So far in this series I’ve looked at books which informed my teenage political thought (Nineteen Eighty-Four), made me want to become a writer (Rage) and books that I re-read once a year without fail (The Crow Road). But what about the first book? The one that started me off.
Well, let’s not start at the very beginning. I don’t think I could hold your interest on the narrative of Janet, John, a dog and a red ball, so let’s go ahead to, I think, 1973 or 1974 to discuss the first book that I loved unreservedly.
I’ve been trying to determine the actual year by the children’s programmes I sat through back then, but it’s proving difficult. It was certainly while Lesley Judd was at Blue Peter. I can remember her replacement, Tina Heath, appearing in a show called Lizzie Dripping—a tale that terrified me as it had a witch in it, though I can’t remember if she was benign or not. It didn’t really matter at that stage as good witches were still witches to me.
A quick dive into Wikipedia says that that was on between 1974 and 1975. I would have been about five or six years old so that seems about right.
Reading was a pleasure so I started early. My sister was a year younger but was also reading about dogs with child owners by the age of four, so we swapped our library books regularly before they went back to their home at Norris Green Library, Liverpool.
In the summer of that year, we contracted chickenpox. I’m not sure who got it first but as we shared the same bedroom it was obvious that we’d both have it sooner or later. We were off school for a fortnight and with my dad away at work, my poor mum had to put up with us getting under her feet. We needed constant attention and therefore continuous distraction to give her a moment’s peace so she went out and bought or borrowed a collection of books for us to read while we lay under blankets at opposite end of the couch, being spotty at each other.
Younger readers may wonder why we didn’t watch telly instead. Well, there wasn’t any. Seriously.
There would be kids TV from about 1pm to 1.50pm and then that was it. A disembodied voice would talk over an image of a spinning globe and mournfully announced that there was nothing on now until Play School at about 4pm. Then there’d be the ‘Test Card.’ Just that image for two long, drawn-out hours. If you think I struggled with the witch from Lizzie Dripping then I can’t tell you horrors that bloody clown/doll gave me.
A few months later when I was older and interested in puzzles, I would ask my parents why she or the clown didn’t choose the centre square in their game of noughts and crosses. I mean, they’ve both rejected it once already. I decided that the clown had some sort of hold over the hair-banded youth and made her choose so unwisely.
Anyway, we had new books. Probably borrowed but definitely second-hand. Two made it to a second reading. The first was a Ladybird book of Greek myths which had the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur and one of Medusa and the Gorgons. I loved both stories. Theseus because he uses his wiles to get out of the cave alive and away from the Minotaur and the Gorgons because there was a beheading involved. That sounds wrong but I was terrified of Medusa so needs must. She had it coming.
I’ve just found the copy of that book online. The cover gave me goosebumps. In a good way. Not in a Test Card clown way.
Is Medusa dead in that drawing? She still looks a bit menacing even without a body.
The second book was perfect. It still is.
The second book was Danny, The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl.
This was the first time I’d read anything by Dahl and the Tales of the Unexpected programme was still years away from being made. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory hadn’t yet entered Colesbourne Road. That might just be as well at that age because I would have fixated on the fact that the kids who aren’t Charlie are killed by Mr Wonka. Actually killed. Still bothers me today.
But this story is a simple one. Danny lives in a gypsy hut next to a filling station which his father, William, owns. His mother died when he was four months old so they’re quite alone. William is an excellent storyteller and just about the perfect father since he does everything to keep Danny clothed, fed and interested in their life. We later learn that he is a poacher and keen to enact his revenge on the nearby squire, Mr Hazell, who puts him down whenever possible.
I’m re-reading it now and have only just realised that there’s an early version of the BFG here—a story told to Danny by his dad. I hadn’t made that connection back then.
Ah, I’ve also just noticed that the book came out in 1975 so that’s the year sorted.
Danny and his father have an enemy in Mr Hazell. Between them they concoct a way of poaching and hiding all his pheasants and by doing so disappointing his guests who were along for a shoot. Danny comes up with an inventive way of achieving this but I won’t say how as you might have kids with chickenpox in your front room who are in dire need of keeping busy. Suffice to say, it’s mischievous and most of the pheasants survived. The book ends with a victory for the poor and happy over the rich and rude.
What was it about the story that made it so fascinating? Well, there are so many episodes sewn into the narrative which would recommend itself to a six-year-old. Firstly, Danny was naughty.
Well, no, that’s not fair. When he learns that his old man shoots and steals another man’s pheasants, he is appalled. It takes a while before he is coaxed into taking his dad’s side and maybe it’s the buzz of wrongdoing that impresses him.
You’ve missed the point, Danny Boy! You’ve missed the whole point! Poaching is such a fabulous and exciting sport that once you start doing it, it gets into your blood and you can’t give it up! Just imagine,’ he said, leaping off the bunk and waving his mug in the air, ‘just imagine for a minute that you are all alone up there in the dark wood, and the wood is full of keepers hiding behind the trees and the keepers have guns …’
‘Guns!’ I gasped. ‘They don’t have guns!’
The usual stories I were given were all about brave kings and knights who had right on their side. Glorious tales all, but I couldn’t picture myself in the same boat. My dad was a docker who, to the best of my knowledge, never once saved a fair maiden from a mythical creature. It just wasn’t his thing.
But this was different. I already had a sense of us and them. I was never naughty—something which I’ve always slightly regretted—but I was aware of the glamour of it. Danny is not ‘that’ naughty as his dad is with him throughout, but they’re up against a bully so that made it alright. I was always up for anything which challenged and ultimately defeated authority.
But it was also the inventiveness of the ending. Danny’s plan is absurdly simple. He used his brain to overcome the landowner who had misused his dad. I think I loved that most of all. That really spoke to me. I liked clever things. More Odysseus than Achilles.
This is going to sound big-headed but just go with me here for a minute.
I knew I was clever for my age. I loved questions and trivia. Despite that I wasn’t a show-off at school. If anything, I was a bit shy who didn’t like it when the teacher called on me to answer a question. Luckily for me, my best mate was a genuine genius. That’s not hyperbole on my part. There would be hushed talks between teachers in the school corridors whenever his name came up. They knew he was unusual for our level and there was already talk of skipping him ahead a year as we were holding him back. Like me, he was already a chess player by then but he was streets ahead of anyone. We both played and beat of the few teachers when we were about eight or so. We never played against each other though. Gentlemen’s agreement.
I was bright, though not as bright as my sister, and knew the value of caution. I got up to some mischief but I was much more prepared to read about it than get into it.
This is why I identified with Danny. In my comics I was always on the side of the clever kids rather than the athletic types. I hated Dennis the Menace and was always pleased when Walter the Softy somehow managed to win the day. In the Three Investigator books I was always more Jupiter Jones than Pete Crenshaw. Danny had adventures and got to be the hero for his originality. I was all in.
His life became my life for those two weeks. I must have bored my family to tears with it.
Roald Dahl got me started and then everything took over. By the time I moved from infant school to Monksdown Primary School I was reading whatever came into my possession. There was a library there which had a complete collection of a faux James Bond character who walked around wearing rollnecks and carrying spy equipment. He had an Alsatian called Radar. I read every word.
The aforementioned Three Investigators came shortly after that but it all started with Danny and Roald.
He’s to blame for all this.