Interview with author and journalist, Lucy Mangan
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Do you remember that glorious childhood feeling of utterly, utterly losing yourself amongst the words of a story? Lucy Mangan certainly does. Katie Jarvis meets her over lunch at Calcot Manor to delve into the little-known stories behind some of our childhood literary favourites
Journalist Lucy Mangan is author of Bookworm, a paean to childhood reading; those glorious days when diving into a book meant the real world paled by comparison. But did you know that Milly-Molly-Mandy was written to support a family in distress? That Doctor Dolittle arose from the horror of the trenches? Or that Enid Blyton is tinted (to put it kindly) by racism, classism and sexism? Did it do us any harm? Katie Jarvis made sandwiches for her husband before finding out.
The story in our family goes that Katie – as a young child - was rechristened Going-To because, whenever anyone asked her to do anything, she had her nose buried deep in a book.
Not me, Katie. But my wonderful late grandmother, Katie, born in 1906.
Clearly, this is a genetic thing.
For when she introduced me to the books of her youth, I buried my nose inside with equal procrastination. In A Girl of the Limberlost, I wandered the swamps of Indiana with impoverished Elnora, collecting beautiful moths (NB I had twinges about the ethics of this, even then); helping her sell flowers and mosses to raise desperate income.
And then there was Daddy-Long-Legs, where equally-impoverished Jerusha (Judy) Abbott writes to her rich, anonymous benefactor throughout the college years he so generously funds.
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(Oh, how I longed to be poor!) (And, in an ideal world, an orphan to boot.)
My mum gave me Enid Blyton, who enthralled me with a passion the like of which I’ve never felt since. To think of that birthday! – never a better birthday – when I awoke to find my present carefully wrapped upon my bed: The Faraway Tree, the sequel to The Enchanted Wood, where children climb a tree so tall, its branches reach into different lands. How dreadful to find myself in the land of Dame Slap, a teacher with such enthusiasm for corporal punishment, it made Tom Brown’s Rugby look like a Steiner school.
But, my gosh, the joy of arriving in the Land of Take-What-You-Want!
What I never noticed – or hardly ever noticed – were the embedded -isms. The boys would dig the garden with dad; the girls would be left to do housework and make the sandwiches. (Tbh, I mainly noticed the lashings of lemonade.)
But, there again, I don’t think it harmed me.
“I had to leave a fully made-up plate of sandwiches in the fridge for my husband before I went out today,” I casually tell Lucy Mangan, as we tuck into a literary lunch at Calcot Manor, where she is guest speaker.
Lucy nods. “I’ve done similar, at times,” she says.
A journalist and author, she’s a (genuinely) inspirational example of feminism. (She once wrote about a job interview where her (male) inquisitor looked at her CV, saw that she’d written for a magazine named Gender Agenda, and asked, “Does this mean you’re a feminist, then?”
When he returned to the subject for the fifth time, Lucy replied, “Oh, for God’s sake – I shaved my legs for this interview if that makes you feel any better.”)
What we’re actually talking about is the book she’s written – Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading; a fabulous book redolent with the magic of utterly, utterly losing yourself (aged seven-or-so) amongst the words of a story; that feeling where, when the last page is turned, you feel so robbed of a world that you leaf straight back to page one and begin all over again. In Bookworm, Lucy describes both dearly treasured and long forgotten tomes. Ballet Shoes; The Family from One End Street; The Borrowers; Charlotte’s Web; Stig of the Dump. Narnia.
About the fact that she dare not reread the love of her life, Enid Blyton, in case the very act dissipates the enchantment.
“Love blinds us to all faults,” I sigh, with my own remembered adoration.
(“That’s not true actually,” Lucy corrects me. “My husband puts cold sausages in the fridge – I mean, not on a plate. The day I love someone enough to blind me to that…”)
(It’s a good point. I’ll start again.)
Blyton provided the building blocks that formed me. She ruled my world.
When I was little, devouring St Clare’s, the Wishing Chair and Mallory Towers, I was not into analysis. Authors merely existed as hieroglyphics on the jacket; the words of a spell to obtain further magic.
So how fascinating to learn, in Bookworm, facts about these writers it never occurred to me to find out. That Joyce Lankester Brisley was 16 when her parents divorced (something of a scandal in the early 1900s). It doesn’t take a great psychologist to wonder – as Lucy does – if the calm, ordered world of Milly-Molly-Mandy represented more than a simple childhood story. Louisa May Alcott found writing Little Women a slog – it was too much like her own life; and – who’d have thought! - she never wanted Jo to marry at all but conjured up the professor as a sop to social pressure. Noel Streatfeild despised Ballet Shoes; because the writing came so easily to her, she distrusted it. Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle began life within letters to his sons, written from the trenches where the truth was too awful to verbalise.
Nor was it just the authors who were missing from my childhood; it was the hidden messages (often, I suppose, hidden from them, too) that passed me by. Yet these were my formative years. These books were my bread and butter.
But where I was devouring, the critics had long been tutting. The BBC pretty much banned Byton in the 30s for being mediocre. Some libraries refused to stock her. Her books were – of course – products of her time; but attempts to bowdlerise them of “the unholy trinity of sexism, class snobbery and racism” were laughably unsuccessful.
