When I first started writing this blog, I knew I wanted to share something of what certain books - mostly from my childhood - meant to me. The one I want to write about today is The Wind In the Willows. My introduction to this book was not an instantaneous love affair, but it is one of the books that means the most to me and although I don't re-read it that often anymore (purely because it is such an indulgence when I have a 'to-read' pile that is threatening to kill people should it ever collapse) and I own numerous 'pretty' copies of it, when I do venture back between its pages, it is to my battered childhood copy that I return. Anyone who knows me will know that my books - even those that have been read multiple times - are always in pristine condition. Usually, a book that is battered upsets me (I actually struggle to cope with creases in the spine and my lovely mother in law is terrified of damaging books I lend her) and I have been known to shed actual tears about pages falling out. There is, however, one exception to this rule and of course, it is this book. It's not that I don't care that it's falling apart, I absolutely do, but I cannot bring myself to repair it. Opening this particular copy evokes so many memories, that reading another version would simply not be the same and repairing it would be to lose an essential part of that.
My mum bought me the book when I was about seven or eight. She'd booked tickets to go and see an open air production in Williamson Park in Lancaster and thought it would be a good idea for me to read the book before we went so I knew what to expect (I have a history of not reacting very well to emotional trauma on stage - I had to be removed from 'Cinderella' pantomimes because I couldn't cope with the Ugly Sisters being horrible to Cinderella and was so distraught my parents thought it best to just leave!). I, however, was less than impressed by her and my sister's attempts to convince me that it was a good book. It was about animals. I wasn't interested. I continued to refuse to read the book, but when we went to see the play? Wow. It was an instant love affair. The actor who played Ratty was amazing, the scenery was beautiful and moving around the park following the actions was one of the best theatre experiences of my life. It was one of those perfect moments in time. Obviously, I devoured the book over the next few days, but it created something more long-lasting than just the enjoyment of another book. I'd seen the play with my mum, my sister and my grandma. They'd all enjoyed it as much as I had and for Christmas that year, my gran bought my mum a model she'd found that had reminded her of going to see the play and for many years it lived on the corner of a shelf in our living room. Every time I looked at it, I was reminded not only of the play and book I now loved, but also of the experience of a 'different' theatre trip with some of the people I loved most. Now that my gran and my sister are both no longer with us, the memories of that evening in the park are even more precious to me.
I've always known and recognised what an impact the book and the play had on me, but a mark of how invested I'd become in these characters I'd so easily dismissed was when several years later, my mother found me sobbing in my bed in the early hours of the morning reading the final sequel that William Horwood had written. Few books have ever left me feeling so bereft.
Last year, I used my experiences for part of a fictional piece of writing. In the end, it didn't get make the final cut, but I kept the extract, hoping to use it someday because it summed up in fiction form how I felt and let's face it, as a writer, it's far easier to tell a story in this way than to actually tell people how you feel.
'Wind in the Willows. Never had one book; not the story but the physical book itself, now battered and bent, almost beyond recognition, meant so much to her. Between its thin cardboard covers it encompassed so much of her childhood self; stubborn, unable to see beyond the obvious but by its end, awakened to a whole new world of literary possibilities. Her mother had first tried to read it to her as a bedtime story and she had instantly dismissed it as boring. She didn’t understand anthropomorphism at the age of eight; didn’t want to understand it. Being told what a wonderful book it was only made her dig her heels in further.
‘I don’t want you to read it.’
Her mother said nothing further and just quietly tucked it away on the shelf, lips pressed together tightly as she selected another book to read instead.
Some little while later though, her mother informed her that she had bought tickets for them to go and see a production of it in the local park. She did not look forward to this occasion and yet, as the day grew closer, she found herself being infected by the excited anticipation of her mother and even, to her horror, began just a little to look forward to it herself.
That night was one of those wonderful drawn-out summer evenings that never seem to end, the sun taking its time to traverse the last few inches of sky before sinking reluctantly below the horizon, leaving a lingering warmth in the air as a faint reminder of its existence. They followed the cast around the park; deep into a shady glen to the Wild Wood, high on the hill to Toad Hall, beside the placid, never moving lake for the River and onto a path for the frenetic activity of the Railway and the Road. Never before or since had she felt such unadulterated joy in a performance, the exhilaration of moving with the action, of being a part of the scenery, observing it from outside and experiencing it from within, all at the same time. She came away in awe of everything she had seen and with such a deep, desperate, burning desire to read the book, she could barely wait to get home and begin. Not once did her mother say, ‘I told you so’; not when she delayed going to bed that night to begin reading it, not when she found not one, but four copies of it on her bookshelf and not even when she found her, years later, sobbing in her bed at 2am, reading the devastating conclusion of one of the many sequels. She just smiled and tucked her back into bed.'
When I went looking for my original book to take a photo of it for this blog, I couldn't find it on the shelf in the bookcase and for a moment, I actually felt sick at the thought that it had been misplaced. I then remembered tucking it away on a different shelf because it was so battered I didn't want to risk either of the children getting hold of it and wanting to read that particular copy. Instead, I'd left one of the nice copies out for them to read - it's beautiful - it has colour illustrations and is a hardback, just the kind of book I like to have on display. But lovely as it is, that's all it is - a display copy. The one I love, MY copy will always be the cheap and rather tatty original version. As the extract above says, there is so much love contained within its battered covers and that cannot ever be replaced, no matter how pretty my hardback is.