My nan would have been ninety-four today, and each year we mark her birthday by baking a batch of Rock Cakes, using the closely guarded secret recipe (don't even ask!) she developed and passed on to us.
At this point some of you may be thinking—“Hang on a minute! I thought this blog was about books and writing and stuff? Why’s this bloke babbling on about buns?”
Let me explain …
Apart from her legendary baking skills, my Nan was also a great reader. (She is the only person I have ever met who managed to read the entire works of Charles Dickens—twice!) Her love of books started when she caught whooping cough as a child and had to spend long periods of time in hospital. Her dad was a big reader and, worried that his daughter might be missing out, took books in for her. When she got home, my nan still wasn’t strong enough to play outside, but found plenty of adventure and excitement in the stories she'd discovered.
Her first job, aged 16, was as a seamstress with a small firm in Birmingham in the 1930s. Keen that her workforce of young, sometimes poorly-educated, girls should find further enrichment, the owner started a tradition of reading aloud during the lunch break. My nan told me how they worked their way through the Old and New Testament of the Bible, before moving onto Dickens and Shakespeare—a bit different to Radio One blasting away in the staff canteen!
As I little kid, I remember Nan as always having a book on the go. It made me think that there might be something in this reading business—so I copied her, and started carrying A Bear Called Paddington around with me! I’ll admit that to begin with I didn’t open it that often, but after a while I gave it a go—and of course, I was hooked.
As I got older, I began recommending what I was reading to her. I’m not sure how much she actually enjoyed The Three Investigators series, but she read them, and we talked about how great they were. In turn, she lent me The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down (the first book to make me cry, sitting up in bed at 2am, sobbing by torchlight!) But the greatest passion we shared was Robert Westall. We were on a mission to collect and read his entire works. Sadly, my Nan died before we could complete the quest, but we did a pretty good job. I am now keeper of the collection—still guarded by the pig bookends she used to keep them in place.
Readers need each other—just as much as writers need readers, and readers need writers! I suspect that human beings have an innate need to share the things we like. (Have a quick look at Facebook or Twitter if you don't believe me.) We see a fantastic film, hear a great record or read a brilliant book, but it’s as though the process isn’t complete until we can tell somebody about it—and stories are meant for sharing.
So, to all the great readers I have known and talked books with—but especially my nan—Happy Rock Cake Day! And if there is one special person who first introduced you to this wonderful world of books, why not give them a call—find out what they're reading, or meet up and share stories over a brew and a rock cake! You know it makes sense.