Purple Rompers & the Odd Vol

I was not, as a child, an avid reader. Book-reading is a solitary activity and whenever my juvenile self could find solitude it was busy. I made things, particularly out of other things. My use of objects was little to do with their intended purpose. Anybody could use them for that. I was a ‘Borrower’ before Mary Norton discovered the miniature clan under the floorboards.

One winter in bed with bronchitis, a temperature and a family of dolls I somehow gained possession of a button hook and disarticulated them, unhooking their limbs and heads from the elastic bands. My grandmother arrived upstairs with a small spoon and a dish of cochinealed custard. ‘Poor babies!’ she exclaimed, distressed by the sight of the charnel house into which I had converted my Land of Counterpane. I assured her that nothing was broken and that I could put them all back together. And so I did, mismatching the parts to create freaks: naked freaks. In those unenlightened days, freaks were things concealed from me at the forbidden territory of the fairground; but you could look at the pictures outside the booths and use your imagination. I ate Grandma’s custard. I was passionate for pink, which was reassuring. When the doctor arrived Grandma took him aside for a quiet word. Years later I gathered from family tales that he refused to entertain any diagnosis of psychopathology and suggested that perhaps a Meccano set might be the treatment. Grandma, however, did not want to encourage deviance. To her relief before teatime I had the leg bone connected to the hip bone, the arm bone connected to the shoulder bone, and the neck bone connected to the head bone as you hear in the word of the Lord. The Land of Counterpane was now Eden: the dolls were created, naked, unashamed and without knowledge of the Serpent. After tea I could expect to be read to.

I did not read for myself till I was nine years old, after which I found that the big Shakespeares, the 1870s Library set of nine green volumes with the gold-blocked cloth, engravings in the text and colour plates at the ends, were very good for bronchitis. I missed significant schooling but I read the plays of Shakespeare, one after another, over a series of winters. Overall I thought they were pretty good and re-read them selectively. Today I took my first look at them for years. I had forgotten that the front free-end-paper of the last volume has become an undated manuscript contents page for the whole Works in my fountainpen hand. The plays were just what the doctor ordered: my slow reading took hours, and hours were what I had. They were about more or less everything. Intermittently I read The Rape of Lucrece. Very educational. If you mastered your Shakespeare you didn’t need to ask your parents any awkward questions. The first resort in time of difficulty was Samuel Neil’s Notes, Critical and Explanatory in volume nine. The glossary, more importantly, is in volume eight.

I was still not an avid reader, rather dallying with a literary output. My literary input, on the other hand, was an invasion of poems and dramatic speeches learned at length as prescribed by my elocution teacher. She had a lasting effect on my development. In the 1940s, between the ages of eight and seventeen, I was entered to compete in the Speech and Drama class of the local Music Festival. One thing never varied: until I was too old to enter I won the children’s storytelling class. You were put in a room backstage to make up a story about three specified things, perhaps a kangaroo, a pillar box and a pin cushion. After the required interval they came and got you. You went up the rickety wooden steps in the gloom and emerged into the stage lights. Faces stretched below you like a huge bed of flowers, all different and randomly selected but planted a chair’s width apart in straight rows. In the middle of this floral intensity, where in the park would have been a statue of the muses, was the adjudicators’ desk. The blooms stared up and you stared down. If you’d ever wanted to get noticed this was it. Then the adjudicators rang a little bell.

You had five minutes. All you had to do was to tell your story with a beginning, a middle, an end and so that there was some point to each of the three things. There was nothing to it, really. After four and a half minutes they pressed a bell, and you had half a minute to stop. There couldn’t have been much to it because I won every year. Perhaps that’s why I kept finding myself doing it again.

But I still did not use my own time for gratuitous reading. I was busy. I drew, painted, tooled leather and modelled in Plasticine. I embroidered and made clothes. ‘Rosemary ! You are never going out like that?! People will laugh at you!’ But I was born wearing purple rompers and a red hat that didn’t go. What’s more, it suited me. I acted, recited and dressed up. I threaded beads and made things out of other things. I also chopped wood, walked my uncle’s dog, climbed trees, went awol into town, weeded the garden and dug in the chicken run for worms. The raw material of storytelling is primary experience, a point I later made to students by the use of Mary Norton’s short story, ‘Paul’s Tale’. A good story is not the book of the film of someone else’s original work. Nor is it to be derived from analysis of the genre.

