Sailing into the West…
My current absence is because we have had a family bereavement. My sister Sheila, who commented here under the pseudonym BigSister, died last week after an illness which felt long while it was happening, but was actually only a few months. I don’t normally blog about personal matters, as you know, but some of you who have been around for a long time have interacted with BigSister over the years, and she was a keen, if silent, supporter of those of you who have published novels, buying, reading, and talking to me about them. She also enjoyed visiting many of your blogs, though never commenting, I think, and again this has been part of our regular lengthy bookish phone conversations over the past few years.
This doesn’t feel like the right place for any kind of memorial to her full and active life, so I thought instead I’d pay tribute to the influence she had on my early reading (and the influence she still tried to have on my later reading too, with rather less success)!
From Hitchcock’s adaptation of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps
BigSister was eight years older than me, which seemed like a huge difference when we were young. She always seemed grown-up to me, she being the eldest of four and I the baby of the family. From the time I was about five or six until I was old enough to go alone, she would take me with her to the library each week – she was a voracious reader all her life, often reading more than a book a day. And with a phenomenal memory for the written word! Whereas I can barely remember a book I read last week, she had almost total recall of plots and characters of books she read forty years ago. Back in those days, you were only allowed to take two books out of the library at a time, so BigSister had managed to gain possession of library cards for all the less enthusiastic readers in the family so she could get a big enough stash to feed her addiction. And like many addicts, she was a pusher too, giving me free access from an early age to her already groaning bookshelves…
BigSister read just about any genre and had a totally open approach to supervising my reading – if it appealed to me, then her attitude was always, well, try it and see how you get on. On reflection, I think this might be why I missed a lot of the children’s books of my day – I feel I was reading relatively adult books quite young. There was no such thing as YA back then, but lots of writers were writing books that worked easily for both child and adult. She’d stop me from choosing anything too unsuitable or way beyond my ability to understand, though. If she didn’t know a book I liked the look of, she’d read the first few pages and the last few and that would be enough for her to decide whether it was okay for me.
Illustration from Kipling’s The Jungle Book
It was easier back in those halcyon days, because even crime fiction veered well away from the gruesome and harrowing and no published writer would have dreamt of peppering their work with graphic sex and swear words (except DH Lawrence, naturally, but fortunately I didn’t encounter him till my teens). So I met Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Ed McBain, Mickey Spillane, Carter Dickson, John D MacDonald, and a myriad of other crime writers now sadly forgotten (by me), and was guided towards the adventure stories of Rider Haggard, Gavin Lyall, Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Alistair MacLean, et al. I didn’t like them all – I never got on with Kipling, whom she loved, for instance – but it all helped me form my own tastes in time. The classics weren’t omitted – Jane Eyre, Little Women, Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Treasure Island, etc., were mixed in with general fiction like the Mapp and Lucia books, and total pulp, like Dick Tracy. Did anyone ever read the Modesty Blaise books? They shocked me to my socks when I was a little’un and I suspect they might shock me just as much now, but for different reasons.
She never had as much success with science fiction. While I liked the more speculative end of it – Wells, Wyndham, Asimov, Pohl – I was never able to follow her into the realms of fantasy, where she spent many, many happy hours. She never gave up though – like any pusher, she kept offering me little doses of the soft stuff in the hopes I’d get addicted to the hard stuff in time. In the last few years she has tried every Hallowe’en to get to me read A Night in the Lonesome October – I could never bring myself to admit to her that I’d tried, hated it, and thrown it on the abandoned pile!
In more recent years, she became a dedicated fan of Terry Pratchett’s books, and I was always a little sad that I couldn’t share her love for them. In the last few months, as concentration became harder for her, it was Pratchett she turned to, reading them all again even though she could probably have quoted them from memory. On my last visit to her, her main concern was for me to get her Kindle to work with the hospital wifi so she could access more of the Pratchetts in her library.
I can’t finish without mentioning her lifelong love for Lord of the Rings, a pleasure I happily shared. Which was just as well, really. We shared a room for a couple of years when I was a teenybopper and she was a student. The walls on my side had posters of Marc Bolan and Alice Cooper – BigSister had posters of Gandalf and Aragorn and a map of Middle-earth. Yes, indeed, she was an addict! She even liked Tom Bombadil! She regularly stated that her ambition was to be knocked on the head and get amnesia so she could have the pleasure of reading LOTR again as if for the first time.
The last but one comment that she left on the blog before she became too ill was on my New Year confession of the state of my TBR. She said “I’m so glad I don’t have a TBR! I do however have a lot of books I want to read.” And that seems to me to sum up neatly the voracious, eclectic, mood-reading philosophy of her bookish life.
“Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
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Apologies to all of you whose recent comments and links have been left unanswered. I shall be back in action around the blogosphere soon.