My family home is being demolished soon. I spoke to my Mother briefly on Thursday evening; she and my Father have moved into the house owned by my recently departed Great Uncle and Godfather. My Mother is a stoic, bearing hard times with pragmatic wilfulness not to take a backward step. She enjoys her pleasures quietly. Not for her the braggadocio of her eldest daughter’s travels and handbag fetish. Not for her the mayor of the village tag worn so long by my Father. My Mother contemplates her crosswords (I always accuse her of cheating), runs around town to engage with every moment of her grandchildrens’ developing lives and discovered the joy of a pedicure and getting your hair coloured in a salon at the age of 45 (the horror of denying oneself for the better part of one’s life is lost on me entirely). If we were characters from a fable, we would be The Ant and the Grasshopper, she carrying the weight of the summer’s harvest inside for sustenance, me prancing about in the sunshine giving no care to the following day. When, a few weeks ago, my Great Uncle was buried with his ‘bible’ (the Australian Financial Review), I took the opportunity to photograph some of the features of the post-World War II part of the house. A little sentimental? More in keeping with my interest in all things built. The house had ceased to be ‘my’ home more than 20 years’ ago. My Mother was a bit choked up on the phone. It was the first house my parents had bought, around 1970, for $13,000. It was their home. Never mind that they’ll be back, having sold half the block for a tidy bit of lolly and building a lovely big shiny house on the side of the quarter-acre block with the best view.
Where does the book come in? I can’t remember, but I imagine shortly after they bought the house, my Mother found a few books in a wardrobe. Among the surprises was a book that now bears my name, but is dedicated to another girl, a Christmas present from ‘Ma and Aunt Sylvia’ in 1952. Like other 60 year olds, its spine is a bit worn and there’s evidence of water damage. This is the book of tales, fables, myths and poems that would lead me to start reading Twain, Defoe, Melville before my 10th birthday.
The Children’s Wonder Book, (ed. John R. Crossland and J.M. Parrish), Collins, first edition 1933
This big red book sits next to me, the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland in sunk relief on its cover. There are few colour plates inside, but almost every page is illustrated, some signed (Alice in Wonderland’s story with the work of Harry Rountree, a New Zealand-born artist who worked prodigiously in London from the turn of the 20th century), while Sindbad the Sailor is 1930s Orientalism from Arthur Mansbridge (who also worked on comic books) and Charles Kingsley’s 1863 work, The Water Babies features a later set of drawings, Jean Cruickshanks’ Art Nouveau work. It’s an amazing thing, this book, meandering through Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, Aesop’s fables, to abridged versions of longer stories, such as Gulliver’s Travels, as well as “Legends of Our Islands”, which counts Irish stories together with those of Northumbria.
For all its appeal to the small me, especially the Nonsense Rhymes and The Arabian Nights, there is more to this red volume. The poets include Keats, Burns and Yeats. Binyon’s For the Fallen I could recite from memory long before I became a regular turn at school ANZAC Day ceremonies. The splish-splosh of tears as I read (by myself) The Bronze Pig and The Death of Robin Hood.
This is a short post, in part because of the nature of the book. It’s a collection of things young English children were encouraged to find interesting almost 40 years before I was born. I don’t turn to it often, but I could never part with it. This is a book I read as a child not of my time; its old-fashioned outlook is certainly not of this time, yet it reminds me that even in the early 1970s, I wanted more; yes, we had Golden Books and later, Mr Men, but this big red book, all 512 pages, made me a little scornful. I wanted to read more, harder and faster. I was greedy for words and worlds I did not know but sailed along, carrying a compass and a map of places imaginary and real. For this most precious gift, I thank my Mother. My lovely, wise mainstay, who did an amazing thing in teaching me to love stories as a tall toddler, and to read by myself before I went to school. I love and thank my Mother every day for my love of words. As the editors, John R. Crossland and J.M. Parrish, write:
“So here is the book, and we hope it will become one of your dearest friends. It will never quarrel with you, but will always be ready to gladden your heart and take you away, on the magic carpet of your imagination, to fairy lands or distant countries, in the air or under the sea, to adventures and joyous happenings in which you may join without check or hindrance.”
You do believe, don’t you?