The Riches of Reading

There are few words that thrill me more than the ones I saw on the crude roadside sign.


I am a reluctant shopper at the best of times but let me loose on a second hand book fair and delirious, feverish joy takes hold. A pittance is spent in the form of loose change rattling around the coin jar, or a folded note found in a winter pocket, but you could be forgiven for assuming I had purchased a kingdom; for the swagger of richness under the weight of my tatty pile of treasures is always pronounced.
Rummaging through trestle tables of pages and discovering the books of my childhood is in particular the sweetest surprise, as nothing but memories have journeyed from my past into my present. These tangible links take me to times and places that I had forgotten and as I read the words to my own children, a loop is made. I cannot show them where they have come from, but I can envelope them in the very same words that embraced me half a lifetime ago on another continent and we can share that common bond. Africa it may not be, but heritage? Certainly. Below are the most valued of my new (old) library additions.

This is a 1931 vintage nursery rhyme book illustrated by the acclaimed artist Lawson Wood bought for 50 cents. When I got it home it was in reasonable condition, a little faded and edges of the hardboard pages softened with use, but still quite lovely. However, add a nearly two year old to the mix and quite soon for some reason the back page had been ripped off and I was left speechless. Why didn't she rip a worthless modern book? Why the vintage treasure? Anyhow, I am now planning to frame some of the nicer colour plates for Mishal's room.

Blackberry Farm books are crafted from simple, humble words. Poor Mr Nibble is about a bunny with bascially a case of man-flu, and the last page is written in a style of honour we do not see much of in the children's books of today.

But my favourite score of the fair was this 1950's flashback.

Little Pete contains most endearing stories of extraordinary small boy-ness; a gracious and gritty style that went again the times it was written by encouraging creativity and individuality. It was even banned from the radio readings of its time, as it encouraged untolerable rebellion such as 'coming down the stairs backwards'. Of course the artist-rebel in me thinks wickedness like this should be celebrated. I can remember my mother reading this to my brother and I when we were about seven and five. My brother was very like Little Pete and a few years ago I stumbled across this book at a different book fair and bought it for him to keep and read to his children. It is lovely now to have my own copy. If you have a son, and think it important for little boys to grow up using their imaginations in the fresh air, then hunt this book down. Below is one of my very best stories in the collection.

