The past is another country: by Dennis Hamley

There have been a few blogs recently about our early reading adventures. I was especially interested to read of Ann's encounters with Alice and Lewis Carroll. Such musings always lead me to pondering on my own formative literary influences and I keep coming back to a fateful Christmas in 1944.

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:



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.

And reading.

And 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.


Dan Holloway said…
I still have all (13 I think) volumes of the Swallows and Amazons series in pride of place on one of our landing bookshelves. Marvellous memories
CallyPhillips said…
Like you, I was absolutely smitten with Arthur Ransome. I had the whole series in paperback and stupidly lent one (think it might have been swallowdale) which I never got back... I must now go and check and at least get a copy though it won't match the set!
On another tack. Having just been going through the travails of epub myself if I can be of any help do contact me. Some of the 'problems' have really easy fixes - when you know how! happy to help if I can though can't promise of course but even if you just need someone to speak/shriek/squeak/cry to about it!
Jan Needle said…
huh,i used to dream about finding a book on my pillow at christmas, even a CARDBOARD book. all i ever got was a lump of coal (used) and a bit of orange (peel).it all changed when my family began to move up the class ladder (my mother got a job!). when i was nine or ten, i think, i got EIGHT copies of twenty thousand leagues under the sea, in that hardback edition they sold in woolworths (someone will remember what they were called). all my many aunties knew i liked the sea, and travelling, so it was the obvious title, and i believe that edition was under half a crown, which even then wasn't too impossible. my copies of ransome (the second greatest writer ever) and william (richmal crompton was number one, no contest)all came from the library.

anyway, enough of this nonsense. wonderful post, dennis, and thanks for that weirdly lovely day with jim riordan. for those of you who don't know it, the wonderful jim, children's writer and pompey fanatic who once played professional soccer in soviet russia under an assumed name so that the muscovites wouldn't be prejudiced, is desperately ill, but still magnificent. being looked after by his russian wife, elena, known as the duchess. read his Comrade Jim. you won't regret it.

just one thing, though, dennis. Moonfleet is NOT superior to Treasure Island, which i happen to believe is possibly the best book ever written in english. when i was a kid, despite my predilections, i found Moonfleet boring. if you want a fight, mate - you're ON!
madwippitt said…
I loved Swallows and Amazons too! And I remember those covers! Sadly they've all gone now, disappeared by my Mum during one of our hose moves ...
Dennis Hamley said…
Madwipitt, the covers can still be got. I lost my Missee Lee (my least favourite Ransome, except for Missee Lee's dictum 'Cambridge best for scholarship, Oxford best for marmalade', which I intend to put up in the Jam Factory, now an arts centre and restaurant where Cooper's Marmalade was once made) years ago but recently saw and bought a new reprint of it WITH THE OLD COVER, looking beautiful and new but utterly out of place now with the other twelve (Yes, Dan, there were indeed thirteen).

Yes, Jan, that was a great though bitter-sweet day in Pompey. If Jim was well, I think he'd be on Authorselectric too. What a man. Jakob Riordanov. To understand the 20th century properly as well as have food for thought and a good laugh, everybody should read Comrade Jim (Fourth Estate).

Elena is marvellous with him. Yes, a day to remember, even though I backed into that lorry in a small space outside the Royal Oak and did my tailgate in.

Caryl, thanks for your offer. I may well come back to you. My trouble is that someone is doing it for me and, through, I have to say, no fault of his own, has been severely delayed in it. Having just had a traumatic few days editing the Oxford Writer in which everything on my new computer went wrong and I reacted with crashing incompetence (though everything turned out all right in the end) I'm chary of any more direct encounters with the electronic world for a while, apart from the occasional blog and email.

Moonfleet IS better, Jan. Not boring at all. Can't understand why you think so!
Linda Newbery said…
Another vote for Moonfleet here - and I never got on with Treasure Island!
Hi Dennis, Thanks so much for taking the time to share your fav reads and explain the reasoning behind your 'displacement strategy' - you made me chuckle, but I also sympathise with the frustration you must feel at the delay in seeing your book published. Onwards!
I'm looking forward to buying my ebook of Colonel Mustard in the Library one day soon – it sounds just like my kind of read:)
ps Tho' have to agree with Jan regards Treasure Island and HRH RS Stevenson ;o)
Jan Needle said…
john silver broke the back of a young sailor who refused to join the mutiny, then stabbed him to death. john silver was the smiling assassin jim hawkins loved. doctor livesey, a scot, the best of the good guys, had served voluntarily under the duke of cumberland, the butcher of the scots. trelawney and his business associates were happy to see more than twenty men die to enrich themselves with flint's blood-drenched loot.israel hands was edward teach's first mate whom teach (known as blackbeard) shot through the kneecaps for disagreeing with him. moonfleet? PAH!
Enid Richemont said…
I hated Arthur Ransome. They weren't 'real' adventures, just the play fantasies of a group of posh kids - I couldn't deal with it - sorry. I have a socially embarrassing dislike of the Pooh stories too, although they do sometimes get to me, especially the Zen version I picked up somewhere.
Masefield, Tolkein, H C Andersen, Noel Streatfield - yes, yes, YES.
Dennis Hamley said…
Enid, I do see what you mean. though I have to say that I always thought the kids in Noel Steatfield's books were doing exactly the same thing. playing out posh fantasies. I liked such things as the lovely improvisation which went into the making of the Blue Door Theatre in The Swish of the Curtain (I hope I've got the right book there)but Ransome's kids were just as, if not more, resourceful.

I never really knew Pooh (except for a BBC Children's Hour seialisation) and had to wait until my children had stories read to them before I discovered the sheer joy of Reading In Capital Letters and realised that Milne was a consummate master of comic writing.

Ah well, there you go. We'll none of us ever agree!

Marianne, your wait for Colonel Mustard is nearly over. So, thank God, is mine.
Dennis Hamley said…
By the way, Jan, you'll soon have a reasoned but devastating reply to your denial of Moonfleet's superiority. I think I'll put it on as a comment on your next blog.
Jan Needle said…
bring it on, hamley! eye patches at dawn.
Chris Wiseman said…
Oh Dennis - how I loved the Arthur Ransome books too. Never occurred to me they were "posh" - they gave me an undefined sense of yearning which good art still gives me, in complicated ways. When I caught a fish in Windermere (c. 1948) I felt a sort of frisson and remembered the books. Good blogs on here, but I'm an intruder. And hardly electric!
Dennis Hamley said…
Hi Wiz. How great to see you on AE. And you of all people could not possibly be an intruder. Anyway, we NEED intruders. With your record of achievement you should do a guest blog for us.

I'm glad to have another recruit to the Ransome cause. I've just bought (and intend very soon to read) his long-lost biography and critical study of RLS, now found, edited and at last published. It will throw a lot of light on AR's obvious love for Treasure Island (I'll give you that one, Jan!) and the way the kids' minds work as Uncle Jim Turner becomes Captain Flint, the parrot says "Pieces of eight" interminably and all the other references pour in. And what is Peter Duck but the kids' own RLS fantasy?

With luck, Colonel Mustard will be able to see the New Year in with the rest of us. And, in a lunatic fit of irresponsible generosity, he will be for FREE.

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