When I was a teenager I often used to stay with an aunt in Oxford.  The word ‘aunt’ probably doesn’t conjure up the right picture.  Please imagine a shapely, well groomed 38 year old woman who smoked (her cigarette stubs were covered in red lipstick), drank copious amounts of gin and tonic and had numerous admirers/lovers.  More to the point (after that build up, sorry to disappoint you!), she was also an avid reader.

My aunt introduced me to, indeed made me read, the writings of Evelyn Waugh, John Steinbeck, Earnest Hemmingway, H G Wells, Somerset Maugham, etc, etc. This was quite an accomplishment because prior to her intervention I had only read comics (the Eagle was my favourite), Rupert Bear annuals and books by Arthur Ransom.  My aunt read a book a day (she had invented her own sort of speed reading) and then got me to read the same book (I took longer) before discussing it with me. In effect, my aunt was my very own reading group.

After my Road to Damascus experience, back in the Isle of Man, where I lived when I wasn’t visiting my aunt in Oxford, I used to visit a small bookshop choc a bloc with Penguin paperbacks.  This was in the days when they had covers with colour coding – orange for fiction, green for crime, blue for autobiographies, red for drama and so on. The bookshop was in an unlikely location, in the countryside between Port St Mary and Port Erin. I used to ride to the bookshop on my two-stroke motorbike and spend hours trying to decide what next to read.  Sadly, the shop has long since vanished and become an ordinary cottage with an overlarge, telltale sitting room window that says, rather wistfully, ‘Once upon a time I was a shop’.

As I write this I am temporarily back in Oxford and I have just returned from visiting a bookshop on Walton Street that triggered memories of the far off bookshop in the Isle of Man. This shop is also small and packed floor to ceiling with books of all sorts – not just Penguins – second hand and new.  It doubles up as a coffee/tea shop and has frequent talks, slide shows, meetings of reading groups and so on.  The owner explained that they had to lay on events because, even in Oxford, not enough people buy books.

My association with books runs deeper.  My mother owned and ran a bookshop in Wallingford in the 60’s and early 70’s.  The likes of Agatha Christie and Dick Francis used to come in occasionally to order books, or, more probably, to check that my mother was carrying adequate stocks of their latest.

So, once I had been rescued by my aunt, all though my life books have loomed large.  I can’t walk past a bookshop without a strong urge to pause and browse.  Blackwell’s, here in Oxford, gobbles up huge tracts of time!  When I started to write books myself (the first one was published in 1970) I used to call into bookshops to check that my books were there.  Sometimes they were, sometimes they weren’t (in the case of the latter, I used to assume they had been snapped up by keen readers and fresh stocks were on their way!).

And now we have the magic of eBooks and eReaders.  But, despite their obvious advantages, these are not the books I have come to know and love.  I have read books on my Kindle – especially when I’m on holiday and wish to travel light – but I always relapse and drift back to physical books that you can smell, bend, write on, turn the pages into paper planes, use as coasters for cups of coffee, leave on walls with a note saying ‘please read me’, or even set on fire.

Old fashioned of me I’m sure – but there you are.

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