I’m a book pusher. No bones about it. I am the kind of person who can be standing in a bookshop and if you are umming and ahhing about which book to buy I will, unashamedly and without introduction, tell you which one to buy or offer suggestions about the two choices already in your hand and then pick up another volume and offer that. Like a book overdose. That is who I am. There is only one drug rightly called ‘Ecstasy’ for me and that, my dears, is Book.
Books are addictive. I cannot give them up. I have to admit I’ve not actually had any other drugs, except alcohol and so I’m not really an expert on the more chemically based narcotic side of this argument. I have been too busy reading and then writing books so, when it comes to the papery chaptery side of the discussion I am the Empress. I get a rush from a book. I like to get lost in the pages, to roll around in the words, to let the images flicker and flash inside my head. Sherlock Holmes and Jonathan Strange loom out of the darkness, Anne Elliot follows behind looking anxious.
It started small. Literally, with the Beatrix Potter books and their exquisite beauty and hint of darkness. The sandy-whiskered gentleman of Jemima Puddleduck was the first storybook villain that I encountered and he was intriguing. Jemima is stupid. Kep is clever. Nature might wear a tweed jacket in a grove of foxgloves but it is red in tooth and claw here. There is blood and guts in Puddleduck along with poke bonnets.
At school there was the 1970s reading scheme which included the epic that was ‘Old Dog Tom’ a tale I remember nothing about now except that it was a book I needed to read, it was another step, a better story, more words. More. More. Give me more words. Longer words. Let me have some syllables. A paragraph. Give them to me.
The books grew thicker and filled with magic and trees, tapped from the typewriter of Ms Enid Blyton. Who doesn’t believe in fairies when they have spent a third of their childhood in the branches of the Magic Faraway Tree? There IS magic. It’s printed onto this page and this, and all of these.
I am not a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory girl, I am a Danny the Champion of the World supporter. My words and my imagination began to outstrip my physical and emotional age. I reached into the Grown Up Word with To Kill a Mockingbird. My mum was also a book pusher in that she would leave tempting tomes lying about open, a page here, a chapter glimpsed there and I was hooked. I stepped up to the much harder drugs of Edna O’Brien.
With book pushing in mind we often trekked into the centre of Manchester where my parents indulged their own book habit by taking me to Willshaw’s on John Dalton Street. Long before Waterstone’s existed this was my teenaged opium den of literature. Room after room it seemed to me, shelf after shelf striped with book after book. Up a little staircase here to find Louise Erdrich and The Beet Queen, down a little staircase there to encounter Carson McCullers and The Ballad of the Sad Café and in those high and far off times O best Beloved, the books were caught in the net book agreement and my pocket money ran to three or four books at a time, more at Christmas and birthdays.
I travelled through Space with Kurt Vonnegut and Time with Charles Dickens. I visited the Jazz Age with Fitzgerald and Loos. The words whispered to me, come here, come over here, this one, pick me, I will change your mind. I will bend your life.
I wanted to be part of that and so I began to collect the words in my head and rearrange them into stories. I began with imitation, telling stories that drew my imagination but I had no ownership of, tales of the Southern Gothic, sweaty with hanging moss until one afternoon in Willshaw’s, Alan Sillitoe whispered The Ragman’s Daughter and I realised where the stories were, my true stories, they were behind me all the time. Waiting.
In the library system here in Wiltshire, in which I am a small and greasy cog, the corporate term for our Borrowers is not actually Borrowers, it is in fact, wait for this, ‘library users’. Yes. Users. Like drug users. Like the lady who said “This Val McDermid is terrible. Really gory and frightening. It gave me nightmares…Have you got any more?” and because I’m a Pusher I led her to the shelf with the white writing, the red writing, the black writing and let her choose her very own poison. Give me more. I want more.We are all in it for the rush of words, the hot spoon of story making our imaginations shimmer. If you approach the counter and I am there, know this, you WILL leave with a book. It might not be the book you came in for. It is the book you were meant to leave with.