Does it matter, I ask Lucy, that Enid wasn’t adorable (or, as her daughter, Imogen, succinctly put it, “¬arrogant, insecure, pretentious, very skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind and without a trace of maternal instinct”). And does it also matter that the –isms, when I first delved in, utterly, utterly passed me by? Am I a terrible person?
“Well, if you are, we all are,” Lucy says. “I know of one child, now grown up, who said to me he remembered reading Roald Dahl as a child and putting it aside because it made him feel dirty. He picked up on that sadomasochistic element of it.”
(Even as an enlightened adult, I try not to look baffled.)
“He didn’t know the word for it but he put it aside.”
Is he now ruler of some small empire?
“No, but he’s a writer who edits the Author Magazine, and he’s clearly been a sensitive reader all his life. I suspect there are more of ‘him’ who felt uneasy about Roald Dahl.
“I’ve never met anyone who felt uneasy at the time about Enid. I think because it is fairly subtle. That’s not to say it isn’t effective, but you do have to be really quite a sophisticated child to notice that ‘swarthy’ is synonymous with ‘malevolent’.”
Some children’s books are less contentious. In fact – what am I saying! – they’re more than less contentious; they changed the world. Take Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A professor of children’s literature once pointed out to me that Alice is a proto-feminist; a girl who presents the voice of reason in a world of eccentric, rude, rule-bound, irrational adults.
Yet Carroll (or, rather, Dodgson, an Oxford mathematician too embarrassed to publish under his real name) not only placed a girl heroically centre-stage; Alice also has agency at a time when girls didn’t. That was ground-breaking, especially coming hot on the heels of Victorian literature which (newly awakened to the idea that children were a lucrative market) formulaically focused on churning out good Christian boys and girls.
Then came the Second World War, with its youthful evacuees. And the realisation – amongst psychologists – that children were not merely adults who lacked height; what we do to them is formative, important and sometimes downright destructive.
“Certainly for child psychology,” Lucy says, “the post-war 50s are the difference between Milly-Molly-Mandy [written in the late 20s]; and Ramona Quimby [Beverly Cleary, 1955] – that’s a child with a hinterland. It’s a very simple hinterland; it’s an eight-year-old’s hinterland; but it’s there in a way that was never done before.”
Strange – and I’ve never thought about this before – that I studied English literature at university, and never once did a children’s book darken our course. Childhood reading has helped make us what we are; yet we dismiss this sub-section of literature as optional candyfloss in the face of the meaty, beefy adult canon.
Lucy nods. It’s not a situation that’s changing for the better, either.
“Books pages, especially now, are being squeezed and squeezed; children’s literature is the first to stop being reviewed in any real way. And we pay all this lip-service – we do all believe that children’s books are incredibly important and that children reading is incredibly important – but we don’t really give it much cultural space.”
When Lucy Mangan says she’s a bookworm, she’s not exaggerating. She’s kept every one of her childhood books (well, duh - as have I); in fact, she tells me, the idea that people would do otherwise came as a shock. “I suppose I honestly hadn’t appreciated that for most people – non-pathological bookworms – they dissipate; the copies themselves disappear; and they fade from memory – from immediate memory, anyway.”
A journalist from a book-collecting magazine once visited, convinced that amongst her 10,000 tomes, there must be rare treasures. In any kind of literal way, he was wrong: “When he wrote up the interview, he said it looked like I had a jumble sale hoisted on my walls.”
But, to Lucy, they’re all treasures. The Puffins and the Tollbooths; the Nesbits and the Blumes; the Winnie the Poohs; the still-beloved Enid Blytons.
It might come as a relief – though not to Lucy – to learn that her own seven-year-old, Alexander, refuses to comply and become a bookworm himself.
“Actually, I’m letting him read the rubbish Beast Quest books at the moment, where all I want him to do is to seize naturally upon the books around our house, perfectly accessible to him; to home in on all the ones I loved. Of course, he won’t; he’s a different person from me, which I also find difficult to remember.”
And maybe Beast Quest isn’t so bad. After all, Roald Dahl resigned from the 1988 Committee on English in the National Curriculum when the rest of the board stated Blyton’s books should not be welcomed in schools. He was no great fan, as Lucy points out: he’d once played Blyton at bridge and said she had the mind of a child.
“But Dahl’s big thing was getting children to read and he said Blyton does that better than anyone.
“Mind you,” Lucy adds, “he was always up for a fight. So there’s also a possibility that, if nine out of 10 people on that committee had said, ‘We love Blyton!’, he would have said, ‘No, she was rubbish’.”
Lucy’s recommendations for children’s Christmas books:
- “Tom’s Midnight’s Garden [Philippa Pearce] is probably the best children’s book – an immaculate, beautiful piece of work. I think of it as a winter book as well.
- “For younger children, I’d go for the Bullerby Children, which gets forgotten. It’s by the same author who wrote Pippi Longstocking – Astrid Lindgren; again, quite wintry because they’re all set in Sweden.”
Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, by Lucy Mangan, is published in hardback by Vintage, price £14.99
Future author lunches include:
• Afternoon Tea – Jade Beer & ‘The Almost Wife’, taking place at Barnsley House on Sunday, December 9. A copy of Jade’s book is included in the ticket price of £28.50 per person. See more events here.
• Meet the Author Lunch – Salley Vickers & ‘The Librarian’, taking place at Calcot Manor on Monday, December 10.