How Homer Taught Me to Read

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Late one Cambridge afternoon in the winter of 1945–6, when I was between 3 and 4, I was in bed beside my mother. It must have been winter because it was dark and the pink-shaded reading-light over the big double bed was on: at any other time of year I would by then have been packed off to my own bed. It occurs to me now that my mother had taken the two of us to bed in an attempt to keep warm in that winter of fuel shortages and rationing.

She was reading and I asked her what she was doing. After a moment’s hesitation she asked if I would like to hear the story. Of course I said yes, so she turned back to the first page and began.

I have seen the book so often since that I must be careful not to invent a memory of how it looked on that first occasion. But it was Professor E. V. Rieu’s translation of the Odyssey, the first volume of the Penguin Classics of which he was General Editor, bound in the all-over brown which was the initial livery of the series.

It must have seemed even then a strange choice of book to read to a small child, but it did not seem at all strange to me at the time. The story opened with a boy living at home with his mother, who had many cares running a house on her own. The boy’s father had been away for years, fighting in a great war. He had taken part in the final glorious victory; but unlike other boys’ fathers he had not yet returned home. That was entirely believable. The boy decided to mount an expedition to find out what had happened to his father. That too made obvious sense: if I had been a little older I would have wanted to do the same.

Then the story moved on to describe the father’s adventures since the war had been won. They were rather fantastical but entirely believable. The author, whoever he was, had understood the essential requirement in writing a story for children, or indeed for anyone: make the opening scenes credible and within the listener’s experience and what follows will be ac

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About the contributor

Adrian Thorpe spent 37 years in the Diplomatic Service, and retired in 2002. He now lives in Dorset and runs his own publishing company, Traviata Books Ltd: www.traviatabooks.co.uk.

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