I went to a school at which one of the punishments was to spend an hour in the library, reading. It was in accordance with this policy of unflinching resistance to culture that I found myself in the headmistress’s study one day; she had a book on the desk in front of her – my book, my copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse. She pushed it towards me with distaste. ‘This,’ she said, ‘was found in your locker. There is no need for you to read that sort of thing in your spare time – you will be taught all that. And I am told you are bottom of your form in games and gymnastics yet again.’
The Oxford Book of English Verse still has, for me, a samizdat quality – to be read in the lavatory, shoved furtively under a pile of harmless romantic novels. I have that copy now – the old Quiller-Couch edition, looking today a little battered and forlorn beside Helen Gardner, short on Yeats and Hardy, too lyrical by all accounts, neglectful of satire and irony, but forever – for me – conjuring up the heady thrill of forbidden private activity, gloomy adolescent self-indulgence, confirmed in one’s sad suspicion that one was abnormal, perverted… It all came to an end, of course; I arrived at Oxford (goodness knows how, after all that strenuous aversion-therapy) and found that other people had been reading poetry for years, quite openly, and that other grey-haired authoritative ladies spent their lives extolling the pleasures of literature. It seemed a bit of a let-down; there was a certain frisson in cherishing a perversion.
Isolating such influential books, one instinctively reaches further and further back. And they become more and more improbable; but inescapable, nonetheless, lodged there in the head – the flavour, the very words. Eyes and No Eyes, by (I think) Arabella Buckley: a neatly illustrated guide to the fauna of pond and stream, with numbers relating text to picture (a scholarly touch that enthralled me, at nine), sternly anti-Darwinian (much talk of the wonders of creation and God’s hand therein) but compulsive reading. It was part of a home education kit devised for expatriate families – we were in Egypt, during the war – the beauty of which was that the system could be administered by almost anyone. They sent the books and the time-table and the adult concerned supervised, vaguely. ‘Nature Study’, the time-table said, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so out I went and studied nature, delving into our Nile-fed ditches and trying valiantly to identify the monstrous catch against the more genteel life of Arabella Buckley’s English waters. Caddis fly? Water boatman? Never mind, it was science, and I was doing it, all by myself.
Heroes of Greece and Rome; Tales from Norse Mythology; The Arabian Nights; The Holy Bible. The home education ‘kit was addicted to narrative: the child read, or was read to, and – in pre-literature days – ‘told back’ in its own words, ‘wrote back’ later. ‘Reading hour’, said the time-table cheerfully, day after day; so we read. And read and read. The books out of the kit so long as they survived the precarious wartime journey from England via the Mediterranean, anything that came to hand when they ran out. Dickens, mainly. Nicholas Nickleby several times because that made us cry most. No nonsense about literary discussion; emotional impact and story were what we were after. And personal involvement. I was committed to Greek mythology from the age of six – after all I was right there in it, wasn’t I? Sewing away, fending off suitors. Ulysses, in the pictures, had a great beard about which I had reservations, and looked old – I hankered secretly after Apollo but it was no good, that was the order of things, the book said so. ‘Poetry and Recitation’; Lays of Ancient Rome (‘Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the Nine Gods he swore, that the great house of Tarquin, should suffer wrong no more …’ – it lurks still, I could give you yards of it), Hiawatha, Idylls of the King. As an educational system I suppose it left a lot to be desired (‘Arithmetic’, said the timetable, ‘or’ – relenting – ‘Handicrafts’) but it was fine by me. It didn’t, though, pave the way very well for that headmistress.
Nothing, thereafter, seems quite as persuasive as that early reading. Oh yes, there are books after which the world has subtly changed: things will not be seen in quite the same way ever again. W. G. Hoskins’s The Making of the English Landscape; Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (the kind of history that wasn’t yet around when I was reading the subject at Oxford); Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry, almost any Ivy Compton Burnett, Emma, Moby Dick, those few biographies that illuminate both a life and a time – Walter Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson, Edgar Johnson’s Charles Dickens… But the susceptibilities harden, irrevocably; at around sixteen, I suspect. Rarely, later, does a book colour the mind in quite the same way. There is influence and inspiration and persuasion, but there is never again that first heady exposure to other worlds. To the book as object; preferably of sober and weighty appearance, gold-tooled and india-papered, like The Oxford Book of English Verse, conferring status on the reader – and a furtive thrill.