Ian McMillan: Why bedtime stories are one of life’s great pleasures

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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Here’s Ian McMillan in a hotel room in Carlisle, blubbering into a big white hanky. Ian McMillan likes Carlisle but he’d rather be back home in Darfield; he’s gazing at a picture on his phone of his little granddaughter Isla, who’s just been born, and he won’t get to see her until tomorrow. The bar of the hotel is closed so he dries his tears and celebrates with a cup of strong tea from the kettle in the room, his shoulders shaking as he starts blubbering again. “We’re going to have some fun, Isla,” he sobs into the empty space.

Yes, I’m pleased to report that I’m a grandad again: Thomas has a little sister and one of the things I’m looking forward to most is reading to her like I read to Thomas and my three children, enjoying the excitement as she relishes the same story again and again, as she hoots with excitement at a pop-up book, as she laughs uncontrollably at the scrapes that the children in the books get up to.

We’re lucky that Darfield Library is still there, and I can’t wait to push her down there in her pushchair and get her her first ticket and borrow her first book with her then take it home and read it over and over again.

I’m looking forward to introducing her to the classic baby books like the Ahlbergs’ Each Peach Pear Plum, which I know off by heart anyway, and Peepo by the same writer and illustrator, which tells a profound story of family and love. I can’t wait to open her eyes and ears to Meg and Mog, and the wonderful Alfie books by Shirley Hughes, with the perfect illustrations and the poetic and moving language of the stories. I hope she’ll like Postman Pat and The Tiger Who Came to Tea and a book that Thomas used to borrow from the library again and again, called Carrot Soup.

Ah, the library. We’re lucky that Darfield Library is still there, and I can’t wait to push her down there in her pushchair and get her her first ticket and borrow her first book with her then take it home and read it over and over again. I can’t wait to stand with her in a bookshop and let her take her time choosing a book, picking one up and putting one down and then picking the first one up again.

This assumes, of course, that we’ll still have libraries and bookshops as she grows up. This assumes we’ll still have books, actual physical books that she can turn the pages of and discover the unfathomable excitement of a story unfolding before her eyes. I’m an optimist at heart and so I assume that we will; I assume that governments won’t want to be the ones that are remembered for closing down libraries, that people will realise that bookshops are still cathedrals for the mind, and that you can’t love a tablet or a Kindle in the same way you can love a book.

Come on, Isla; Grandad’s here with the books. I’ve got loads. Come and sit here; which book shall we start with? That one? That one at the top of the pile? Right, here we go: “Each, peach, pear, plum, I spy Tom Thumb…” Oh, I’m blubbering with happiness again. Where’s that big white hanky?