I discovered the really excellent Children's Section of Wakefield's central public library on Drury Lane, close to Westgate railway station, on a visit with my Dad when I was about eight years old. That was the first of many visits: at least one per week for the next few years. Dad never helped me to choose a library book; he left me in the children's section to choose my own books while he went through the double doors and across the hall to the adult section. The children's librarians, all women, were really helpful. They seemed to know instinctively which books were suitable for boys and girls of any particular age - and they knew which books were in and which were out. Once I had got used to the system, I always went first to the Returned Today shelf because that is where books stood until the librarians filed them in their correct places later in the day. The Returned Today shelf was a good, but not infallible, guide to the most popular books.
Above: This is my 2010 image of Wakefield's central public library on Drury Lane, close to Westgate railway station, until the library was moved to another location as part of the inner-city regeneration programme.
Probably the first author I knew by name was Enid Blyton. Over the period of a couple of years or so from about 1940, my parents had bought me her Five Minute Tales (a book of 60 stories, each no more than a page in length), then Ten Minute Tales (30 rather longer stories), followed by Fifteen Minute Tales. At first Mum used to read them to me and my sister but before long I was able to read them myself. In each and every Enid Blyton short story there was either an educational element or a lesson about good manners built in. I, like thousands of other children, learned a lot about life in general from those stories. My tastes changed, of course, as the years passed and my vocabulary increased, but Enid Blyton had the happy knack of writing stories that appealed to boys and girls of all ages, from babies to early-teens.
When I had grown out of the short stories, I was introduced to Enid Blyton's 'Famous Five' books. The first book in that series, Five on a Treasure Island, was published in 1942. I certainly read that and also the next few. These were long stories about real children who had fantastic adventures. The fact that the children always seemed to come from well-off families with large houses, servants and gardeners, and that there was no mention of the war, didn't bother me.
Long before I started grammar school in September 1947 I had begun to find Enid Blyton’s books vaguely disquieting. The eponymous Five, for example, clearly came from well-to-do families – as did most of my new grammar school pals. However, the Famous Five books occasionally included poor children who lived in poor houses with poor parents and no servants and that began to worry me since I found I had much more in common with the poor children than the Famous Five. Although I craved adventures such as they had, I was never actually jealous of the Famous Five’s lives but, once I had learned about the difference between rich and poor, I became disenchanted with their stories and I advanced to other authors – and cheaply printed comics and Sexton Blake magazines. I never again read any of Enid Blyton books.
I discovered Richmal Crompton's Just William books after listening to the BBC's 1940s radio series of that name. One day, I wrote off to the BBC asking for William's autograph. A few days later I received a letter containing a signed black and white photograph of the actor who played William. To my astonishment and dismay I learned that William was played by a girl. How could the BBC be so deceitful? I tore the photograph up and threw the bits away in disgust. The actor in question was Billie Whitelaw, just three years older than I was who, after her William days, had an illustrious acting career and probably would not thank me for reminding folk of her 1940s radio performances playing a boy. Sadly, Billie Whitelaw died on 21 December 2014. These days, the incomparable Martin Jarvis can be heard on BBC Radio from time to time reading a selection of Just William stories in front of live audiences. Not to be missed.
When I was about 11 years old I discovered a shelf of Arthur Ransome books in the Drury Lane library. The librarians, who by then knew me very well, recommended that I started with Swallows and Amazons which turned out to be the first in the series. It was by far the longest book I had read up until then but I finished it in three or four days and then borrowed all the others I could lay my hands on until I had read all the ones the library had. My all-time favourite Ransome book was, and still is, Winter Holiday; it was from that book I first learned about the speed of light and how light from the stars takes many years to reach us. Thereafter, on clear, starlit nights, I gazed out of my bedroom window at the stars with even greater fascination.
One of the delightful things about Arthur Ransome's books is the way the author explained technical things about science, and especially about sailing, without young readers realising it. I particularly enjoyed the stories set in the Norfolk Broads: Coot Club, The Big Six, Secret Water. I vowed that one day I would go and see the Broads for myself but when I did, in the mid-1950s whilst I was based at RAF Swanton Morley, I was very disappointed because they were nothing like the way Ransome had described them - and there were far, far too many visitors clogging up the narrow country roads. I have paperback reprints of most of the Ransome books and now in 2015, I have several of them as eBooks.
Thanks to those dedicated librarians at Drury Lane, I was introduced to many new authors including Malcolm Saville (Mystery at Witchend, Seven White Gates, Lone Pine Five, etc) and Captain WE Johns' Biggles and Gimlet books - but not the Worrals books which were definitely for girls only. I cannot, however, claim that it was the Biggles stories that persuaded me to join the Royal Air Force although a friend I now meet most Sunday dinner times in the local pub insists on calling me Biggles.
At St James' Junior School we were encouraged not only to read but to write stories of our own invention. One day, when I was about 10 years old, we were told to write what school teachers used to call a 'composition' on a subject of our choice; the best stories would be read out loud by their authors in front of the entire class. Most of my fellow pupils wrote about such things as 'My Pet' and 'My Favourite Dinner' but I have a special reason for remembering that one of the girls in my class wrote a piece called 'Down Our Air Raid Shelter'.
That title worried me no end because a few days earlier her teenage sister, a well-built girl I'd never spoken to, had enticed me into their indoor air raid shelter in the middle of the day when all the adults were out. Their makeshift shelter was in the corner of a large, gloomy kitchen. The 'shelter' was nothing more than a heavy refectory table covered with a huge, musty blanket. Before I knew what she was doing in the darkness, she had my short trousers and underpants down around my ankles and was trying to teach me a few things that I was not capable of, and not even supposed to know about. Eventually I made my escape from the large girl and I ran off down the road to the safety of home adjusting my clothing on the way. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone what had happened - and most certainly not my parents who would have been horrified. I'm sure Dad would have been straight round to deal with the girl's father if he'd ever found out what she had done
In case my youngest readers think it incredulous that I did not, at the age of 10, know what the girl was trying to do, I should point out that in the 1940s sexual matters were not usually discussed with children before the onset of puberty - and not always then. In fact neither of my parents ever, at any time, mentioned sex to me. My one and only formal sex lesson was in my first week at grammar school when I was 12 years old: we sat through a 40-minute lesson about rabbits, and our Dads had had to sign a chit in advance authorising the school to go that far.
November 2017 Comment. I have just read that one school in UK has banned their children from kissing on stage during end-of-term productions because it may be construed as "inappropriate touching." - see this page