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A.F. Harrold: “I’ve Lived My Life Reading, Instead Of Living It – But That Doesn’t Seem Too Bad”

Poet, writer and performer A.F. Harrold recalls a reading journey with misty beginnings and no end in sight

AF Harrold
by AF Harrold
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It’s such a long time ago now and I remember so little of it. I try closing my eyes and going back.

There were Ladybird books with letters and numbers on the front, I can see them, and there was Jan Pienkowski’s Haunted House, I can see that. There was Raymond Briggs’ Gentleman Jim, I can see that, and there was a Star Wars readalong-with-thetape- and-turn-the-page-when-R2- beeps called Planet of the Hoojibs. I can see that.

There was a spinner in the newsagents-cum-general-store nextdoor to the chemist in Fitzalan Road. I can see myself getting a colourful science fiction book down, again a Ladybird.

There was almost everything in the children’s section of the library. My dad had a cleaning job in the evening, at a dentist’s in town, and once or twice a week he’d take me with him, drop me off in the library on the way in, and pick me up a couple of hours later on the way home. (I can remember going with him to the dentists once, after hours and empty the place was spooky as all get out.)

I can remember reading Billy Brewster books and Douglas Hill books and Terence Dicks there, but I couldn’t tell you anything about them. I read all the non-fiction books and had my sex education via (possibly?) Usborne’s finest. (Also, how to be a spy. And how to make all sorts of things I never made, but I enjoyed reading the instructions.)

I think there was the Beano. My brother’s Commando and Battle comics. Later there was definitely 2000AD. Still is.

There were Fighting Fantasy books. And the choose-your-own-adventure ninja series that began with Avenger, or was it Usurper? And other cheaper, knock-off versions of these systems that didn’t satisfy.

There was the film of Lord of the Rings, the Ralph Bakshi cartoon of most of the first two books, rented from the tiny selection of videos for hire in Radio Rentals (or was it Rumbelows?), which led to reading The Hobbit, and later The Lord of the Rings itself.

I can remember Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Warhammer 40,000 wargaming. The rulebooks were thick and filled with fluff, background stories and descriptions and fragments.

I remember my magnificent English teacher, Mrs Coates, giving me a copy of Oscar and Lucinda (which, looking back, I realise had just won the Booker) to broaden me. It was okay. She also lent me her Collected Poems of William Blake (rather than just the Songs of Innocence & Experience we needed for class).

I discovered a proper second-hand bookshop in town, run by a proper odd and grumpy and resentful-you’ve-come-in-and-disturbed- the-books bookseller. I bought all sorts of old things there. Japanese myths, Babylonian myths, poetry, dusty old things that made me sneeze.

Somewhere in there I found Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian, which changed my life. Instead of dabbling about with religion and witchcraft (a piece I wrote in my GCSE drama class about summoning the horned god made my teacher, an awful petty woman, take me aside afterwards and give me a Bible to take home (which wasn’t hers to give, belonging to the school)), I had cobwebs blown away and began to think better. More philosophy followed, and because of that book I went to university to study philosophy (for want of knowing what else to do).

That was what got me away from the Very Nice, Very White, old hometown and out into somewhere more interesting. I wasn’t any good at philosophy, but at least I escaped and stayed away.

I remember finding Iris Murdoch somewhere after that. I remember finding Russell Hoban. I remember finding Primo Levi. I remember Proust. I remember Pratchett. I remember Maus. Oh.

I remember The Mersey Sound. Listening to the audiobook while lying on a mattress in a box-room in a shared house filled with strangers in other rooms, depressed on a Sunday morning. Barely employed. Empty-futured.

Half-hearted. Utterly lost. Adrift and sinking. And the voices of Adrian and Roger and Brian pointed me forwards, onwards, up.

I remember working in a bookshop. They closed us down eventually, because we weren’t good at selling, but I met books and I met books and I met books. Not whole books, but bites, snippets and nibbles I tasted as I shelved them. And the ones I – ahem – borrowed. And The Bookseller.

And poetry. There was poetry. I remember there was poetry. And now, there is this.

Somehow, I’ve ended up a children’s author (I have never had a plan, I never expected to be here) and I spend much of my time reading books that didn’t exist when I was a kid (David Almond, Sally Gardner, and all the glorious rest), and the ones that did but that I missed at the time:

Danny Champion of the World, The Witches, A Wrinkle in Time, Marianne Dreams…

Some of it’s great. Some of it’s even better. Much of it’s wasted on kids.

While my mum was dying I’d talk to her and she’d say, ‘Do you remember when I read you…?’ and I’d say, ‘No, I don’t remember.’ And she swore that she always read books to me, and I wept because I couldn’t remember that at all. I wept because all that remained of the good she had done is a memory of me sat or lying with the book, reading all by myself.

And, looking back, it seems I’ve lived my life reading, instead of living it, but when you hear what people do to one another when they leave the house, this doesn’t seem too bad a sin.

So, if you need me, please, just leave me alone. I’ll be in the bath, with a paperback that’s beginning to disintegrate.

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