READING HAS SAVED my life all my life. Today, it might be a book like Andre Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs that encourages me to keep repositioning nose to grindstone but, since before I was ten, books have always realigned me. I can chart my development as a reader (and, ergo, writer) by the books that blew me away (and the rough age I was when I read them):
The Call of the Wild (11). Kidnapped (12). Great Expectations (13). Miguel Street (14). Animal Farm, 1984, A House for Mr Biswas, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (15). Catch-22, Don’t Stop the Carnival (16). Slaughterhouse Five, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird (17). The Lonely Londoners, Lord of the Flies, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, L'Etranger (18). Things Fall Apart, Gulliver’s Travels, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Brighton Rock (19). Crime and Punishment, The Wide Sargasso Sea, Moby Dick, The Dragon Can’t Dance (20). Midnight’s Children, Les Miserables, Of Mice and Men, Heart of Darkness (21). The Red and the Black, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Something Happened, Anna Karenina, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (22).
From age 22 onwards: Briefing for a Descent into Hell. Immortality. Steppenwolf. The God of Small Things. Love in the Time of Cholera. The Old Man and the Sea. No Pain Like This Body. Time’s Arrow. The Invention of Solitude. The Cold Six Thousand. Invisible Man. Rebecca. The USA trilogy. Of Human Bondage. Tropic of Cancer. Focus. Nausea. Disgrace. Jude the Obscure. Sophie’s Choice. A Confederacy of Dunces. The Butcher Boy. Snow. Hunger. The Plot Against America. If This is a Man. East of Eden. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Trainspotting. Netherland. Beware of Pity. The Road. A Brief History of Seven Killings. Cloud Atlas. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. The Enigma of Arrival.
And the biggest ones: The Sound and the Fury. Abasalom, Absalom! As I Lay Dying. Go Down Moses. In Search of Lost Time.
I’ve left out many because the list is long… but it all began when I was nine, with an 11-year-old English public schoolboy invented by a woman writer invariably described as “a spinster aunt”.
Between 1922 and 1969 (and the ages of 22 and 79) Richmal Crompton wrote nearly 40 books about William Brown, her mischievous prepubescent hero of comic adventures mocking the hypocrisy of the adult world. She was copying Mark Twain, to be sure, but she did it exceedingly well.
(Enid Blyton was an even younger and stronger influence but not a positive one; that racist old lady might have been the single greatest weapon in the psychological warfare waged against her colonised peoples by the British Empire, as the sun finally set on it. Through her Tales for Teatime and such, she persuaded all of Britain’s golliwogs to hate themselves and their own (much more green, much more pleasant) lands and to yearn for a knighthood and the grey cold skies of the Mother Country.)
I devoured all 39 William books repeatedly. (I had, over the full school year in form three, one per week, stolen the entire collection from the St Mary’s College library. Regrettably, my father made me return them when he discovered the library cards stuck in dockets on the flyleaves two years later.) I was thrilled by Richmal Crompton’s writing – but I was also a little jealous: what was it about Trinidad that denied me stories about, say, Kenrick? Or Raj? Or Mikey?
We in Trinidad, I concluded, heartbrokenly, simply were not worthy of being written about. We could be subjects of the Queen but not of fiction.
I still dip into the William books I gave my own son occasionally and the writing remains impressive. Even post-Faulkner, -Proust -Joyce and -Hemingway, I cannot take out a word.
The William books are timeless.
But, this week, I was shocked to discover that William himself has aged dreadfully.
My storybook William was cheeky to impudence, committed to nothing but escapist fun – it was, indeed, his raison d’être – and he cared not one firetrucking whit about the grownup world and its foolish preoccupations. He cared about only himself and his own close friends, the Outlaws, who shared his contemptuous disregard for everyone who wasn’t one of them. The grownup world was William’s plaything, its sacraments to be broken, its highest functionaries to be ridiculed, for their amusement. He was sworn to fun, loyal to none, never did his homework, never combed his hair, his shirttails always out, his shoes scuffed. He couldn’t give a flying firetruck for pretensions of gentility and/or maturity.
William Brown was the hero of someone incapable of assessment. A secondary schoolboy who couldn’t spell at a kindergarten level and revelled in his own ignorance, he hated girls almost as much as he hated any form of authority. The world could burn, if he could cook a tin of baked beans on it.
And he’d do just about anything for a cream bun.
I thought William had died with Richmal Crompton in 1969.
But, this week, when he pretended that 148 of his backbenchers voting against his leadership was, somehow, a great victory for him, and that he could get now on with his work, it was only at that very moment that I realised that William Brown, grown up, had turned into Boris Johnson.
BC Pires rote this endline bit in the stile of William Brong eef he had be a Trini which he fadder and dem wooda proberly call him Billy