As A CHILD, I had a pen in my hand more often than a book. Not to write down any great thoughts, you understand. I was more interested in tracing the shapes I saw around me, from rubbing images of hens and piglets off large copper pennies and ha-pennies to capturing the agonised arcs of the horses jumping over fences that I watched with my father on the TV most afternoons.
Then I discovered the Encyclopaedia Britannica, all 26 volumes of the 1963 edition, which were housed in their own case in the dining room. An eight-year-old Dr Johnson, I decided to create my own encyclopaedia, devoted only to animals, drawing on the Britannica definitions and illustrated by my own fair but inaccurate hand. I got as far as B for buffalo before getting bored.
There was never any shortage of educational reading material in my parents’ house. My father was a subscriber to the Reader’s Digest, which meant I could advance my knowledge of human botany in fortnightly instalments, imagining that I too was John’s kidney or Jane’s more mysterious uterus. The Reader’s Digest’s Dictionary also introduced me to the world of Greek and Roman myth, and I devoured with avid if uncomprehending interest its tales of rape, incest and murder.
Some books I knew instinctively to avoid when my parents were around. I remember sneaking looks at my father’s copies of The Exorcist, The Godfather and Jaws as they lay on his bedside table. I never felt particularly threatened by the notion of Mafiosi or Great Whites, but somehow I became convinced that I too, like little Regan, would become possessed by demon forces. I’m still waiting.
By now I was graduating to more mature fare, having read the entire Chalet School series (Eleanor Brent-Dyer) but disdaining the Enid Blyton sequences of Fives and Fours as being childish. In my teens I became hooked on Agatha Christie and those Penguin Classics featuring Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and, for the aficionados out there, Ariadne Oliver.
Then I discovered Europe, as it was known in the olden days, and those pre-EU novelists Emile Zola and Victor Hugo. Zola’s Germinal got me addicted to social realism, and I worked backwards and forwards through George Gissing, H.G. Wells and Patrick Hamilton. I reached Hamilton in my early 30s, and tried not to take personally the fact that a friend gave me Hangover Square for my birthday. By now I was reading everything I could lay my hands on, and always, always, judged a book by its cover.
It may seem strange that as a poet I never read much poetry growing up. That’s probably because like many people, I associated poets with the great and the dead, people to be read in school and revered but not to be engaged with in my everyday life. Coming late to poetry writing, I came late to poetry reading and am still trying to catch up.