The books I remember best from my early childhood are my grandfather’s set of encyclopaedias, kept hidden away for preservation and doled out per volume when I asked for them (promising to be very careful) when I was becoming a reader. They are now valuable sociological data on 1920s knowledge and the socialisation of that generation’s children into gender and social class roles.
My place of origin is just a few kilometres from our Esteemed Leader’s birthplace. Like her I came to Australia as a child and spent my adolescent years in Adelaide.
My mother, sister and I lived with my grandparents because our house had had a collateral encounter with a German bomb, but when my father was ‘demobbed’ we moved away. At Christmas time very year I eagerly looked forward to the Daily Mail Annual given me by an aunt in Pant-yr-Heol, so filled with adventure and, as I later discovered, reliable historical information.
Attending Cwmfredoer primary school I began working my way through the kids section of the local public library, enjoying Richmal Crompton’s ‘William’ stories which revealed a world completely different from the one I inhabited; indeed I felt more affinity with the ‘townies’ whom William’s kind despised. Yet it was pretty clear to me who had the better toys. In the grown-ups’ section I found a whole lot of Zane Grey novels and there discovered a different type of writing: more than mere stories, tales melding natural and moral landscapes.
Soon after my twelfth birthday we set sail for Australia. In the Immigration Museum in Melbourne there is a mock-up of the type of ship’s cabin provided for migrants. It’s a fraud. The vessel I was on had been a troop-ship, and still was. Males and females were separated, my father and I plus eight adult strangers shared a cabin furnished solely with racks of steel bunks; but it was an adventure, and a lot of fun.
One afternoon each week of the voyage a junior deck officer would unlock the glass fronted bookcase in the smoking saloon, the ship’s library, and we would argue over the book I chose. The kids’ books were very kiddie, and the adult books were almost entirely the genre of pulp romance featuring lady protagonists with boyish figures.
We were sent to Adelaide and spent twelve months living on the northern city limits in one end of an unheated uninsulated Nissen hut, discovering how freezing cold a Mediterranean climate can be in winter and how hot in summer. Two things stand out in my memory from those days: on grocery shopping trips my father would invariably gaze into the butcher’s window while intoning, “This is my favourite shop”; the other was the absence of a library. There was a library in the city centre, of course, but that necessitated a bus trip to the tram terminus and then by tram to the city, so there were no trips to the library. On the other hand I discovered American comics.
Comics of my childhood fell into two categories; the Rupert Bear variety, perhaps stimulating to the imagination but written in the minor key of well-behaved children, and then there were the dismal black and white affairs conveying a feeble slip-on-a-banana-skin kind of humour. Approaching adolescence I read Eagle and the Champion, magazines for boys that were matched by complementary publications for girls, all devoted to socialising children into gender based adult roles, eulogising boarding school and sport and jingoism.
In Australia I discovered Superhero comics and the aeronautical Blackhawks whose cook was a queue-pigtailed cleaver-wielding Chinaman named Chop-Chop (try getting away with that these days) and other propaganda comics depicting American soldiers defeating communists in Korea, all concerned with freeing the world from evil and promoting the American Way of Life. Then there was the Donald Duck collection, also promoting American culture but they at least stimulated the imagination. From the Archie comics I learnt about Valentine Day: a thing not big in Britain, nor actually recognised much in Australia until the mid-seventies; now a marvel of marketing, promoting maudlin sentimentality in the guise of genuine affection and commanding massive retail turnover.
In school I absorbed the regulation texts and learnt that Australian boys must never pronounce French correctly nor read English aloud fluently in case they are deemed to be girly (you might like to think about this in relation to the modern male) and at home sneaked my mother’s books into my bedroom to read, although I confess to being mainly bewildered by The Tree of Man.
At sixteen I began my first job: not an education-based choice but a matter of home economics. By then, even though not having completed secondary school I had received more education than anyone else in my family. A decade later I became a special entry mature age university student. On my first day, sitting in the library contemplating the reading list and looking at the huge array of books surrounding me, the only way I can describe my feelings then is to say that it was like rising from the dead.