Monday, September 16, 2013

That first book

Do you remember what the very first book you ever bought with your own money was? A recent article in the Times newspaper asked a number of well-known people that question and they all remembered, usually with great vividness, what it was and indeed where it had been bought.

I remember mine. I was aged about seven, I suppose. We didn't have a television at home but I had seen what I suppose was the first TV serial version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden at a friend's house and I was entranced by it. I think it must have been very well done since I can still remember it so clearly and I have quite determinedly never watched another version since.  When it came to an end I was heart-broken.

Some time later I was in a bookshop with an indulgent aunt and uncle who gave me money to buy a book for myself – a new experience, since though I had lots of books at home they had all been given to me. I went round the bookshop as if it was a candy store, wondering what to choose. Then I saw it – a book called The Secret Garden!  I couldn't believe it: the wonderful story that I had so loved was there in a book, that I could read again and again as often as I liked – the gift that keeps on giving. I still have that book, a Children's Penguin, the cover a bit tatty now, and I still read it from time to time.

The cross Anglo-Indian Mary, poor miserable Colin, Martha and Dickon and their mother Mrs Sowerby, all full of robust good sense – they seem as real as people in my mind. The books I love as an adult too are the ones where the characters make me believe that they have a life off the page.

I feel that about the characters I create too. When I start a new book in the DI Marjory Fleming series I have the curious sense that while I have been away their lives are still going on; it's like going back to a place you know and saying, 'Well. what's been happening?'

I've never been sure in my own mind whether I chose The Secret Garden because good characterization naturally appealed me or whether it was reading The Secret Garden at a very formative age that has made character so important to me in my writing.

One of the people asked about his first book in that article had chosen a book of puzzles and riddles. He was an economist; did it, perhaps, instill in him an enjoyment of challenge that led him into spending his life working on the riddle to which no one has yet found an answer?

So which came first – the chicken or the egg?

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