We stumbled on “The Old Children’s Bookshelf” on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, last April. The shop’s name is nicely ambiguous because the stock is antiquarian, to be sure, but I suppose it is a shop for old children as well. To my great thrill, I found all of the Enid Blyton “Adventure” series, with their original dust jackets and in pristine condition. I couldn’t resist buying The Mountain of Adventure, since I have long thought of this one particular title as being special in some way.
There was this Sunday… I was eleven. I read The Mountain of Adventure in my attic room on Clemow Avenue (the house that Rex Zero would come to live in, but that’s another story), barely being able to contain my excitement. I couldn’t have read it all in one sitting; I was a very slow reader; but I must have finished it that Sunday and in time for us kids to be taken to the Museum of Nature in the afternoon, where everything, especially the dinosaurs, seemed to glow in the light of the adventure still pumping through my bloodstream. I remember being breathless the whole day and finding the otherwise prosaic world around me to be suddenly an amazingly vibrant place.
Upon rereading the story now, it was, in and of itself… well, dreadful. I have to think that something else must have happened to me that long ago Sunday.
The thing we all know is, you can’t go back. The door is locked, the key lost. Or should I say that the green curtain covering the secret entrance to the mountain has grown to such a density of vegetation it is impossible to find your way through it to what lies inside. In every kind of critical, adultish way, The Mountain of Adventure is about as exciting as a sock. The casual racism, the insanely silly plotting which allows for the young adventurers to stop for a smashing good tea in the middle of exploring the hideout of a nefarious criminal, the coincidences of discovery and rescue… but why go on. Why spoil it. And who cares? Blyton wrote somewhere between 600 and 800 books, depending on who you believe, and none of them was meant for the likes of me; that is, the likes of me at my present age. But oh, she gave me great joy as a boy.
So what happened that Sunday in 1959? Why does it ring down the years to me as a turning point? At first, upon rereading, all I could think was all that food! All those hams and meat pies and freshly baked rolls and bowls full of raspberries and cake with cream icing on top – jugs full of cream! The edible content of Enid Blyton’s stories is a post-war, post-rationing dream come true. But it wasn’t just that or even my appetite for adventure of all kinds. It wasn’t the content at all. I think what must have happened to me that day was a growth spurt. A reading growth spurt. I think I must have crossed that extraordinary threshold where the words on the page became easier to decode –more readily the things they represented. I think I could see the food on the table, feel the hot breath of the wild dogs and the chill, low darkness of the cave in a way that I hadn’t been able to quite so vividly before.
Is that what our favorite childhood books are? Markers of our increasing ability to become partners in the contract a writer makes with his or her reader co-conspirators? Maybe it was something like that. Not, for me – not then — the burning desire to one day become a writer but the quick and deep satisfaction of being a stalwart reader able to carry my weight of camping gear and keep up on the journey into the Welsh mountains and the adventure that was waiting there. And maybe something else: with access to that story, the access to a place where I could begin to dream my own worlds into existence.