Ian McMillan: Going ape on road

Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan

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I was thinking about memorable reading experiences the other day. There was the time I read the poems of Ted Hughes in a hotel bedroom in Mexico City, gazing out every so often at a school in a high-rise building opposite that actually had its playground on the roof; there was the time I dropped my copy of John Cheever’s Collected Stories in a puddle and still tried to read the soggy tales on the bus with the ink seeming to drip all over my fingers and, most memorably, there was the time when I was about ten and I read three Tarzan books on a family trip to Scotland.

Like lots of children, I had what my mother called ‘crazes’ when it came to reading. I’d had my comics craze, my Biggles craze, my Billy Bunter craze and I was just beginning my Tarzan craze. I’d seen a Tarzan film on the TV and noticed that at the end the credits said that it was ‘based on the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs’. I was excited at the possibilities of finding a new author’s work to devour, and I was also excited by the fact he was called Rice. Well, Edgar Rice, but Rice! What a great name!

The car journey began slowly and continued slowly because my dad thought that if he got out of third gear the car might blow up.

I tried to pretend he was from Yorkshire and I imagined his mam calling him in from the step when his tea was ready, using that particular two-note structure beloved of the Yorkshire mam: ‘Ri-iice!’ Of course years later I discovered that Rice was part of his surname, not his first name, and then it lost part of its lustre.

I went to a bookshop on a trip to Sheffield and spent a jingling pocket of accumulated pocket money on the Tarzan books: Tarzan of the Apes, The Return of Tarzan and The Beasts of Tarzan. I pointed out the name Rice to the assistant, but he didn’t laugh. I took the books home and piled them on a shelf next to my bed. I practised a Tarzan yodel sotto voce like the mating call of a tiny bird.

The car journey began slowly and continued slowly because my dad thought that if he got out of third gear the car might blow up. My brother sat next to me, gazing at the horizon in an attempt to lessen his travel sickness. He looked at me briefly: ‘Is he really called Rice?’ he asked, but I didn’t reply. I was deeply into the opening pages of the first book and I was lost in the jungle. As the car trundled up the A1 and across the top of the country and past the Carter Bar and through the borders I read and read. I read when we stopped for the toilet at Scotch Corner and I read when we had a picnic near Moffat. I was vaguely aware of the world passing by but I was more aware of Tarzan’s world. It was a magical, magical day.

I’ve not read any Tarzan books for years and I don’t know if I’d like them now but I thank old Rice for that day when he gripped my imagination all the way across two countries. Everybody: Tarzan yodel now!

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