‘What did you read as a child?’ Writers often get asked this, and it is a valid and interesting question, touching as it does on matters such as influences and inspiration. So – what did I read in my formative years?
There were very few books in our house when I was a small child. Consequently, they all left a lasting impression on me. And none more so than the very first book I was given – a present from an eccentric aunt. I don’t think it was newly bought; I think it had probably been one of her own childhood books. It was a children’s annual, published some time in the nineteen-teens, called Everyday With Which Is Incorporated Sunday. It had a very colourful cover, divided into seven sections, with illustrations of activities for each of the seven days of the week. Monday – washing day; Tuesday – ironing; Wednesday – playing tennis; Thursday – fishing; Friday – having tea; Saturday – punting on a river; Sunday – going to church. Inside, it was densely packed with stories, poems, pictures, puzzles and informative articles.
I was very young when my aunt gave it to me – too young really – and so the task of reading it aloud fell to my father. The title, he told me, meant that we could read it every day of the week except Sunday. (I still can’t decide whether this was a ruse on his part so that he could have Sundays off, or whether he genuinely thought that this was what it meant!)
The aforementioned articles, poems, puzzles, etc. left no lasting impression. One story, however, most certainly did. This was a long one – a mini novel – presented in serial form. At the end of each of its chapters it would say (Continued on p. –) and that was the cue for my father to close the book and announce that it was bedtime.
I can’t imagine what I made of it at first reading. Probably very little, seeing that it was set in a world so unlike my own. But when I was old enough to read it for myself I returned to it again and again, which explains how it came to be so deeply etched in my memory. Together with The Archers (required listening in our house), it probably accounts for my lifelong love of serials of all kinds.
It was called The Twins.
Trixie and Robin (Beatrix and Robinetta) were about eleven or twelve years old and had been sent to live with their Aunt and Uncle Joe, somewhere in what I now recognise as the Home Counties, their parents being in India (I had no idea why). Aunt – who was nameless – was a severe, disapproving woman who was just as dismayed with this arrangement as her nieces were. Uncle Joe, a loveable but ineffectual man, was always getting on the wrong side of her. As too were the twins – especially Trixie, who was the naughty one.
The story was generously illustrated with black and white drawings, many of them full page. I can still remember many of them, for example the one where Trixie has spilled ink on the schoolroom carpet and both girls and their governess (!) are gazing at the stain with alarmed looks on their faces. And the one where Trixie and Robin are at the post box in the village, posting a letter to their parents – a letter telling them how unhappy they are living with Aunt.
But my very favourite illustration, the one I’ve recalled with great fondness – and frequency – over the years, was the one where Uncle Joe takes the girls out in a rowing boat on the lake in the garden. (Yes, I know! In the garden!) In the middle of this lake is an island of water lilies. Uncle Joe’s rowing is obviously no better than any of his other life skills and the boat is clearly heading for this beautiful water feature. Aunt is standing on the bank in all her formidable Edwardian glory, the look of agitation on her face matching those on the faces of the boat’s occupants. Underneath the picture, the caption reads:
‘Joe! Joe!’ cried Aunt, running along the bank. ‘My water lilies! My water lilies!’
Oh, how my little self thrilled to that. ‘Read it again, Daddy.’ I said. And he did – with gusto. On subsequent readings, I would pore over every detail of this illustration and read the caption out loud myself. (And to this day, whenever I’m in the proximity of water lilies, I am more than likely to exclaim: ‘Joe! Joe! . . . My water lilies! My water lilies!’)
Towards the end of the story, Trixie succumbed to one of those life-threatening childhood illnesses that were a staple part of pre-second world war children’s literature. As the hours turned into days, Aunt’s stony heart began to soften. It was an extremely anxious time. And not only for Aunt, Uncle Joe and Robin but for my dad and me, too. A telegram was sent to India – that’s how bad it was. And then . . . (Continued on p. –). Oh no! The suspense!
Of course, I can’t remember now which day of the week it was when we first read this, but if it was on a Saturday we would have had to wait until Monday to learn that Trixie had turned a corner and was on the road to recovery. (I think Mother might have arrived by then, too, but I’m not sure of my facts here.)
I don’t know what happened to this book after I stopped reading it; it doesn’t seem to have survived my childhood. Several times, over the years, I’ve tried to track it down on the internet, but without success. And then, while I was thinking about writing this post, I had one more go. Imagine my delight when up it came on Amazon, the front cover exactly as I remembered it. Everyday With Which Is Incorporated Sunday. With One Click it was mine.
It isn’t quite the same as mine, though. It’s a different volume, and the serial is a boys’ school story (‘I say! What rot!’). It has an inscription at the front: ‘Miss Ada Dinsdale’ (followed by an address in Burnley), ‘From Aunty Jane, Xmas 1920.’
I hope this wasn’t the only volume Ada ever received. I don’t like to think that she might have missed out on The Twins.