Lucy Mangan

Katie Jarvis talks to the au­thor about her child­hood lit­er­ary favourites

Cotswold Life - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOS: Antony Thomp­son

Jour­nal­ist Lucy Mangan is au­thor of Book­worm, a paean to child­hood read­ing; those glo­ri­ous days when div­ing into a book meant the real world paled by com­par­i­son. But did you know that Milly-molly-mandy was writ­ten to sup­port a fam­ily in dis­tress? That Doc­tor Dolit­tle arose from the hor­ror of the trenches? Or that Enid Bly­ton is tinted (to put it kindly) by racism, clas­sism and sex­ism? Did it do us any harm? Katie Jarvis made sand­wiches for her hus­band be­fore find­ing out.

The story in our fam­ily goes that Katie – as a young child – was rechris­tened Go­ing-to be­cause, when­ever any­one asked her to do any­thing, she had her nose buried deep in a book.

Not me, Katie. But my won­der­ful late grand­mother, Katie, born in 1906. Clearly, this is a ge­netic thing.

For when she in­tro­duced me to the books of her youth, I buried my nose in­side with equal pro­cras­ti­na­tion. In A Girl of the Lim­ber­lost, I wan­dered the swamps of In­di­ana with im­pov­er­ished El­nora, col­lect­ing beau­ti­ful moths (NB I had twinges about the ethics of this, even then); help­ing her sell flow­ers and mosses to raise des­per­ate in­come.

And then there was Daddy-lon­glegs, where equally-im­pov­er­ished Jerusha (Judy) Ab­bott writes to her rich, anony­mous bene­fac­tor through­out the col­lege years he so gen­er­ously funds.

(Oh, how I longed to be poor!) (And, in an ideal world, an or­phan to boot.)

My mum gave me Enid Bly­ton, who en­thralled me with a pas­sion the like of which I’ve never felt since. To think of that birth­day! – never a bet­ter birth­day – when I awoke to find my present care­fully wrapped upon my bed: The Far­away Tree, the se­quel to The En­chanted Wood, where chil­dren climb a tree so tall, its branches reach into dif­fer­ent lands. How dread­ful

to find my­self in the land of Dame Slap, a teacher with such en­thu­si­asm for cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment, it made Tom Brown’s Rugby look like a Steiner school.

But, my gosh, the joy of ar­riv­ing in the Land of Take-what-you-want!

What I never no­ticed – or hardly ever no­ticed – were the em­bed­ded – isms. The boys would dig the gar­den with dad; the girls would be left to do house­work and make the sand­wiches. (Tbh, I mainly no­ticed the lash­ings of le­mon­ade.)

But, there again, I don’t think it harmed me.

“I had to leave a fully made-up plate of sand­wiches in the fridge for my

hus­band be­fore I went out to­day,” I ca­su­ally tell Lucy Mangan, as we tuck into a lit­er­ary lunch at Cal­cot Manor, where she is guest speaker.

Lucy nods. “I’ve done sim­i­lar, at times,” she says.

A jour­nal­ist and au­thor, she’s a (gen­uinely) in­spi­ra­tional ex­am­ple of fem­i­nism. (She once wrote about a job in­ter­view where her (male) in­quisi­tor looked at her CV, saw that she’d writ­ten for a mag­a­zine named Gen­der Agenda, and asked, “Does this mean you’re a fem­i­nist, then?”

When he re­turned to the sub­ject for the fifth time, Lucy replied, “Oh, for God’s sake – I shaved my legs for this in­ter­view if that makes you feel any bet­ter.”)

What we’re ac­tu­ally talk­ing about is the book she’s writ­ten – Book­worm: A Mem­oir of Child­hood Read­ing; a fab­u­lous book redo­lent with the magic of ut­terly, ut­terly los­ing your­self (aged seven-or-so) amongst the words of a story; that feel­ing where, when the last page is turned, you feel so robbed of a world that you leaf straight back to page one and be­gin all over again. In Book­worm, Lucy de­scribes both dearly trea­sured and long for­got­ten tomes. Bal­let Shoes; The Fam­ily from One End

Street; The Bor­row­ers; Char­lotte’s Web; Stig of the Dump. Nar­nia.

About the fact that she dare not reread the love of her life, Enid Bly­ton, in case the very act dis­si­pates the en­chant­ment.

