16/09/2021

Thin on books

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Thin on books – and comics

So, it was school lessons and Saturday morning pictures that took us out of our comfort zone, but comics helped too. Not very regularly I got the Eagle comic with Dan Dare as the front-page feature. It was bigger than the Beano or Dandy with features that made it seem a little more serious than the others. My cousins got a regular series of comics and as we spent a lot of time parked with our aunt I got to see them while visiting, including girl’s comics such as Bunty!

Eagle comic

There was a phase when war comics were my thing. These were educational too. For example, they taught me German – Achtung Englander, Feuer, Gott in Himmel, Hände hoch, Donner und Blitzen, plus of course quality English dialogue such as Eat lead, Fritz. See Hannover Fair later when my German was further expanded.

1950s war comics

Ours was not a house of books. I recall a small bookcase (made in woodwork lessons on the way to one of my ‘O-levels’). Throughout my childhood it contained a copy of Doctor at Sea and a small set of those book-club editions with simulated gilt leather covers, flimsy pages and evere ink show-through from the other side of each folio.

The edition of Doctor at Sea that we had at home – our one true book in the house

There were however two exotic collections acquired by my grandfather as a part-work. One was the Harmsworth Encyclopaedia, dated I believe from 1908. It had been bought in sixty or more paper-bound issues. My grandfather had further invested in a set of twelve leather covers for the issues but he obviously baulked at the cost of actually getting them properly bound. They remained gathered in their separate bound pieces which made referencing a little more haphazard when undisciplined in putting them away. There was something rather more earnest and other-worldly in the definitions and accounts that helped me to adopt a style in my schoolwork that was distinct from my schoolmates.

Binder for part-work of Harmsworth Encyclopaedia

The other collection was also a part-work and was both exotica and erotica. My grandfather had acquired Dante’s Divine Comedy, though the family called it by the name of its first part, Dante’s Inferno. These large partwork issues were festooned with detailed illustrations of scenes from his nightmarish visions; most figures were nude as they were thrown into the Inferno, subjected to torture in Purgatory or achieved bliss in Paradise. An impressionable young lad found the nudity of those images was its greatest appeal. I can’t say I ever tried to read the work itself.

Illustration from Dante’s Inferno

On balance I see that the local cinema club was much more wholesome. Although it did have dangers. At around ten-years-old, coming home from the cinema one morning I unwisely scampered across the road with friends and a motorcyclist coming around the sweeping bend had to hit one of us and chose me. He was breaking as he hit my leg and I can still remember the shock – and the tyre print across my calf. There were no cuts, no break, just this black rubber tread pattern that helped to conceal much of the bruising.

I also recall one of my earliest research projects. In 1961 and aged thirteen I kept a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings of the ‘Profumo affair’. There was sex with Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies, there was a Russian spy and a political scandal. It served as one of the early stages of the Sixties overthrow of the establishment. Later, my mum found it, declared it disgusting and binned it.

Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler

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