My first parting of ways came fifty years ago, when I was 8. In September 1957 I was to be sent away to prep school. I could hardly wait.
A brand-new brown trunk, inscribed with my name and school number, had been acquired weeks before. My mother had immediately begun assembling, name-tagging and ticking off items from a printed schedule sent to her by Matron, and then laying them neatly in the trunk. Meanwhile, no doubt to prime me, I was given a Jennings book to read, one of a series of prep-school stories written by Anthony Buckeridge. I was soon comprehensively hooked, and began working my way methodically through all eight existing titles, from Jennings Goes to School, first published in 1950, to the latest, Thanks to Jennings. Three days before the start of term, with my trunk packed at last, I was brimming with Jennings-fuelled excitement.
Then a virulent Asian ’flu struck. I woke the following morning feeling alternately hot and cold, with a pounding head and a lacerating cough. Over the next fortnight, I did little but lie in bed drinking Robinson’s Lemon Barley and rereading my Jennings books. Feverishly rereading them. Many children welcome illness as an escape from school. Jennings and his friend Darbishire gave me the paradoxical consolation of taking me out of the sickroom and into the classroom. It seemed to me a classroom of delight.
My 8-year-old reading was not offensively precocious but, as far back as I can remember, books had been as important as food. Picture books were long done with, though not comics. Beano, Dandy and Swift remained as essential as pudding, but they were not the main course. That was always a ‘real’ book and, unsurprisingly, I first liked adventure stories in which the characters
got into, and extricated themselves from, fix after perilous fix. I’d not entirely left behind Enid Blyton, with her string of bland ‘adventures’. But I wo
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