“Love blinds us to all faults,” I sigh, with my own re­mem­bered ado­ra­tion. (“That’s not true ac­tu­ally,” Lucy cor­rects me. “My hus­band puts cold sausages in the fridge – I mean, not on a

plate. The day I love some­one enough to blind me to that…”)

(It’s a good point. I’ll start again.) Bly­ton pro­vided the build­ing blocks that formed me. She ruled my world. When I was lit­tle, de­vour­ing St Clare’s, the Wish­ing Chair and Mal­lory Tow­ers, I was not into anal­y­sis. Au­thors merely ex­isted as hi­ero­glyph­ics on the jacket; the words of a spell to ob­tain fur­ther magic.

‘Roald Dahl was no fan of Enid Bly­ton. He’d once played her at bridge and said she had the mind of a child’

So how fas­ci­nat­ing to learn, in Book­worm, facts about these writ­ers it never oc­curred to me to find out. That Joyce Lankester Bris­ley was 16 when her par­ents di­vorced (some­thing of a scan­dal in the early 1900s). It doesn’t take a great psy­chol­o­gist to won­der – as Lucy does – if the calm, or­dered world of Milly-molly-mandy rep­re­sented more than a sim­ple child­hood story. Louisa May Al­cott found writ­ing Lit­tle Women a slog – it was too much like her own life; and – who’d have thought! – she never wanted Jo to marry at all but con­jured up the pro­fes­sor as a sop to so­cial pres­sure. Noel Streat­feild de­spised Bal­let Shoes; be­cause the writ­ing came so eas­ily to her, she dis­trusted it. Hugh Loft­ing’s Doc­tor Dolit­tle be­gan life within let­ters to his sons, writ­ten from the trenches where the truth was too aw­ful to ver­balise.

Nor was it just the au­thors who were miss­ing from my child­hood; it was the hid­den mes­sages (of­ten, I sup­pose, hid­den from them, too) that passed me by. Yet these were my for­ma­tive years. These books were my bread and but­ter.

But where I was de­vour­ing, the crit­ics had long been tut­ting. The BBC pretty much banned Bly­ton in the 30s for be­ing medi­ocre. Some li­braries re­fused to stock her. Her books were – of course – prod­ucts of her time; but at­tempts to bowd­lerise them of “the un­holy trin­ity of sex­ism, class snob­bery and racism” were laugh­ably un­suc­cess­ful.

Does it mat­ter, I ask Lucy, that Enid wasn’t adorable (or, as her daugh­ter, Imo­gen, suc­cinctly put it, “¬ar­ro­gant, in­se­cure, pre­ten­tious, very skilled at put­ting dif­fi­cult or un­pleas­ant things out of her mind and with­out a trace of ma­ter­nal in­stinct”). And does it also

mat­ter that the –isms, when I first delved in, ut­terly, ut­terly passed me by? Am I a ter­ri­ble per­son?

“Well, if you are, we all are,” Lucy says. “I know of one child, now grown up, who said to me he re­mem­bered read­ing Roald Dahl as a child and put­ting it aside be­cause it made him feel dirty. He picked up on that sado­masochis­tic el­e­ment of it.”

(Even as an en­light­ened adult, I try not to look baf­fled.)

“He didn’t know the word for it but he put it aside.”

Is he now ruler of some small em­pire? “No, but he’s a writer who ed­its the Au­thor Mag­a­zine, and he’s clearly been a sen­si­tive reader all his life. I sus­pect there are more of ‘him’ who felt un­easy about Roald Dahl.

“I’ve never met any­one who felt un­easy at the time about Enid. I think

be­cause it is fairly sub­tle. That’s not to say it isn’t ef­fec­tive, but you do have to be re­ally quite a so­phis­ti­cated child to no­tice that ‘swarthy’ is syn­ony­mous with ‘malev­o­lent’.”

Some chil­dren’s books are less con­tentious. In fact – what am I say­ing!

– they’re more than less con­tentious; they changed the world. Take Alice’s Ad­ven­tures in Won­der­land. A pro­fes­sor of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture once pointed out to me that Alice is a proto-fem­i­nist; a girl who presents the voice of rea­son in a world of ec­cen­tric, rude, rule-bound, ir­ra­tional adults.

Yet Car­roll (or, rather, Dodg­son, an Ox­ford math­e­mati­cian too em­bar­rassed to pub­lish un­der his real name) not only placed a girl hero­ically cen­tre-stage; Alice also has agency at a time when girls didn’t. That was ground-break­ing, es­pe­cially com­ing hot on the heels of Vic­to­rian lit­er­a­ture which (newly awak­ened to the idea that chil­dren were a lu­cra­tive mar­ket) for­mu­laically fo­cused on churn­ing out good Chris­tian boys and girls.

