The books we are exposed to when very young have a huge influence on us, yet before too long, we are deemed by adults to have 'grown out of them' and they are disposed of before we are old enough to have a say in their fate.
My grandmother, Hilda Hill, gave birth to 11 children between the wars and by the 1960s she had an extensive toy cupboard for the amusement of her numerous grandchildren. My favourites were the red velvet dress in the dressing up box and the books.
There were three books I loved more than any others, all by Roberta Leigh, and they were 'The Adventures of Twizzle', 'Sara and Hoppity Get Lost', and 'Sara and Hoppity Find A Cat'. I recently came across an affordable copy of 'Sara and Hoppity Find A Cat' on eBay, and to my glee I won the auction.
I loved the stories of naughty Sara and her goblin toy, Hoppity, who was always getting her into trouble with his glowing green eyes and his rallying cry of 'Tiddley-tum! Tiddley-tee!', but it's the illustrations that hotwire my past. My favourite was this one, of the cat Sara finds and names Toffee (although she turns out to be called Ginger), studying the goldfish in the garden pond:
It's only now I realise I've been unconsciously copying Sara's hairstyle for the best part of half a century:
Looking back, I think I loved Sara because I wanted to be her. Quite apart from having a goblin toy on whom she could always pin the blame for her misdemeanours, her parents ran a hospital for sick toys, for goodness sake. And no matter how much trouble she got into, her parents always - indisputably - loved her. Even when she has fed the cat all her rice pudding and shut her in the potting shed where she gives birth to kittens in the middle of the night, Sara's smiling daddy still carries her back upstairs to bed. That would never have happened in our house, even if I'd been gooder than good. Which I mostly was.
I've taken 44 boxes of books to the Amnesty Bookshop over the last nine months on account of various changes to my living circumstances. But it seems to me that I can still make room for a few blasts from the past - in fact, as a writer, I'm obliged to, surely? So I shall be looking out for some more Roberta Leigh books, and - if I can find it- the annual of western stories, in comic strip form, which I was looking at when I realised that I could read all by myself - a seminal moment.
And the book of bedtime stories, the cover illustration of which gave me my first glimpse of infinity: two children, sitting together in a boat that is sailing among the stars, reading a copy of the same book, with two children on the cover, sitting together in a boat that is sailing among the stars, reading a copy of the same book, with two children on the cover, sitting together in a boat that is sailing among the stars ...