan in Scarlet (commissioned to continue the flow of royalties to Great Ormond Street Hospital) which perfectly captured Peter Pan’s wildness and prickliness.
I rapidly read through all the children’s books in the library, and saved my pocket money to buy new Famous Five books from our tiny local bookshop. I marked the books out of 20 on the inside back cover; clearly a career as a teacher of some sort was calling. Long summer holidays in France were perfect times for reading, but I also regularly ran out of books, and turned to my grandparents’ shelves, and the books my mother and aunts had read or studied in English. Far too young, I tried to read Anthony Trollope, Moby Dick and (the only book I remember being taken away from me) Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants.
As a young teenager, I spent my Saturday mornings working (for free) at the local library. Here’s me checking out books to my little sister (forgive the fashion: it was the 1980s; I also had Duran Duran fingerless gloves). In pre-computerised days (that’s a microfilm reader in the foreground of the photograph), this involved checking out books, and placing their tickets into the borrowers’ little cardboard wallets, in perfect alphabetical order. I also checked back in the returned books, which often needed wiping with spray cleaner (my least favourite job). I became familiar with the Dewey Decimal System as I restacked books on shelves ready for their next readers. After a few weeks, I was also entrusted to operate the franking machine in the office, and then to take the franked envelopes and parcels to the Post Office over the road. This, oddly enough, was my favourite job, despite being the least literary. (I’m hoping, one day, that the nice people at Scottish Book Trust will let me have a go with their franking machine, which sits at the entrance to their offices just off the High Street in Edinburgh. I like post almost as much as books.)
Scottish Book Trust run the annual Book Week Scotland, adding to their range of year-round activities this concerted week of free events all around the country, for readers of all ages. Check out the schedule here, and if you feel so minded, add your bookish inspirations to the virtual ThankBooks wall.