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Did we all have someone in our childhood who was The Best Giver of Presents? In my case, it was a family friend called Vere Guilford. She entered deeply enough into the person you were to get presents right. At the perfect moment she gave me a lockable cassette box. When my soul was starting to ache she gave me a double-cassette pack of Beethoven symphonies. At Christmas 1974 (I remember the mild disappointment on unwrapping it) she gave me Volume I of the twelve-volume Oxford Junior Encyclopedia.

It was the ‘Mankind’ volume of the 1974 edition, 500 pages long. With not much excitement I started to browse through this great red tome. It turned out to be more of a pleasure to browse through than the Encylopedia Britannica with its extensive articles on every single Pope – ‘articles that tell you’, as my father said, ‘more than you want to know’.

The instant appeal of this ‘Mankind’ volume was that it had photographs on almost every page to accompany the prose: large black-and-white ones of varieties of human I really wanted to look at, such as a family of pygmies smoking outside their hut. I spent the rest of Christmas Day gazing at such specimens: ‘A gypsy family near Wexford, Ireland’, ‘A group of Bedouin’, ‘Hottentot women and children playing a game’. Accompanying the article on ‘Races and Peoples’ was a full page of photographs of faces: top row, ‘Nordic, Alpine, Mediterranean’; middle row, ‘Negro, Mongol, American Indian’; bottom row, ‘Melanesian, Polynesian, Australian Aborigine’. The faces got wilder and the hair more unkempt the further down the page you went. I don’t think you’d be allowed nowadays to put the photos in that order. It implied some kind of hierarchy.

The following Christmas the same friend gave me Volume V: ‘Great Lives’. Now I started lapping up the prose. No article is longer than 2,000 words; many are shorter, but none is pathetically short. Th

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About the contributor

Ysenda Maxtone Graham is the author of three Slightly Foxed books: The Real Mrs Miniver, Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School and Terms & Conditions.

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