‘It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway; the soul prefers to imagine.’ Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul
I grew up in a book-free household. Actually, I did have some Little Golden Books. I remember when we ‘went down the street’ and visited Woolworths, my mother would occasionally buy me a book along with a Dairy Snow ice-cream cone (unwittingly setting up positive associations between books and ice-cream). That’s how I came across The Colour Kittens. And The Little Red Caboose. The Sailor Dog. I stored them in my bedhead. It was a modern bed head with built-in shelf and pushbutton reading lamp. Snazzy.
My bed head aside, our house did not have a bookcase. We only had three books, what was the point? The books were stashed under the tea towels in the linen press and reeked of naphthalene. There was a hardback full-colour pictorial of Queen Elizabeth II and her cohorts. I pored over it. The jewells! The furs stoles! The castles and horses! It was my first foray into world of fairy tales…
What Bird is That? Utterly dull. I didn’t care what bird is that. And a pocket Oxford dictionary with a few lightweight swear words underlined. Speaking of which, my three, baby boomer brothers had all left home by the time I was eight, taking with them whatever novels they may have had for matriculation (To Sir With Love, Lord of the Flies). I’d ‘read’ them all and wondered what all the fuss was about.
So, what does an ‘only’ child with a burning desire for MORE stories do in a home where reading is frowned upon as time-wasting? Where did I get my fix? Well, there was my gorgeous schoolteacher (think purple miniskirts, frosted lipstick, white crinkle-vinyl go-go boots). Miss B always read aloud to the class. I had an epiphany during my first encounter with The Magic Wishing Chair when I realised that other people (aka Enid) were putting their imaginations to Great Use.
I was occasionally given books (aka Enid) from school friends, and sometimes I was allowed to visit the library. Aside from that, I found stories on the record player. Via Johnny Cash, to be precise. I played my father’s 33 1/3 records over and over. I had three favourites—Folsom Prison Blues, Long Black Veil, and The Streets of Laredo, of which Laredo was my absolute hand-wringing favourite. As an apprehensive eight-year-old this ballad fuelled my fascination with death and confirmed my affinity with melodrama. ‘Put bunches of roses all over my coffin, roses to deaden the clods as they fall’… I knew all the words and even though I did not understand them, through their poetry and through Cash’s music, I was able to grasp their sentiment at a level deeper than the intellect. Of course, at some point I do remember looking up ‘sod’ in the dictionary. What was sod and why did they ‘lay it o’er’ the poor, dead cowboy? There were also some lines the dictionary could not help me with. For instance, who was this other, this person ‘more dear than a sister’?
Through the songs of Johnny Cash I had my first encounter with poetry. And in seeking to understand his lyrics, my first attempt at textual analysis. Long Black Veil had a similar effect on me and would prove to be the perfect primer for gothic fiction. ‘She walks these hills in a long, black veil/ She visits my grave, when the night winds wail...’
We should never underestimate children. Never doubt their ability to grapple with language and concepts they do not understand for in so doing they grow both intellectually and emotionally. Yes, children use stories to help them master language. But of course it’s much more than that. They also depend on stories (sad, funny, ridiculous, spooky, disgusting and, dare I say, politically incorrect) to inspire them, to feed and honour their souls, and to acknowledge their shadow side. In my writing I never try to educate or moralise. I do, however, try to do what Johnny Cash and Enid Blyton did for me— inspire and delight, create a sense of wonder and possibility. Through my stories I am trying to say, ‘Look at the world. Just look! Isn’t it big and strange and silly and frightening and freakin’ awesome?’ I intend to keep doing it, too — perhaps until they lay the sod o’er me. How romantic would that be?