Saturday, 18 February 2012

On Reading: Puffin Books 2 - Living in Narnia

I can't remember when I acquired my first Narnia book but I do remember being helped to choose it in a bookshop with my Mum when I had one of those delicious birthday or Christmas book tokens to spend. 'You must read this', she said, flourishing the attractive green and yellow book. She didn't say why but the title was intriguing and I liked the look of it, so it was added to the pile. And thus was I transported to C. S. Lewis's magical world, one I still enjoy now as much as I did then. I gradually acquired the others in the series - in those days one read them in the order that they were written, although there is now general consensus that they should be read in chronological Narnian history order, beginning with The Magician's Nephew and making The Horse and His Boy the third in the series rather than the fifth. I can see from the annotations in my copies that my historian's mind had already plumped for this preferred order but I'm pretty sure that I bought them in the original publication order. For some reason, I kept seeing them for sale at the back of churches; I couldn't understand why this was but I can remember buying The Last Battle from one.

A clue to this mystery was provided by my father, who expressed his antipathy for the books; it was clear that he really disliked me reading them. This was puzzling because in general he was a great reader and our house was full of books of all kinds. Although it didn't have the 'long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstair indoor silences, attics explored in solitude' that Lewis describes for his own solitary childhood, it did have the 'endless books' and like him, 'Nothing was forbidden me...I took volume after volume from the shelves'. Dad's answer was even more puzzling: he didn't like the religious allegory, he said. I didn't entirely understand this but I knew that it was something to do with the books being available in church and also the household tension about religion itself. My mother and I went, and so did my maternal grandparents, but Dad didn't. For most of my teens I was caught up in this tension and didn't know how to resolve it. I stopped going to church but I still knew strongly that I had a spiritual side and that the exploration into that was ongoing. Meanwhile I kept on reading the Narnia books and felt a deep trusting loyalty to them, whether despite of or because of Dad's antagonism to them.

As life has turned out I've ended up 'living in Narnia', or at least that part of Oxford where Lewis also lived and worshipped. These days it is possible to take something of a Lewis 'tourist trail'. He is said to have had a religious conversion experience travelling on a bus up Headington Hill. The local park has a 'StoryBook Tree', with carved figures from the Narnian chronicles, as well as one of Smaug, Tolkien's dragon. (Funnily enough my Dad could cope with Tolkien - no allegory there, then...) Nearby there is a plaque on a house once occupied by Lewis's wife, Joy Davidman. A seat at Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry has a brass plaque with his name, with a lovely 'Narnia' window nearby, and he is buried in the churchyard. Near to his former home, The Kilns, there is a C. S. Lewis nature reserve on land once owned by Lewis and now in the care of the local Wildlife Trust. Some say that this is the 'real' Narnia, although to my mind that's a bit of a stretch - there's an expansiveness about Lewis's description of terrain which surely owes more to his imagination and the landscape of his native Northern Ireland. Last time I looked there were no mountains or seascapes in suburban Oxfordshire, although I wish there were! At the same time, there are some lamp-posts in the local streets which might well be the prototype for the one under which Lucy meets Mr Tumnus, as beautifully illustrated by Pauline Baynes.

Locals who remember Lewis, especially those who attended the same church, say he was withdrawn and rather curmudgeonly, criticising aloud when he disagreed with the sermon. He is said to have left services early to avoid mingling with the rest of the congregation. I certainly don't agree with everything he wrote, either; under a critical eye the Narnian stories can be seen as misogynist, imperialist and militaristic, and Lewis's God can sometimes resemble a kind of benevolent-omnipotent public school headmaster. At the same time, the series as a whole remains for me one of the best expositions of the reality of the Christian faith journey, one that doesn't necessarily reflect the form of Christianity imposed on it by modern, mainly North American, adherents of Lewis. Lewis himself said that 'a children's story is the best art form for something you have to say' and his Narnia chronicles are a perfect example of this. Perhaps this is what my Dad disliked; knowing the power of story and feeling it to be a trick, a sleight of hand to get children hooked on religion. Despite his concerns, I was and continue to be a grateful recipient of Lewis's story-telling, and I am also grateful to be living in Narnia. You can take your own virtual tour round it on the link below.

Living in Narnia

Sunday, 5 February 2012

On Reading: Puffin Books 1

A few years ago, a friend and I who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s were discussing the female role models we had identified with as young teenagers. Suzi Quatro was an easily agreed first choice. We settled on Sheila Rowbotham as our second, as we had both read history at university and been influenced in making that choice by her 1973 book Women's Consciousness, Men's World. For the third choice, after some hesitation, I suggested Kaye Webb. "Oh yes", said my friend enthusiastically. We knew nothing at all about Webb but we both knew immediately what her name meant to us.

It is hard to imagine now how desperately we, as intelligent young girls seeking a world in which we could be active participants, looked around for evidence that women could have interesting careers. Our respective schools were not sending anyone to university, although we were both determined to go. Notions of career, despite the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, were still heavily divided on gender lines. When an engineer came to my school as part of a series of talks on careers for the sixth form, the Deputy Head announced at the start that the girls may be wondering why we were being included and promptly told us that he expected some of us might marry engineers. We had to look outside our immediate world to imagine other possibilities.

Quatro showed that you could be the person who stood at the front in your leathers, singing and wielding a guitar. Rowbotham offered an analysis of the social structures that prevented more of us from doing so. And what of Webb? As editor of Puffin Books from 1961 to 1979 she opened up for us the biggest possibilities of all - access to the vast world of words and the imagination. These were the days when a 10 shilling book token went a long way. Webb's predecessor had also been female, the poet and writer Eleanor Farjeon, but Webb was more adventurous and trebled the list within five years. She also founded the Puffin Club in 1967 and introduced the Peacock imprint for older readers. (See Puffin By Design by Phil Baines, Allen Lane 2010)

But what my friend and I also realised that day was that it was just seeing Webb's name inside the front cover of our books that had meant so much to us. Hungry as we were to find our place in the world, here was daily evidence that a woman could be in charge of something important. The possibility this held out to us made a real difference to the choices we made and the future we could envisage beyond the narrow confines of our daily lives.