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21 April 2016

The books which inspired me – and the women who gave me them

From The Thirty-Nine Steps to a potted history of England, the books we're given can have a big impact.

By Caroline Crampton

Caroline Crampton on the first cliffhanger

It was the summer term of Year 6, and everyone in my class was already half out the door. We had left the childish concerns of primary school kids behind us. We were headed for our separate big schools – the class had already splintered into cliques based on where you were headed in the autumn. Everything felt dull, colourless, slow. From what I could tell, being “grown up” seemed mostly to involve pretending not to care about things you really liked, and I hated it.

One week towards the end of term, in what I now recognise as a desperate attempt to keep a bunch of irrepressibly cynical and awkward 11 year olds in their seats, our teacher declared an impromptu “book week” and invited anyone – parents, teachers, other school staff – to come and read us a passage from their favourite book.

The choices varied wildly: the headteacher gave us part of Dryden’s Aeneid (with accompanying textual commentary on the translation); the science teacher tried to interest us in Darwin’s goldfinches; someone’s dad did a great Winston Smith.

We were, by and large, ungrateful. We squirmed and fidgeted, claimed to be too hot and/or too cold, and “accidentally” fell off our chairs quite a bit. That is, until my mum’s friend Stephanie arrived to read. She worked as a part-time gardener at the school, so most people had seen her before, albeit with a trowel rather than a book in her hand.

She sat on the teacher’s desk, and with no introduction or preamble started reading the first chapter of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. In the very first sentence, the novel’s protagonist Richard Hannay tells us that he is “pretty well disgusted with life” – is it any surprise that this room of jaded, know-it-all 11 year olds were soon hanging on Stephanie’s every word?  We sat, rapt with attention, as this tale of stiff upper lips and freelance spies unfolded. When one of the boys scraped his chair, as one, we turned to shush him.

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When she got to the end of the chapter and Hannay discovered his erstwhile guest sprawled out with a knife through his heart, we gasped and thumped our desks. Silently, Stephanie got up, closed the book, and abruptly left the room. We stared at each other, unable to speak. How dare she leave it like that? It was the first time I’d encountered anything like a thriller or a detective story, and that itchy feeling of needing to know what happens next, now so familiar, was fresh and raw.

Our teacher didn’t return right away, and we sat in stunned silence until she came back in, each individually plotting how we were going to get hold of that book she had been holding, which had sported the tell-tale dog-eared cellophane we all knew from the school library. It was the chair-scraping boy who won that race in the end, through the simple means of getting sent out of class in the next lesson for shameless and blatant misbehaviour, and then using his “time out” in the corridor to dash to the library and hide the book up his jumper.

As it happened, it was Stephanie who picked me up from school that day. I glumly sat in the back of the car with her children as she dished out snacks, feeling unjustly resentful that she hadn’t somehow reserved that book for me. After all, she was my mum’s best friend, and now that awful Barney boy would find out what happened long before I did. I was nibbling my flapjack in a desultory fashion and staring out of the window with studied indifference when a felt a tap on my knee. I looked round to see Stephanie pointing at the seat next to me, where there was a shiny new copy of The Thirty-Nine Steps.

I don’t think I even said thank you as I frantically turned to the start of chapter two and started reading.

Nana Yaa Mensah: the mother who insisted I read – and the books I loved

The best children’s books came to me backwards. There was a lot of time to read, growing up in seventies Ghana in a nowhere residential area that was miles away from Accra. There was the beach, but who wanted to hang out with fishermen? Janet and John (at school) and Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat (at home) came first, but then it was straight into The Secret Garden and Newsweek and Turgenev and stealing my brothers’ books.

When we ran out of new stuff (no libraries) it was back to the encyclopaedia, looking at the atlas and marvelling over names of all the places I’d visit one day (Ulan Bator, Saskatchewan). And reading the dictionary for fun.

There was always the Bible to fall back on. Mum had a KJV about the size of a Pocket Oxford, printed in microscopic type on the thinnest rice paper. Good for consulting Leviticus, which I knew I shouldn’t be looking at. For clean fun there was our children’s Bible, which had no Leviticus but good pictures – especially the one of Moses and the Burning Bush.

Reading was important. Mum was one of the first generation of girls in her extended family who could read. Her own mother, Aama, was functionally illiterate. Mum’s grandfather, the war chief of Accra, had 63 children and sent all his boys to school. He refused to educate any of his daughters, reasoning that they’d write love letters to boys, and he wouldn’t have that kind of nonsense going on in his house.

Aama was a whiz with mental arithmetic (she was a trader) and could read bits of the Bible in Ga, but that was it. Growing up in the family house in Accra, she and her female cousins resolved to educate every last one of their daughters. My mother had just one sister, who wanted to have kids and couldn’t be bothered with books. But Mum went to the top girls’ primary school in Accra, and then the top co-ed, and became a teacher.

She taught me the basics before kindergarten, and read (and reread) the house potted history of England with me from the age of five. Our running joke was about the insanitary habits of the Elizabethans, who would empty their chamberpots through upstairs windows on to the heads of any “unlucky passer-by” who might be walking in the street. There was even a picture. That book was so good, I wrote about it for the general knowledge paper in the Common Entrance exam I sat when I was 11.

I only discovered The Family from One End Street at about 12. It appeared mysteriously in the bookcase. Working-class English kids. No running water. Dodgy socks. Suspect parents. A place called Otwell, which I imagined was near Hull. Who’d have known it? When I grew up, the Ruggleses would be my special project. They needed saving.

Still later, Dad brought two volumes of Swallows and Amazons back from a trip. Having missed out on Enid Blyton at primary school (inverted snobbery: there was Dickens to attend to), I loved these. It was disturbing to discover from my mate Polly, at university, that this was imperialist fiction, and therefore Bad. I’d walked round the garden in Ghana hunting for traces of mastodons.

As an experiment, my 12-year-old nephew got given Swallows and Amazons last year. He put them aside and carried on watching cartoons. But a few months later he picked up the first book, and is now a fan. What still works about them? The same anarchic spirit as in Dr Seuss. Green eggs and ham? Yum.

This post is part of the New Statesman’s Literacy Week.