When I started reading, way back when I was a little boy, I was started off with the Enid Blyton books. First, there were gentle fantasies such as The Magical Faraway Tree before I progressed onto the quiet adventures of the Secret Seven. These were stories about kids – seven of them – joining together on holidays or some such and having a jolly amount of fun together munching on tongue sandwiches and getting into all sorts of quiet adventures with smugglers and the like. Quite inoffensive, but a lot of fun.
As I grew older, though – perhaps 7 or 8 (I was a precocious reader and started at age 4), they became a bit too tame for me and predictable, which is when I progressed onto the Famous Five series of books. The formula was very similar, just updated for an older audience, and they were five rather than seven. Once more, they got into scrapes and adventures, discovering conspiracies and unveiling crooks. It was all very wholesome and British, quite old-fashioned, in fact, though strangle I can’t help thinking of Scooby Do when I recall those stories.
I can’t remember how old I was when I progressed onto fully adult novels. I don’t know if there was a young-adult genre those days, but if there was, I probably skipped right over it. I was a good reader, not only in the sense that I read a lot, but I also absorbed much and understood more than my years would normally allow.
Everyone loves a reading child. There seems something noble and good in it. I was greatly encouraged all along my reading journey. My mum was a good reader and would make sure there was an adventure or two in the Christmas stocking every year and would take me along on her monthly visits to the library.
My maiden aunt was the other who went out of her way to encourage my reading habit. Every birthday and every Christmas, I would get at least one book from her, wrapped in her signature style – in silver, or occasionally, gold glossy wrapping, tied up in ribbon. She always bought non-fiction – histories and biographies and so on – as if she wanted to encourage my curiosity. Later she would sign me up for subscriptions to interesting magazines. I have a lot to thank the adults in my life for nurturing my love of books.
I reckon it was by the time I hit high school that I was reading adult fiction. Mostly I read spy thrillers and adventures. Alastair MacLean was one of the early passions. I devoured his books, one after the other. I suspect it started with HMS Ulysses, which I found on my grandfather’s bookshelves. I still think it’s probably MacLean’s best pure writing – more novel than escapist adventure.
Thereafter I would pick MacLean books up from Eltham library – South By Java Head, Night Without End, When Eight Bells Toll, and all the rest of them, not forgetting, The Guns of Navarone. They’re broad stroke adventures featuring capable men thrust into positions of crisis by unfurling events – crime or disaster or war. They battle villains with brain and sometimes brawn. The villains are generally clever, sinister types, the dark side of the coin. There’s nothing particularly complex about most of the plots, but as many of them are written in the first person, you become intimate with the protagonist and his mind. Almost always, there’s a scene when the hero and the villain face each other, and the details of the dastardly plot are revealed, which, surprise, the hero always manages to foil.
I don’t know if they write books like that anymore. There’s a bit of Boy’s Own about them, though they’re definitely adult-oriented. I think partly that’s because the times we live in are not simple as they were then, and many books of similar intent are made complex to the extent of being overwrought. Or else, at the Matthew Reilly end of the scale, they’re made silly and comic book. I think MacLean was a better writer than most comparable writers today.
There were other writers of similar type I discovered along the way when I was a boy. Desmond Bagley was one, and Hammond Innes, and then there were the old spy thrillers of Eric Ambler and the more modern spy thrillers of Adam Hall’s Quiller series, which I gobbled up as soon as they hit the bookstores. Then there was Len Deighton and, slightly later, John Le Carre.
By the time I hit 14-15 I had started to move onto more serious literature, including a Russian phase when I read most of Dostoevsky, and some Tolstoy and Turgenev. The rest is history.
I recall all this now because, on a whim, I picked up an audiobook version of MacLean’s Night Without End the other week and have been listening to it in breaks from work ever since.
It feels a bit simple now, in a way. However, that’s part of the strength of the story, which is classic – plane crashes in the snow far from civilisation with a murderer on board, nearby a scientific station where the protagonist takes them on a journey through the bitter cold towards safety, all the while trying to unmask the villains.
There’s a great deal of nostalgia – I would’ve read it 40 years ago at a minimum. But it’s a rollicking adventure too. It’s not intellectually taxing, but for escapist entertainment, it can’t be beaten. Reckon I’ll try another again soon, and perhaps something by Bailey – The Golden Keel, perhaps. Then there are the Quiller books which, at least, I reread every 10-15 years.
There’s a lot of people who don’t read these days. I sometimes wonder if it’s dying away as a pastime. It seems to correspond to general literacy. All of this is a pity. I try to encourage where I can, but it feels like a forlorn hope mostly. I’m lucky. I was handed this gift when I was just a small boy, and for the half-century since have enjoyed thousands of hours of reading. I don’t know who I’d be without it.