Comedian and author Natalie Haynes was a fabulous compère. She told us what made her a reader: her grandmother worked in the children’s section of a bookshop, and every week gave Haynes proof copies of two new children’s books. (As a Man Booker judge, she still gets hundreds of proof copies, only now they’re longer and don’t have so many pictures.) Lovely to hear there’s a print of Quentin Blake’s picture of Matilda sitting on a pile of books above her desk.
Beverley Naidoo was entertaining and inspirational. The school library in her convent in South Africa was permanently locked. She asked the mother superior to sign a card to enable her to use the public library. The response? ‘What would you want to be reading more books for when you’ve got text books?’ She read Wordsworth’s Daffodils in class, and Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, but never anything about her own country. The Sharpeville Massacre occurred nearby, but the children weren’t told. Naidoo got a leather-bound copy of The Mystery of Edwin Drood as a prize for achievement. She showed it to us. When she finally read it, sixty years later, she was amazed to find it opened in an opium den. Not the ‘improving book’ the school had assumed it to be! At university she finally encountered a whole world of books, and they opened her eyes to other ways of thinking and seeing. They changed her life. When she became a writer she was determined to take readers into lives they did not know, something she has done magnificently ever since.
Biographer Robert Douglas-Fairhurst told us he had been accused of being a bookworm at school. Ironically the only way he could find out what that meant was by looking it up in a book. He questions the word. Book lovers don’t bury themselves in books, he said; rather, books worm themselves into us, changing how we think and how we feel. David Copperfield reads ‘as if for life’, he reminded us.
Strangely, picture book author and illustrator James Mayhew grew up in the town Copperfield born in. Despite this, and the kind ministrations of his teacher Miss Love (who charmingly married a Mr Darling), he found reading and writing tough. Words were scary at 4 and 5, but he fell in love with pictures. It was pictures that made him want to learn to read. He adored the Moomintroll books, and wrote to Tove Jansson. To his joy he got a reply, and there were Moomintroll stamps on the envelope. One of his other favourite books, probably the one he would choose if he could only read one more in his lifetime (what a great question from the floor), was was A Child’s Garden of Verses by R L Stevenson. As soon as he mentioned it, I was transported back to my 10 year-old self reading my battered paperback copy in bed. I’ve still got it. Mayhew created a great artwork while he told us the story of St George and the dragon, sparking a tense bidding war that finally raised £230 for Book Aid.
On a personal note, it was great talking to Haynes about our shared love of Juvenal, and meeting the agricultural engineer sitting next to me, who told me how precious books are to her. There were none, and no libraries, where she grew up. When she arrived in the UK, the libraries here amazed and thrilled her.