After three hot-water-bottle-warmed evenings of highly satisfying bedtime reading, I can confirm that, even in a world where Francis Spufford’s superb The Child that Books Built exists, we need this new memoir by Lucy Mangan, about her childhood of being a bookworm. It’s enchanting.
Where Spufford mined the depths of his childhood anguish in his urge to get to the bottom of his pre-adolescent craving for escape into ‘the Forest’, ‘the Island’, ‘the Town’ and ‘the Hole’ (as he named the four varieties of childhood fantasy), Mangan just grabs us by both hands and takes us for a whirlwind romp through her antisocial childhood in a happy family home in Catford — where, if anyone was looking for her, she was probably to be found exactly where she had been eight hours before. ‘I didn’t need parenting,’ she writes, ‘just feeding and rotating every few hours on the sofa to avoid pressure sores.’ Banned from reading books at the breakfast table, she just read and re-read the cornflakes packet.
I’ve heard it said of certain people that their energy would be enough to power the National Grid. The comic energy in this book is of that sort. It’s a force. Clearly, Mangan’s physical energy as a child was severely lacking. All she wanted to do was not talk to anyone and devour the complete series of whichever book she was currently reading, be it The Famous Five or Milly-Molly-Mandy. Going to school was a terrible shock: up till then, as she writes, ‘you’ve just been a soft, larval mass of love for books and reading. Now, through repeated exposure to Other People, you begin to acquire a carapace that will both protect you and alienate you from them.’
Perhaps some kind of energy transfer has happened, and she’s managed to harness those two decades of unspent physical energy and unleash it in comic energy form. The vigour of her prose forces us to take notice, to be fascinated by her parents and by her non-reading, fresh-air-loving younger sister, and to enter briefly but deeply into the world of every book she enthuses about — even A Pony for Jean, Another Pony for Jean, More Ponies for Jean, and Jill’s Gymkhana, books that Mangan dubs ‘bran-mash-based adventures’. ‘Being a bookworm does not mean being a good reader,’ she stresses. She had a total craze for Enid Blyton, blind to the literary flaws of an author who in one year churned out 37 books. Blyton, she writes, ‘was a great de-baffler and balm to the soul’ — and who cares if she only ever used a handful of adjectives, the main two being ‘queer!’ and ‘rather queer!’
Mangan informs us that her mother ‘will die if she ever has an unexpressed thought’. Her father ‘will die if he ever has an expressed thought’. A Jack Sprat of a marital situation, but it worked. Her father was the one who brought books home for Lucy on Friday evenings: the nourishment she craved, to supplement her mother’s Findus Crispy Pancakes served with ‘whaddyawantchipsormash’ and gravy.
Other people’s enthusiasm can become irritating if it goes on for too long, and this book contains torrents of the stuff; but Mangan does her enthusing so freshly and unpompously that it’s fine. She sweeps us up, for example, in her adoration of Dickon in The Secret Garden (‘a proto-sexgod’); so overwhelming was the effect of that novel on her that she actually started trying to do some gardening. ‘My mother was thrilled. I was doing something.’ But she soon gave up, as everything took far too long to grow.
As well as being a strong liker, Mangan is also a strong disliker. One of her pet dislikes was the convention of reading books aloud in class, each pupil reading in turn: ‘murdering books aloud’, she calls it, since no one in the history of classroom reading-aloud has ever fallen in love with the book in question. Quite the opposite. She also dislikes Babar (‘honestly, whose first thought when they pitch up in an unimagined, unexplored city is to buy a suit of clothes?’) and found it impossible to get through the Ladybird John Wesley. She doesn’t like introductions: ‘Why would I read about the book when the actual book was there waiting to be read a few pages on?’
A good question, and an example of how this book puts its finger on things many of us have thought but not said. So uninhibited does Mangan become with the unleashing of her thoughts that she can descend into disarmingly ‘modern’ usage, such as ‘FFS’ and ‘Sometimes you’ve just gotta take a break from it all, y’know?’
The question is, will her son Alexander (now aged six) become a bookworm like she was? The signs are not looking good. Mangan worries for her son’s generation, who live ‘in an age that measures attention spans in nanoseconds’.