Pete and the Road Roller

One day Pete was coming down the stairs backwards. He liked it better coming down that way. It was rather slow as there were a great many stairs, but Pete didn't mind. He held carefully to the rail and took his time. He was nearly at the bottom when he heard a loud noise in the street. Glunk. Glunk. Glunk. Glunk.
'A road roller!' shouted Pete. And he turned quickly frontwards and rushed down the rest of the stairs as fast as he could.
Down the street he dashed, just ahead of a new green road-roller. And his shadow dashed beside him.
His shadow knew nothing about staying on the pavement. It stretched out in the road, very long and black.
Pete stopped, so that the road-roller would run over his shadow. What will happen to it then? he thought. That will teach it to stand on the road, the silly.
Glunk, glunk, went the road-roller. Glunk.
But it didn't go over the shadow because the shadow stood up and leaned on the road-roller till it had passed by, then it fell down quietly on the road again. 'Bother,' said Pete, 'I'll try again.'
So Pete ran down the street and got in front again, so the road-roller could run over his shadow this time. But the same thing happened. And Pete was rather disappointed.
Then Pete took an empty matchbox out of his pocket and threw it in front of the road-roller. Now what will happen, he thought. He put his hands to his ears and screwed up his face tight. He was sure there was going to be a tremendous crash.
But there wasn't any sound at all, except glunk, glunk, glunk. And when Pete opened his eyes again, there was his matchbox flattened out quietly, and the road-roller glunking down the road as if nothing had happened at all.
Pete ran after it again, and this time he took out of his pocket a soft, warm piece of Plasticine, and rolled it very quickly into a ball. He threw it under the road-roller and closed his eyes tight. 'I will count ten,' he said. 'One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine - TEN!'
When he opened his eyes again there was nothing on the road. Nothing at all. And the road-roller was glunking away with a bit of Plasticine stuck to it, rolling round and round and round.
Pete was very angry at this. 'Give me back my Plasticine!' he shouted. 'Give it me back, it's mine!'
He ran after the road-roller as fast as he could, shouting at the driver and making horrible faces. 'What cheek!' he shouted. 'Look what you've done!' he shouted. 'You should look where you are going, shouldn't you?'
The driver couldn't hear a word Pete was saying. He tried not to take any notice for a bit because he had a lot of work to do. But when he saw what fierce faces Pete was making, he thought it might be important. So he put on the brake and stopped.
'Hello,' he said, 'what's up?'
'Hello,' said Pete, feeling very out of breath.
'Look what you've done!'
The driver leaned out, so that he could see right down the road behind the road-roller. There was nothing there. Everything was just the same as usual. 'What have I done?' he asked, scratching his head.
'You've taken my Plasticine away on your roller,' said Pete. 'It was jolly good Plasticine. It was my best piece. I was going to make an elephant with it.'
'Was there a lot of it?' asked the driver.
'Of course there was,' said Pete. 'It was an enormous piece. Bigger than that house. Bigger than me even.'
'As big as my road-roller?'
'Bigger,' said Pete sternly.
'Well,' said the driver, 'Where is it then?'
'It's underneath of course,' said Pete. 'Underneath the roller, can't you see?'
'No I can't,' said the driver.
'Or course you can't see if it's underneath,' said Pete. 'Silly!'
Pete and the driver looked at each other.
'I'll have to start her going again,' said the driver. 'Then we can get it.'
He sat down in the seat and started the roller. Glunk, glunk, it turned with a clatter.
'There it is,' shouted Pete. 'Stop! Stop!'
The driver jammed on the brake. But when the roller stopped, the Plasticine had gone underneath again.
'Didn't you hear me say "Stop"?' said Pete severely.
'Of course I did,' said the driver. 'I stopped as soon as you said it.'
'No you didn't,' said Pete. 'You went on and on and on and on. And now look what's happened.'
'I'll start her again,' said the man, 'No need to get so excited.' Glunk went the roller.
'Stop! Stop!' shouted Pete. The roller stopped. But it was no good. The Plasticine was underneath again.
'Oh,' said Pete disgustedly. 'Bother it. Let me do it.' And he started to climb up the road-roller to get into the driver's seat.
'Here,' shouted the driver. 'You can't do that!' And he pulled Pete back by his legs.
Pete was very angry. 'You've broken my legs, and stretched my trousers, and bent my feet,' he shouted.
'Well,' said the driver. 'The Borough Council will be after you if you drive a roller, you know. It's not allowed.'
'Well you do it, don't you?' said Pete.
'I'm allowed to,' said the driver. 'I've got a special card saying I can.'
'Well anyway,' said Pete, 'you should say you're sorry for breaking my legs.'
'Sorry,' said the driver.
Then the driver said, 'I'll try her again. Just once more. And this time you hold up your hand, like this, immediately the roller starts turning. See?'
'Like a policeman?' said Pete. 'All flat and stiff?'
'All flat and stiff,' agreed the driver. 'Ready now.'
And he started up the roller again. Pete held up his hand immediately the roller moved.
'There it is,' cried Pete.
They both looked at the Plasticine. It was flattened out like a little white button on the roller.
'It's a very tiny piece for an elephant,' said the driver.
'I meant a baby elephant,' explained Pete.
'Anyway, I expect some has gone inside the roller.'
Then the driver climbed back into his cabin quickly, because he was rather afraid Pete might want him to take the road-roller to pieces to see if there was any Plasticine inside.
He set the roller going again. Glunk, glunk, glunk. And Pete ran in front.
Then do you know what Pete did? He rolled his Plasticine into a ball and threw it right in front of the roller again. And when it stuck, he ran beside it and watched it go round and round like a little white button, all over again. That was another good day.

Lee  – (July 25, 2009 at 9:15 AM)  

Hi! Thanks for leaving a note on my blog. :) I see you're in NZ. Whereabouts are you? And you grew up in Africa? Me too. I must say that your photography is beautiful. I love the style of your photos. Hope you don't mind if I add your blogs to my reader... :)


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