Once Upon a (more grown-up) Time…

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In my last blog, I wrote about my favourite children’s books, and I had a great response with plenty of people letting me know which their own favourite children’s books were. It’s really nice to hear about books that I’ve either forgotten about or never heard of, and then go and have a look at them.

Now I’ve moved on to books for grown-ups (not that grown-ups shouldn’t read children’s books as well, of course; they definitely should!). The dog asked whether any of the books I’ve chosen feature either food or dogs, and I was able to reassure him that the second book features both! Here goes with the first one…

‘Something Fresh’ by P. G. Wodehouse (first published in the UK by Methuen and Co, 1915) – this was one of the first ‘grown-up’ books that I read, and is the first of the Wodehouse books in the Blandings Castle Saga. It features the castle and its occupants; Lord Emsworth, his family and friends and of course his beloved pig, The Empress of Blandings. I’d never heard of P. G. Wodehouse until one evening in the 1980s when I was helping my dad to paint a bedroom, and we had the radio on in the background. A dramatization of one of the Blandings stories was on Radio 4 at the time, and it was so hilarious that the next day I went straight off to the library to see what Wodehouse books they had. Ever since then, if I need cheering up at a time when the dog isn’t available, I turn to a Wodehouse book.

‘Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)’ by Jerome K. Jerome (first published by J. W. Arrowsmith in 1889) – the most complete book I’ve ever read, having a little sad bit and comments on society as well as being really funny nearly all the way through, and certainly the only book I’ve had to put down for a full five minutes while I laughed properly, before I was fit to carry on reading. This was at the bit where they try to open a tin of pineapple – if you haven’t read this book, it’s worth reading it just for this section alone. Incidentally, the dog has asked me to point out that Montmorency (the dog in the book), is one of the best characters – he may be right.

‘Walden’ by Henry David Thoreau (first published by Ticknor and Fields, Boston, 1854) – I first came across this book when I was living in New York in the early 1990s. I’d never heard of the book or the author, but for a while it seemed that every time I went into a bookshop (which was quite often!), it was the first book that I noticed on the shelves. After it had caught my eye about three times, I bought a copy, and it was a life-changer. It’s the story of the author’s experience of trying to live a simple, almost-self-sufficient life, living in a small, wooden house in the woods. Reading this book in my mid-twenties didn’t make me want to become self-sufficient, but it did change my sense of what’s important in life.

‘The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold’ by Evelyn Waugh (first published by Chapman and Hall, 1957) – I’d never heard of this book until a friend gave me a copy as a birthday present. It was the first Evelyn Waugh book I’d read, and it’s a fascinating and partly-autobiographical account of a time when Waugh suffered from hallucinations, brought on by some medication he’d been taking. The book tells the story of a man who starts to hear voices while on a sea voyage. As it’s written very much from the main character’s point of view, it’s hard to tell, at least until the end of the book, which voices are real and which aren’t. This book made me realise how incredibly skilled authors like Waugh are, at weaving a convincing story from the main character’s perspective.

The sharp-eyed reader might have noticed that I had more favourite children’s books in my last blog, than I have favourite grown-up books in this one. What can I say? Children’s books must be the best books – and a furry friend, who’s been waiting (almost) patiently for his walk, has just reminded me that this is especially the case if the books in question feature dogs!

Please, please tell me if you have a favourite grown-up book that isn’t on this list, and I’d also love to hear if any of my favourites are also yours.

Next time I’ll talk about my experience of what it’s like trying to write, while the house is full of builders!

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Once Upon a Time…

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What children’s books have influenced you the most? I was thinking about this the other day, when I was reading a story to the dog (yes, he is terribly indulged!). I was reading ‘The Magic Porridge Pot’, from the 1970’s Ladybird ‘Well-loved Tales’ series. When I was a toddler it was one of my favourite books, my kids also loved it when they were younger, and it’s nice to see that now (I like to think!) the dog enjoys it equally. Whether it’s the idea of limitless supplies of porridge that appeals to him, or whether he just likes listening to the rhythm of the spoken words as he falls asleep, who can say?

It made me think about which books I would put on my list of favourite children’s books, so here they are –

‘The Magic Porridge Pot’ by Vera Southgate (first published by Ladybird Books Ltd, 1971) – This is a great story for toddlers (and dogs!), all about a pot that supplies a never-ending supply of porridge. It features lots of repetitive phrases and, in the original version at least, some lovely pictures.

‘Paddington Abroad’ by Michael Bond (first published by Collins, 1961) – always my favourite of all the Paddington books as, unusually for the Paddington novels, it has a continuous story (about the Brown family’s holiday to France), running throughout. As a result of this hysterically funny book, the first French word I knew the meaning of was ‘escargot’. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that the chapter featuring ‘escargot’, is one of the best bits. I can remember sitting up in bed looking at the cover when I was about five years old, and thinking that I couldn’t wait until I could read, so that I wouldn’t have to wait for an adult to read the rest of it to me.

‘Five Children and It’ by E. Nesbit (first published by Unwin, 1902) – When I was about seven, I went to the school fete and noticed this book on the tombola stall. It looked interesting and I was determined to win it. When the stall-holder told me that I had a winning ticket, I reached out happily to pick up the book, but was firmly told that I had won a bar of soap instead, and should be pleased that I had won anything at all. I was very disappointed, but within a year or so I’d managed to somehow get hold of a copy, which became one of my most-read books for the next few years. I loved the idea of normal, down-to-earth children who somehow got involved in magic, and this was in the back of my mind when I had a go at writing my own children’s book.

‘The Magician’s Nephew’ by C. S. Lewis (first published by Bodley Head, 1955) – another book featuring normal children who get involved in magic, but this time a whole, magical world. Although this is officially the first book in the ‘Narnia’ series, I think that it is a shame that it often gets overlooked or even completely forgotten, in favour of the second book, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. In my opinion, ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ is the best one in the series.

‘Jennings goes to School’ by Anthony Buckeridge (first published by Collins, 1950) – this is the first in a series of twenty-three books, all about an eleven year old boy called Jennings and his best friend Darbishire, who go to boarding school. The whole series is hilarious, and I read these books over and over again as a child, buying most of my copies from jumble sales and second-hand shops. Since I’ve become a grown-up, I’ve been able to extend my collection via the wonder of Ebay (although I still don’t have them all), and I still think they are brilliant, side-splitting books.

‘The Sword in the Stone’ by T. H. White (first published by Collins, 1938) – the first long-ish book I bought and read as a child, mainly as a result of stubbornness. I was in a bookshop with my mum, and, glancing round the shelves, I picked this book up. The bookseller looked at me with raised eyebrows. ‘You don’t want to buy that one,’ he said, in a smug, knowledgeable way. ‘It’s far too old for you.’ There was nothing he could have said, that would have made me more determined to buy and read that book. It’s an excellent story, all about the fictional childhood of the legendary King Arthur (known as ‘Wart’ in the story), and as well as excitement and adventure, has some great funny bits as well.

If you’ve got a favourite children’s book that isn’t on my list, let me know.

Typing away for this long about my favourite books has inspired me to go and dig through the bookshelves to see what else I’ve got. Next time, I’ll write something about my favourite fiction for grown-ups. In the mean-time I need to go and read the dog his bedtime story…