A conventional answer, but none the less true. I’ve always had more books than I could ever possibly read, and I like it that way. When I was a child, I was blessed with a superabundance of books. A school in the area closed down when I was four, and my parents, looking ahead, bought up half the library. Fiction, history, geography, biology – I learned as much out of books marked ‘Westdowns – DISCARDED’ as I did at school. I remember with particular fondness one called ‘Blood’, which talked about black pudding and blood brothers, and had a family tree illustrating the progress of haemophilia through the royal families of Europe. There was one about weightlessness and gravity populated by zany cartoon characters ahead of their time. And a whole swarm of Ladybirds.
Then there were the Blue Peter annuals. My first one came from a church fete at Elton. Book Fifteen, with a blue, trapezey cover. My mother bought it for me: ‘You’ll like these: they have things to make in them.’ Didn’t they just. I’m not sure I ever made very many of them – I remember covering a spice pot in halved clothes pegs to make a pencil holder – but the idea was there. Books contained things to make, and I liked making things.
The funny thing about the Blue Peters was that we never had a television. Or perhaps that wasn’t so funny. I never joined the Brownies, either, and yet I had a dozen Brownie annuals at one point. And again, when things got a bit much in the house, I went round to our traveller friends’ bus and read their copy of Mary Berry’s Step by Step Desserts.
The thing about all these books was that I read them and thought ‘I could do that’. Sometimes I went on and did it. Sometimes I didn’t. It didn’t matter.
Fiction, too, suggested that anything was possible. I have been thinking a lot of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes recently. That was a book about determined women earning a living by doing something that they thought was worth doing, and it has modelled, consciously or otherwise, my ideal of an integrated artistic life. It talked sense about the importance of hard work and luck as well as that of talent.
Poetry, most of all, drew me in, dancing on the page, persuading me that I could do that, too. (I couldn’t – not at first. But books also tell you to keep going, to keep trying, that not everything is perfect first time round.)
Books, whether they be fiction or not, contain stories. The best ones invite you in to join them, and then send you out equipped with new tools, new ideas, to try it for yourself.