My memories of reading

My memories of reading

My mother worked Saturday mornings when I was a child in the 1970s; my father did not. Left with two children to entertain, my father would take my sister and me every Saturday morning to a bookshop or the National Library.

The first bookshop I remember clearly was a neighbourhood shop in Tiong Bahru, where my grandparents lived. The first thing you saw when you entered was a line of Enid Blyton books strung up by clothes pegs above a wooden table on which yet more Blyton books were laid out like tiles.

Of course, Blyton has gone out of fashion now. Her critics accuse her of wooden prose, stereotyped characters and political incorrectness. All true, perhaps, and yet, for me and other children of the 1970s, she was our passport to reading, to an idyllic England of boarding schools where children were never homesick, of midnight feasts, picnics and adventures in an English countryside free of paedophiles and other contemporary dangers.

She made me, for a time, want to be a detective; I would buy small, blue notebooks from the school bookshop and jot down car numbers and descriptions of people I saw in the street, in the wistful hope that some of them might be criminals and that I might play some small part in catching them.

I had a very English childhood, at least in the books that I read. There were few local books written in those days, almost none written for children. I read what I could lay my hands on and, like Blyton's books, these were mostly by English and, to a lesser extent, American authors. For a time I could not get enough of a series called The Chalet Girls, about an English school established in the Alps in the pre-World War II years. There were other books too - The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, The Railway Children - all describing a Victorian and Edwardian England far removed from my own life in Singapore.

And there was Charles Dickens, of course. I was introduced to him through the musical Oliver! but my favourite was David Copperfield, which seemed to distil all that was best about Dickens - his unabashed fondness for melodrama and cliffhangers, his outrage at any kind of injustice, a sense of the absurd that went hand in hand with a desire to puncture all forms of pomposity or hypocrisy.

I have not read Dickens in years but his writing, with its circumlocutions and its waterfall style - subordinate clause chasing subordinate clause, all building up to some towering, absurd punchline - has had a powerful influence on my own writing. I would like to write like Raymond Carver (who doesn't?) but always end up imitating Dickens.

Around the same time - when I was about 11 or 12 - I discovered Agatha Christie, which sparked a lifelong taste for detective novels and thrillers. Like Blyton, Christie seems to have gone out of critical fashion and, indeed, her most famous creations, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, never rise above the level of caricature.

Yet her books were irresistible; I could easily get through a couple of Agatha Christies a day. Fortunately, Christie was a prolific writer who kept me happily supplied with paperbacks throughout secondary school. I remember little of the plots, though her best books (Ten Little Indians, The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd) set a bar for denouement and twists that, even now, have not been bettered; in her best books, too, she was capable of a psychological insight into her characters' motivations that transcended the serviceable writing.

The England of the interwar years she depicted was also central to the atmosphere of her books - in that orderly, structured society, murder had the resonance of genuine evil which, after all, was what it was.

Dorothy Sayers, L.P. Hartley, P.G. Wodehouse - these quintessentially English writers shaped my childhood imagination indelibly and stamped the contours of prewar England forever in my consciousness so that when I finally visited London, the city seemed as familiar as a recurring dream.

My literary love affair with England culminated in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, that paean to a vanished English aristocratic Catholic family which remains, even now, one of my favourite books. I came to the book via the Granada television series but discovered the book itself - its youthful, comic exuberance yielding to a growing, almost unbearable sense of loss - was even better. Many of my younger self's favourite books have fallen by the wayside, but this is the one that has endured.

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