Poems to grow by
My son often says that he puts his love of reading down to my early encouragement. But, given the way his book collection has spread from his flat in Bristol to his room at home, his propensity to lose hours in bookshops, and status as an only child, I think that he would always have found books out for himself. It’s true that when he was little our favourite thing was to sit in bed in the mornings with our first cup of tea, reading poems from the blue hardcover book with swirly gold lettering running down its spine.
The Oxford Treasury of Children’s Poems introduced us to Harum Scarum, (I am scarum/I tell white lies/given half a chance/I would hurt flies), and Don’t Care (Don’t Care was made to care/Don’t Care was hung/Don’t care was put in a pot/And boiled till he was done) as well as to The Owl and the Pussycat, The Spider and the Fly and to our always favourite, James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree, (You must never go down to the end of the town/without consulting me). Here was a world where language and rules could be played with, risks ventured, boundaries-pushed.
It was from here that he learned James Reeves’s Giant Thunder to recite at his village school’s annual competition. He overcame his slight, early childhood stutter to bellow, “Hag wife, hag wife, bring me my bones!” at the parents perched on tiny chairs in the Victorian school room, returning home flush-faced with excitement, clutching the silver plate tray with which his name was to be, eventually, inscribed.
When we visited my mum in her cob-walled cottage down a Devon lane, we always searched out the Ladybird books of Nursery Rhymes on her bookshelves. Their pages were filled with warm-coloured illustrations of cats in wells and sacks, farmer’s wives brandishing knives and crosspatch spinsters keeping neighbours at the door as they stitched and span, guarding sinister-looking kettles.
But I in turn was brought up on books and stories and poems. It’s funny how we are more genetically disposed towards one family member or another, inheriting more of their characteristics and interests. My maternal grandmother loved to write and read and perform, to host and to produce and arrange. And she loved her garden. And people. Even now, twenty years after her death, I find myself longing to take one last turn around her garden, arm in arm with her in the dimming light to see how it is doing.
When we stayed with her as children, which was as often as we could, we would climb into her bed in the mornings while Grandpa shuffled and clinked downstairs with the tea tray. We clamoured to be told the stories she had told us a thousand times before, about the tricks she and her siblings had played on their indulgent father with his cartoon moustache, putting salt in his tea instead of sugar, tying a thread to cousin Minny Pie’s pillow to twitch and make her believe a ghost had come calling in the night; about Jumbo the enormous African elephant, orphaned by poachers, bought by a zoo and then sold to the circus, from where he ran away before being hit and killed by a train when he ran onto the tracks.
She encouraged me to send the stories I’d written on reams of computer paper on my bedroom floor off to Blue Peter, to take down and read Treasure Island and Heidi and Gulliver’s Travels from her bookshelves and to learn poems by heart. She would turn to me after watching a newsreader read the news to say, you could do that!, though I never did. She took me to her WI meeting in a village hall as a small girl, to stand on the stage and tremulously deliver a poem, though I can’t remember which. I do remember that it felt scary and exciting to be up on that stage and thinking that this might be something for me.
Afterwards Grandma bought me a book of poems, Come Follow Me, Poems for the young. I pulled it down from the shelf yesterday, marvelling at its soft focus, its evocation of another age, with its sections called things like, Fantasy and Fairyland, National and Love of Country Prayers, Lullabies and Cradle Songs and The Seasons, Flowers and Trees. I read the inscription on the fly leaf in her oh-so-familiar hand, feeling her close by.
In times of struggle, chaos or upset we tend to look back with rose-tinted glasses to the places and times when we think we felt happier. So I make no apology for revelling in the comfort-food of familiar stories and poems at this point in our collective history. Poetry and stories have an important role to play in reflecting experience, galvanising change and responding to definitive moments. But there is merit too to be found in what Caitlin Moran calls the ‘low stakes’ stories, “The low stakes stories are where the beauty is,” she told John Wilson on a recent episode of This Cultural Life.
And I’m not even going to begin to argue with that.
Listen to me read ‘Poems to grow by’
I’d love to hear about the poems and stories that connect you to people and places. Why not tell me about them in the comments section?