I remember other children at my primary school as I observed them, not as I interacted with them. I was an only child and at home if there was a cake with pink icing it was mine and would wait for me. I did not have to compete. At school I watched with interest as all the best toys got played with, especially the rubber bricks. I expected my turn would come one day but it never did. I was not invited and I never asked. I was no trouble to anybody so that was the way of it. After my first three weeks in reception class my mother was asked to go to see the headmistress. Admitted to the head’s inner sanctum, she was plied with tea and biscuits and asked,

‘We are worried about Rosemary. Can she talk?’ To her credit Mother did not drop the cup.

‘Talk!’ she replied. ‘She started talking when she sat up in the pram. It was a pity really, because we never got any nice baby words to remember. She always got it right first time. Now her cousin used to say such pretty things’.

But my way of coping with a crowded school experience was to observe and I was insensitive to criticism. My father, slicing runner beans in the garden on a chopping board, feared that I would put my fingers in the way of the knife, and rebuked me loudly, ‘Nuisance ! Nuisance! Nuisance!’ he exclaimed. My mother came running out in alarm.

‘Rosemary, what are you doing?’ I was unperturbed.

‘We are cutting nuisances,’ I replied.

My husband Anthony was, by contrast, an avid reader from an early age. He came from a family of readers. Both his parents were classicists; their pleasures were not in making things, nor in performance, but in the printed page. Occasionally his mother used to go with him to Brewer’s Bookshop in Lincoln. They were companionably quiet, the large mouse in a cloche hat and the small mouse by her side. She would remove the glove from her right hand and, holding it with the selected volume in her left, turn the pages in silent reading. Her presence extended the horizons of his consideration. She also had a purse and would understand the urgent importance of a particular book if it were a little outside her son’s budget. Book purchase was approved policy. When they got home Dad’s approval was also assured.

Until recently I had not realised quite what a Mecca Brewer’s Bookshop had been for Anthony. As soon as he had pocketed his two shillings on a Saturday he was down there, contemplating purchase. The building, low, rambling and mediaeval, lay on the slope of Steep Hill, a climb which had winded many a visitor whose school teacher had asserted that Lincolnshire was flat. Over the centuries the building’s three little windows had tried hard to keep their heads above the rising strata of encroaching pavement but the one highest up the slope was losing the battle. Brewer’s was a place where one might see the sartorially-correct solicitor, Frank Hill (later Chancellor of Nottingham University and author of an erudite history of Lincoln), bent double and trying to hold his half-moon spectacles in such a position that he could read the book titles nestling into the path. A comprehensive knowledge of the stock required regular checks of these low windows on the way in. For young Anthony Baker the question was whether there remained on offer anything that he could not afford the previous week. That discovered, he addressed the little bookcase outside where everything was sixpence. He was well into the morning by the time he had shortlisted the extramural offerings and was ready to enter the shop for a spell of utter joy. Inside, the price structure was transparently accountable: fully illustrated – 2/-; frontispiece only – 1/-; no pictures 6d.

Brewer’s was, as it happened, brilliantly sited for business. It lay just at the spot where visitors to Lincoln on their way from the railway station to the Cathedral ran out of puff. A small mediaeval dwelling does not waste space on passageways. The lighting was frugal. Neither did Anthony waste time in the first room. The books here, diluted by antiques, were not aiming to attract Saturday pocket money. He proceeded at once to the middle room. Here he was able to spot any changes in stock since last week and to consider his options, including the maps. He went through the stack, one by one, every week in case a different one had been slipped in. Consideration of the options left no consideration for time. That would come only when his stomach began to complain about an absence of soup, which he could expect together with his mother’s home-made bread and his father’s allotment salad as soon as he got home. Meantime a quick forage round the little room at the top to make sure he was missing nothing and then – decisions, decisions, decisions.

Years ago, enthused by the stories I heard from my own father, I read to my delightful and delighted infant daughter. Like me, she talked early. I remember her three-year-old’s performance as Eeyore looking for his tail. I remember her very public attempt – in the foyer of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, during the interval in Peter Pan – to fly. And I remember the irate mother of the toddler she scuppered in the take-off. Like Mary Norton’s Paul, she made it real. Like me, she entered school as a non-reader. But once there she read, as if by magic. And like all my husband’s family she read avidly, silently and to herself. At the tender age of five she explained that, now she could read, there would be no need for me to read to her again. It was over, and I rejoined the world of silent readers.

Copyright Rosemary Baker 2005.