Then came the Sec­ond World War, with its youth­ful evac­uees. And the re­al­i­sa­tion – amongst psy­chol­o­gists – that chil­dren were not merely adults who lacked height; what we do to them is for­ma­tive, im­por­tant and some­times down­right de­struc­tive.

“Cer­tainly for child psy­chol­ogy,” Lucy says, “the post-war 50s are the dif­fer­ence be­tween Milly-molly-mandy [writ­ten in the late 20s]; and Ra­mona Quimby [Bev­erly Cleary, 1955] – that’s

a child with a hin­ter­land. It’s a very sim­ple hin­ter­land; it’s an eight-yearold’s hin­ter­land; but it’s there in a way that was never done be­fore.”

Strange – and I’ve never thought about this be­fore – that I stud­ied English lit­er­a­ture at uni­ver­sity, and never once did a chil­dren’s book darken our course. Child­hood read­ing has helped make us what we are; yet we dis­miss this sub-sec­tion of lit­er­a­ture as op­tional can­dyfloss in the face of the meaty, beefy adult canon.

Lucy nods. It’s not a sit­u­a­tion that’s chang­ing for the bet­ter, either.

“Books pages, es­pe­cially now, are be­ing squeezed and squeezed;

“Tom’s Mid­night’s Gar­den [Philippa Pearce] is prob­a­bly the best chil­dren’s book – an im­mac­u­late, beau­ti­ful piece of work. I think of it as a win­ter book as well. “For younger chil­dren, I’d go for the Bullerby Chil­dren, which gets for­got­ten. It’s by the same au­thor who wrote Pippi Long­stock­ing – Astrid Lind­gren; again, quite win­try be­cause they’re all set in Swe­den.”

chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture is the first to stop be­ing re­viewed in any real way. And we pay all this lip-ser­vice – we do all be­lieve that chil­dren’s books are in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant and that chil­dren read­ing is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant – but we don’t re­ally give it much cul­tural space.”

When Lucy Mangan says she’s a book­worm, she’s not ex­ag­ger­at­ing. She’s kept ev­ery one of her child­hood books (well, duh – as have I); in fact, she tells me, the idea that peo­ple would do oth­er­wise came as a shock. “I sup­pose I hon­estly hadn’t ap­pre­ci­ated that for most peo­ple – non-patho­log­i­cal book­worms – they dis­si­pate; the copies them­selves dis­ap­pear; and they fade from mem­ory – from im­me­di­ate mem­ory, any­way.”

A jour­nal­ist from a book-col­lect­ing mag­a­zine once vis­ited, con­vinced that amongst her 10,000 tomes, there must be rare trea­sures. In any kind of lit­eral way, he was wrong: “When he wrote up the in­ter­view, he said it looked like I had a jum­ble sale hoisted on my walls.”

But, to Lucy, they’re all trea­sures. The Puffins and the Toll­booths; the Nes­bits and the Blumes; the Winnie the Poohs; the still-beloved Enid Bly­tons.

It might come as a re­lief – though not to Lucy – to learn that her own sev­enyear-old, Alexan­der, re­fuses to com­ply and be­come a book­worm him­self.

“Ac­tu­ally, I’m let­ting him read the rub­bish Beast Quest books at the mo­ment, where all I want him to do is to seize nat­u­rally upon the books around our house, per­fectly ac­ces­si­ble to him; to home in on all the ones I loved. Of course, he won’t; he’s a dif­fer­ent per­son from me, which I also find dif­fi­cult to re­mem­ber.”

And maybe Beast Quest isn’t so bad. After all, Roald Dahl re­signed from the 1988 Com­mit­tee on English in the Na­tional Cur­ricu­lum when the rest of the board stated Bly­ton’s books should not be wel­comed in schools. He was no great fan, as Lucy points out: he’d once played Bly­ton at bridge and said she had the mind of a child.

“But Dahl’s big thing was get­ting chil­dren to read and he said Bly­ton does that bet­ter than any­one.

“Mind you,” Lucy adds, “he was al­ways up for a fight. So there’s also a pos­si­bil­ity that, if nine out of 10 on that com­mit­tee had said, ‘We love Bly­ton!’, he would have said, ‘No, she was rub­bish’.”

Book­worm: A Mem­oir of Child­hood Read­ing, by Lucy Mangan, is pub­lished in hard­back by Vin­tage, price £14.99

‘Oh, how I longed to be poor. And, in an ideal world, an or­phan to boot’

Lucy’s rec­om­men­da­tions for chil­dren’s Christ­mas books:

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