My entire childhood, I dreamed of writing a book. At the age of three I could read words out of the newspaper to my mother. It’s one of my first memories, sitting on the kitchen step reading out the ones I knew while she stirred something on the stove, my baby brother on her hip. I would staple pages of folded craft paper and write little stories on the pages and illustrate the blanks between.
The pages of my mother’s creamy writing paper, textured under my hand, were folded and tied with pieces of coloured yarn from her knitting basket. Long stories were written out on all the pages of the Gordon Pharmacy notepads my grandmother used to get from the chemist. The butcher would let us have long rolls of shiny butcher paper to take home - my brother drew pictures, I wrote my stories on to long scrolls, rolled them up and tied them with ribbons. I wrote poems and diaries and essays and novels and children’s books. And I read.
Books were like prayers in our house. My family isn’t religious at all, but a book, a story, is a reverence. When you were reading, you were always doing something useful, peaceful. You were not to be disturbed. Both my parents were huge readers, my dad an aspiring novelist, and we had a library - something none of my friends’ houses contained. A place just for reading. You could go into the library and pull down a book and sit on a pile of cushions and disappear for a few hours into your own world.
I was never censored or told a book was too old for me. I read Hemingway and Jean Auel, Steinbeck and Joan Collins, Shakespeare and Jane Austen and Roald Dahl. I was taught at a very young age that to read a book was a delight, an importance, and a privilege. And to write one? A GOOD one? Well, that was the most important and amazing work of all.
Every now and then on a weekend, my dad would declare it was “Reading Sunday”. That meant we would all stay in our PJs, and read books all day without having to do anything else. Dad didn’t have to mow the lawn, Mum didn’t do any laundry and we didn’t have to do homework. We would stay home and not have to be driven to friends' places, no one came over - it was just our cosy four. Mum would make tomato soup and buttery toast for lunch and if it was winter we would have a fire in the fireplace, and we would all just READ. For me it was absolute heaven - for my active and outside oriented brother, not so much.
Everywhere I went as a child I took a book. There was always a book in the back of the car, in my satchel, in my hand. As a teenager I read on the train to school, while I was walking between classes, and in bed at night with a torch, long after lights out. Books were my treat to myself, I spent my pocket money on them and took stolen time from study and sleep to read them. Books were my safe place - somewhere to go when I was sad or uncertain, alone or unhappy. To this day you will never find me without one.
If you see me at a quilt show, odds are there is a novel in my bag beside me or over my shoulder, just in case I’m sitting alone and I have five quiet minutes. Before we all disappeared into our Covid nests, I read in cafes, on the beach, in the car, on planes, sitting cross-legged on the grass or stretched out on the beach. A book is at the same time something to do, somewhere to go, and a shield. You’re never alone - you’re reading a book.
I was incredibly lucky that I had people that were only too willing to facilitate all this reading. Dad was and is a voracious reader, as was my mother. There was a wonderful bookshop near our home and every few weeks I was allowed a new book or two. Mum would go to do the grocery shopping and leave me at the shop with the lovely owner, Carol. Carol knew what I liked from a very young age and would put things under the counter for me when we came in. She always asked what I was reading at home and, through her, I read books I would never have found on my own.
The librarians at our local library and my school library were only too happy to push to a child who loved to read, and there was always a stack of things put by that they thought I might like. I sometimes read four or five books a week if I could sneak the time.
When I was 15, dad came home with several boxes full of pages, bound together with those plastic spirals they put in for you at copy shops. There were six or eight big thick books, each about two inches high, with the pages only printed on one side. A friend of his at work had written a book. The friend knew I was a reader with an appetite, and he wondered if I might read his book and tell me what I thought, as I was right in his target audience. I was the first person to read it who wasn’t his family or his editor. I loved it so much, I read it twice. It was my first experience with a raw manuscript. It was like holding the Shroud of Turin. I gave some feedback, and he said I could keep the manuscript as there were other copies. When the book was published, he sent me a signed copy with a message. That book was The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay.
After he wrote every book for years afterwards, a copy would arrive with a note on the doorstep of wherever I lived. For a while we worked in the same advertising agency, and he would poke his head around the door and deliver one by hand. And he would deliver other books, too.
In the years we both worked at George Patterson, his tiny white head would peer around the doorframe or over my cubicle wall, and say, “Pop along to my office darling, I brought a little something to read”. He would have been to Dymocks up the road and bought me the entire collection of Peter Carey, or Peter Corris, or whatever Australian author he had deemed incredibly important for me to read this time. Stacks and stacks of books, and always delivered with the most impassioned diatribe about the WORDS in these books, the sovereign importance of their existence, the talent of the writers and their place in Australian life and the world. "And did I read the last lot yet? Hurry darling, hurry, time is wasting and there are always, always more books to read".