Ian McMillan: Life’s not kid’s stuff

I was thinking the other day about the kinds of books I read when I was a lad, and it struck me, not for the first time, that all the shelves and shelves worth of hardback and paperback volumes I devoured were about the adventures of kids who weren’t much like me at all.

I was fairly fickle in my attachment to my heroes, to be honest. Some months I was a Billy Bunter fan, some days I liked Just William and his mates The Outlaws; sometimes the Famous Five took my fancy and every now and then I’d go on what doctors would probably call a Biggles Binge.

The one thing that all these characters had in common was, to put it frankly, that you wouldn’t have seen many of them round Wombwell Market on a Friday; they were all posh. Billy Bunter and his mates went to a minor but expensive public school that had masters not teachers; Biggles had the effortless confidence of those who are born into money; William Brown had servants and the Famous Five had an Uncle Quentin who owned an island. I just had an Uncle Charlie who part-owned a Ford Anglia with his son Little Charlie and a mam who always said, when I asked her for something, ‘What did your last servant die of?’

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Reading about this lot was really like reading fantasy fiction about people who lived on a very different planet to me, with its own rituals and customs and its own methods of education that seemed so much different to the ones I enjoyed at Low Valley Juniors. They all seemed to do (and Biggles had memories of) something called Prep. After Prep they had Tuck and after Tuck they had Lights out, either in their own house or in nasty-sounding things called Dorms. I thought that Richmal Crompton, who wrote the Just William Books, was a man, and somebody told me that Enid Blyton was the nom-de-plume of a bloke from Deepcar.

And yet I still absolutely loved reading about these young people, and looking back now I can see why: the adventures were fast paced and the funny stories, like the Just William ones, were hilarious. My heart was in my mouth when Biggles revved his plane up to the max to try and clear the trees and I worried whether Billy Bunter’s postal order would arrive on time.

I guess the reason I got so involved was that they were all kids like me; they were more or less my age and they did exciting things and they got into scrapes and they solved crimes and they did brave things. I wasn’t that brave; I’d cross a road if a dog barked and if somebody spoke harshly to me I’d turn away so they couldn’t see me blubbing.

One day, I knew, I’d be as brave as Biggles and as resourceful and clever as Julian from the Famous Five. And I’m still waiting. One day.

Time to go and do my prep.

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