Through and through th’ inspired leaves,
ye maggots make your windings;
But O respect his lordship’s taste,
And spare the golden bindings.’
Robert Burns, 25th Jan 1759 – 21st July 1796
Today is the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns – ‘oor Rabbie’ and my Father’s favourite Scottish poet. In many countries of the world, as well as Scotland, his contribution to literature will be celebrated at a Burns Supper with haggis piped in, songs sung, poems recited and much Scotch whisky, even Drambuie consumed. If you have an ounce of Scots blood, or lay claim to Scottish heritage, put an attendance at a Burns Supper on your bucket list!
It’s an opportune day to reflect on how my parents influenced me in different ways regarding reading as they inculcated a love of books into our family life. Both parents were strong characters with strong beliefs, but they came from different backgrounds (Dad, Scottish working class, Mum, Irish middle class) and so each had eclectic tastes. Fortunately, they agreed about issues that mattered – ethics and values to guide our lives, the importance of humanity and spirituality – and as prolific readers, both valued education.
Mum read more novels and fiction than Dad, who favoured technical manuals and non fiction books on subjects such as theology, philosophy, and politics. However, both loved history and poetry, and the classics. They kept abreast of the popular literature of the day, and the books considered to belong in an educated person’s library.
When my Dad died, I found an exercise book where he had had written stories, poems and even a short play. ‘Scraps of Paper’ so poignantly captured by Eric Bogle, who also had an erudite railwayman as a father. I realised the reason Dad nurtured and supported my love of creative writing was because it was an unrequited dream of his own. All my life, I knew, he valued the written word, had a talent for speaking and writing, but sadly never saw his way to living the writer’s life.
November 1962 – an image etched in my mind of Mum and Dad sitting in our almost bare lounge-room the week before we left Scotland for Australia.
Two packing cases sit in the centre of the floor, greaseproof lining protruding as if a surprise package has just been opened, but these are set aside to pack books for the hold of the ship taking us to Melbourne. Their pungent woody smell almost overpowers the musty smell from piles of books garnered from every room, drawer and bedside shelf in the house and scattered in various sized bundles around the room.
Mum sits on a cushion on the floor examining stacks – book by book. Dad sits on a kitchen chair (the lounge suite already gifted to a needy neighbour) and he has several books balancing on his knees as he thumbs through a green leather volume in his hand.
Mum looks different, not relaxed as she usually is at night, in an armchair, engrossed in a book, cup of tea by her side, cigarette smouldering in an ashtray, and one hand twirling at her popular Toni perm.
Tonight, she’s wearing new reading glasses and a serious face. There are no guffaws of laughter (a frequent occurrence when she reads a Para Handy novel), or serious sighs (from absorption in an Agatha Christie mystery or Arthur Upfield’s Bony series), or dreamy smiles inspired by her favourite Mills and Boon author, Australian Lucy Walker.
‘We’ll take this one,’ said Dad, handing over Ivanhoe, a Sir Walter Scott Waverley novel, ‘which pile is going?’
Mum looks up, ‘Aye, all right – and this one too,’ she adds, pointing to a pile next to one of the packing cases and placing the Tartan Pimpernel by Donald Caskie on top.
‘Have you been through this pile?’ Dad leans over to check a bundle of books near his feet.
‘Aye,’ said Mum, ‘they can stay.’ She smiles as Dad picks them up to glance at their spines. He doesn’t check inside to see if they belonged to Papa, Granny, or one of his sisters and brothers, instead he mutters, ‘they’ll go.’
Mum laughs and holds up another bundle of books. ‘You decided these should stay?’
Dad nods. ‘Well,’ said Mum, ‘I want them to go.’
I’m not sure if any books actually remained in Scotland. The evening progressed slowly, books Mum discarded, Dad decided to keep – and vice versa. Thank goodness even our children’s books were packed. No wonder the family home, including my current one, the bookshelves always bulge.
From my childhood, I learned to value books as prized possessions, a necessity for living. In the 50s and 60s, Sunday School and regular School awarded books as prizes – for attendance and for achievement. Books were expensive until the cheaper paperbacks were produced and for working class children like me an amazing gift to receive.
Father Christmas left children’s annuals like the Beano, Dandy, Topper or Bunty plus a popular novel, whether it was Capt W.E Johns Biggles series for the boys, or Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women series for the girls.
My godmother and other relatives and family friends knew to give me books as presents, were aware of my dream to be like my fictional heroine, Jo March.
No surprise I became the swot of the family and only sibling to attend university, the teacher and writer with floor to ceiling bookshelves in several rooms – the one who has happily lost countless hours of life rummaging in bookshops.
I hear Dad’s voice, ‘I don’t care if you choose to be a street cleaner. Just stick in at school and be the best educated and qualified street cleaner there is!’ and Mum’s plea, ‘never waste the brains or talent God gave you.’
I’ve passed on the love and value of reading to my daughters. They understand that education is not the cramming of knowledge, but nurturing the desire to learn. I wonder what books will bulge from their bookshelves because despite technology they both love the feel, the weight, the smell, the comfort of a ‘real’ book! And they have both become exceptionally creative people in their own fields, including a love for the power of words.