When we were growing up, my mother had a strict and unwavering rule that we spent a quiet hour reading every afternoon after lunch. I remember the usual suspects: Beatrix Potter’s magical farmyards led, in time, to Enid Blyton’s thrilling tales of the Famous Five and the Secret Seven. I envied British children their crumpets, treacle tart and heaths; their nannies and the bowler hats their fathers wore to rush off and catch the train to their offices. I was transported by descriptions of country lanes and villainous tramps. It’s quite likely that I was impossible to live with while I ran about using phrases like ‘jolly’ and asked for high tea instead of lunch. I developed a desperate wish to go to boarding school and have the illicit midnight feasts that seemed to be the main occupation of the girls on those pages.
At around the age of twelve, I was introduced to the Mary Ann books of Catherine Cookson and I began to understand that there were class barriers in the world and adults were not always kind to children. I cried for the first time because of an author’s skill and I learned much about the history of mining in Britain.
When I read, as a teen, The Drifters, I was so determined to run away from home and live the hippie life in Torremolinos that I spent the next year trying to learn Spanish from a pen friend. (A completely unsuccessful endeavour in hindsight, but I felt awfully romantic doing it).
I’m always boring friends with quotes from Quentin Crisp and tales about the impact my first reading of The Naked Civil Servant had on me; how this great gentleman taught me that it is always possible to react to whatever the universe may throw at me with grace and good manners.
Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Trollope satisfied my desire to know life before, during and after the two world wars and Leon Uris, Anne Michaels, David Grossman and Joachim Fest made me understand how important it is that we never allow the Holocaust to be forgotten.
Of Nadine Gordimer, Zakes Mda and other great writer of my own country, I will not even begin to speak. Suffice to say the list would be endless.
Reading has been such a constant in my life that I find myself unable to decide if I view it as a source of recreation, education or simply as such an important element of life; as vital as oxygen.