Books can be transporting. They can carry you into someone else’s head and allow you to see other lives, other ways of being. They can show you different countries, strange worlds, alien planets. But sometimes the stories that are closest to home are the ones that have the most lasting impact.
As a child I never had any doubt that books were a world that welcomed me in – that the door was open and I was free to explore - because not only did I see myself reflected in them, with Stig of the Dump I saw the landscape of my childhood.
Clive King grew up in Ash, Kent. I grew up in Gravesend – not as scenic and certainly not as rural as Ash, but a place where there was evidence of chalk workings everywhere you turned.
At weekends we’d sometimes go out to Trosley Country Park. If I shut my eyes I can see the path we used to take through the beech woods (full of bluebells in the spring), and then through the line of smaller, scrubbier hawthorns, finally emerging on to the sunlit Downs . The chalk hills rose almost like cliffs from a great patchwork of fields and villages that lay spread out at their feet.
I remember sitting on the slopes, the feel of the sparse grass, the thin, dry soil that could be scraped off with your fingernails to reach the chalk beneath. If you were lucky you’d feel the hard edge of a flint that could be rootled out with a little patience. Sometimes you’d find one that showed signs of someone having worked it – Stig, maybe, or one of the other cavemen. If we were feeling particularly energetic we’d walk down to the Coldrums – a long barrow that dates from around 4,000BCE and was, in my mind, one of the places cavemen could probably be found on Midsummer night.
|Coldrum Long Barrow|
One of my brothers was – and still is – passionately interested in all things prehistoric and his enthusiasm fuelled mine. As well as the Coldrums we visited all sorts of sites. Kent was rich with them.
At Kits Coty, my brother found an arrowhead in the ploughed field we’d crossed to get there. I knew if I turned round quickly enough, I’d see Stig. He was there somewhere, watching us. I made myself dizzy trying to spot him that day.
I returned to Stig of the Dump over and over again. When my children were old enough I read it to them and was utterly delighted to find that it’s as funny and exciting and mysterious and magical as it was when I first encountered it. But I’m also aware that it’s not as profoundly personal to my boys as it was to me.
I owe a huge debt to Stig of the Dump. It was the book that hooked me on books for life.
I think perhaps reading is like putting down roots: once you’ve anchored yourself in familiar soil, you can really start to flourish. Your tendrils can then grow in any direction and you can explore the unfamiliar territory of worlds beyond your own. Once you’ve found a book that makes you feel welcome and at home, the sky’s the limit.