I was in prison with this chap once. It was a pretty dreadful place in London, dank and inhospitable. If you had money you could buy a few favours which made life a little more bearable. I was only in the Fleet prison because he was there and I shared every moment with him. He was there because Charles Dickens put him there.
Yes, his name was Mr Samuel Pickwick, chairman of the Pickwick Club. What wonderful adventures I shared with him as he did his best to avoid a matrimonial misunderstanding.
I have shared other adventures too.
On a number of occasions I have sat in a rowing boat with Ratty and Mole as we sculled our way to Toad Hall. What joyful times those have been and still are. I have peered over the shoulders of the Famous Five as they spied on smugglers while trying to keep Timmy the dog from panting too loudly.
I slipped with Alice into Wonderland and could not wait to get out of it, never to return. I crouched among the bushes on Treasure Island, hardly daring to breathe lest Jim Hawkins and I should be spotted by Long John Silver and his band of cut-throats. I was there when Robinson Crusoe discovered footprints in the sand on an island which we both thought was uninhabited.
I have felt the wind and sea spray in my face as I stood aboard the deck of the Dawntreader exploring the islands beyond Narnia. Billy Bunter took me into his confidence as he tried to borrow a measly ten bob from some unsuspecting school mate in order to satisfy his craving for a visit to the Tuck Shop. The Secret Seven allowed me to tag along as they investigated one mystery after another.
I saw a performance of Mr Galliano’s Circus and played football alongside Roy of the Rovers.
When Roy Rogers went off in search of some mustangs that had been rustled, he took me with him and I was there when Buffalo Bill had peace talks with the Indians. I don’t admit this very often but I did shed a tear when I saw Black Beauty being mistreated.
My smile was restored though when I was with Mowgli among the animals in the Indian jungle.
I was invited to join the Knights of the Round Table and spent much time with King Arthur himself. It was as good as the adventures I had with Robin Hood and his Merrie Men. We put that Sheriff of Nottingham in his place but it was touch and go a few times. It was a good job Little John was around.
Perhaps some of my most exciting adventures alongside Gandalf. You never quite knew what to expect. One minute he was serenely blowing smoke rings or having fun creating the most amazing firework displays and the next minute you were going into battle with Orcs and worse. It’s no wonder Bilbo retired when he did.
Not all of these adventures have been exciting or even happy. I remember when Little Nell died, it was very upsetting and my heart felt very heavy when I walked with Sydney Carton up the steps to the guillotine. He was a braver man than. I did get annoyed when Tom Brown was being bullied by Flashman and wanted to get into the boxing ring with him myself.
My hair stood on end when I first heard the baying of the Hound of the Baskervilles. A cold chill ran down my spine and I could not wait to get back to the safety of Baker Street, making sure that Professor Moriarty had not devised some fiendish trap to ensnare Holmes, Watson and myself on the way. I was a little unnerved as well when people started getting bumped-off at a get-together organised by a Mr U.N.Owen. I had been invited along and I really wish that perhaps Hercule Poirot could have been with me.
Probably one of my most exhausting trips was when I accompanied Phileas Fogg on a trip around the world. It took us just 80 days. A lot of people said we would never do it in the time but Phileas was made of stern stuff and proved them all wrong. Even that was not as tiring as the trek with Frodo and the others to return The Ring but that was such a long endurance test that it would take more time and space than we have available here in which to relate it.
Captain Nemo was a bit of an oddball as we journeyed Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea but he got us out of a tight corner when we encountered a giant squid so perhaps he wasn’t all bad. Flying above the ocean with Biggles was a lot more fun. You always felt safe with Biggles even if the plane packed up just as you were flying over a swamp infested with alligators.
Worzel Gummidge used to be an old mate although I never did understand how he put up with the treatment he received from Aunt Sally. Perhaps though, the best pals were Ratty and Mole. Whether on that rowing boat or just sitting around in front of a log fire, they were such good company. I introduced them to my two children and as a family we have often spent time with them, enjoying the ripple of the river, the over-enthusiasm of Otter and the safety of Badger’s House among the sinister folk of the Wild Wood.
All of these adventures and experiences plus many others have been possible because some wonderful people took the trouble to create worlds into which I could step simply by opening the door which looks remarkably like the front cover of a book.
There have been some wonderful films and television programmes made during the last hundred years or more but there will never be anything quite like a book. A book gives you a universe as wide as your imagination and yet as narrow as the eye of your brain. Crowds chatter in a mediaeval market square, a dog howls during a cold Victorian night, the sea gently laps on the sandy beach of a desert island, the fizz of cold lemonade promises to quench your thirst as the bike ride with your fictional friends is halted for a moment.
Everyone hears these sounds differently but enjoys them the same. That is the joy of reading. The sea is not just clear and blue. It is as clear and as blue as you want it to be. When Moby Dick rears from the foam he can be frightening or terrifying depending upon what you can
manage. The picnic always has enough food for your liking. Black Beauty is your horse and always will be.
The most frightening, the most colourful, the most amazing things you see on a screen will never match the spectacle of your mind. Authors sketch the pictures but your mind will do the colouring. I was concerned a while ago when I heard someone say that it was a waste of time buying books for their grandchildren because their attention span is so limited and they prefer looking at screens. I commiserated. It was a bit like saying that it is no good giving children proper food because they prefer to nibble at the wrappings.
If children are turning away from real books it is probably because we, as adults, are not doing enough to steer them away from relying totally on looking at someone else’s imagination on the screen. We need to share with them the reading experience and help them bring those words on the page into vivid life. They will later thank you for it for the rest of their lives. The little boat is waiting. All we have to do is step into it with Ratty and Mole and undo the mooring rope.
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