1944. Yes, a very fraught year indeed. People kept telling me we were going to win the war. I hardly listened to them; I was nine, I'd never doubted it and thought that anyone who didn't agree with me must be a bit stupid. I'd learnt to read - admittedly after a bit of a struggle - two years before but apart from stories of two characters (whether human or animal I really can't remember) called Ponder and Plod and 'that silly little rabbit/Who had a naughty habit/of eating and eating all day/ Little bits of greenery /he found upon the scenery' until he had a very unpleasant experience indeed, I can't really remember any hugely emblematic figure in my literary development. Well, Rose Fyleman and Alison Uttley and copies of Enid Blyton's 'Sunny Stories' which belonged to my cousins and which I would tear up with contempt if I ever got the chance, do all hang somewhere in my memory and I just about remember an absolutely terrifying Blyton-invented monster called the Snoogle which had once scared the wits out of me and nearly stopped me reading altogether. Potter, Pooh, Wind in the Willows: they passed me by completely. I only discovered them when I had children of my own.
But Christmas 1944 came and I woke up at 3 in the morning to see what was in my pillow-case at the end of the bed (not much usually) and I found a book. It was a strange-looking thing. It had green binding and a dust jacket with lots of little black and white drawings with blotches of yellow between them and on it was written:
BY ARTHUR RANSOME
Author of 'Swallows and Amazons'
Actually, I wasn't very impressed. But there wasn't a great deal in the pillowcase to detain me so, for want of something better to do, I started reading.
I finally emerged at gone midday for my Christmas dinner. I had nearly finished the book's 453 pages. I was aware even then that I'd just had a very significant experience. Posh kids home from boarding schools sailing boats on lakes: what did they have to do with me? But the magic had worked. I was hooked. I found myself identifying with them, wondering how, in my desperately inadequate way, I could emulate their adventures, how I could somehow turn my world into a semblance of theirs.
I have that very book beside me now. Its cover is long gone (I remember that, with Indian ink and my paintbox, I did my own version when it finally disintegrated, but that's gone too). It smells slightly musty, the green binding is shabby, the cheap paper is yellowing. Strangely, it doesn't have the proud badge worn by most of the other Ransomes I possess: a tiny lion sitting on top of an open book which bears the words BOOK PRODUCTION WAR ECONOMY STANDARD, which, I may say, has lasted much better than many books published since. It's the November 1944 reprinting, the seventeenth (I repeat, the SEVENTEENTH) reprinting since first publication in November 1931.
From that moment I was a reader. First, I wouldn't rest until I possessed all the Ransomes. Slowly they arrived, some new, some secondhand. Christmas 1947 arrived and with it the last in my collection, Great Northern? I didn't realise then that that would be the last not just for me but for everybody else. For some years, no matter what else I was doing, no matter what other concerns I had in life, I was reading through the whole series, Swallows and Amazons to Great Northern?, again and again and again. I know that we can't use the 'painting the Forth Bridge' metaphor any more but that's what it was like. All right, other books came as well - Just William , Biggles (we had a next door neighbour once who told me that his uncle had written books for kids and when I asked who, answered 'My Uncle Bill. Johns was his surname. He wrote about some airman or other. Name began with "B". Never read them myself.') and from them I gained not only the pleasure of the reading but also, because they were all series, the urge to collect them.
And others, less famous. David Severn. M Pardoe (I used to love Bunkle). Then at last to more conventional fare. Treasure Island. And the far superior (I think) Moonfleet by J Meade Faulkner, most underrated of writers. And even John Buchan.
And at the same time my comics : Wizard, Rover, Hotspur, Adventure. The football stories. I so remember one in The Hotspur. The Team that Died. The 1958 Munich disaster was uncannily forecast in this 1948 story. As Manchester United, so Radwick Rangers. In 1995 Scholastic published my football murder mystery in Point Crime, Death Penalty, and, out of homage to such a wonderful story - and indeed to all my reading history - I just had to call the club at the story's heart Radwick Rangers. The main difference between the story in The Hotspur and real life was that while United, after battling through to Wembley with a team of reserves, lost in the Cup Final after the crash, Radwick won the Cup. Well, they would, wouldn't they! And my Radwick were promoted to the Premiership. They probably came down again next season but I don't want to know. For me, their world was over. Though one day I might revisit it.
So what effect did all these influences have on me? They gave me such pleasure, such huge, huge pleasure that, quite calmly, almost coldly, as a firm resolve I was in honour bound to carry out, I said to myself one day, 'When I grow up I want to give the same pleasure back.' And many years later, I found myself able at least to try to do it.
Now here's a confession. Everything I've written above is an absolutely true record. But it's also been a piece of displacement strategy. You see, I had not just hoped but assumed that today would at last see my first e-book up and running. Colonel Mustard in the Library. And I was going to talk about the four stories, to whet your appetites so you'd all rush to the Kindle Store to buy it at once. I was going to thrill you about how the head of geography was murdered on the field trip to the Lake District, of how the doughty band with the elusive Wizard Wendaloft who were trying to save Median Earth suddenly irrupt into Bradley's persecuted life at school, how poor old Morley Cartwright finds himself carted off to a nightmare hospital by a doctor the Health Centre insist doesn't exist and how Norbert, the worst referee in the entire Universe, meets a little man called Mr Beelibub and is offered an intriguing bargain he can't resist.
Well, there's yet another delay so I apologise, especially as I must be the only one left on the blog without an e-book to my name, and hope that my particular impasse is soon sorted. And you'll just have to wait. Sorry.