When I was nearly five, and my brother one, my family moved to Nigeria and some years later to Ghana.
My parents were missionaries with a group called Wycliffe Bible Translators. Their project was to work with a team of Ghanaians to translate the Bible into one of the many local languages. The ethos is that everyone should be able to read it for themselves and make their own decision about the man who claimed to be God. The project didn’t stop there, though. In those days many adults couldn’t read, so another project needed to be set up, with night classes and primers. When the blazing sun went down we ate on the veranda to cool off and talked words, arguing over etymology and then settling it with the dictionary. The Bible and the dictionary – the Word of God and the Word of Oxford.
The move to Ghana had taken us to a village with no electricity or running water – unless you count the river. We had a car, but most of the locals relied for transport on bicycles or the goods lorries and minibuses that bumped in and out of the potholes. From one of the towns in the region we picked up luxuries like tinned food; from another, our post.
The post! In those days, post was exciting. During a visit to the UK my mother, an unapologetic novel reader herself, bought up quality children’s books and wrapped them up into parcels. A friend back in the UK sent them at monthly intervals. We received them irregularly, the tattered shreds of brown paper bound together with string, but it was so exciting to unwrap them! Historical novels by Rosemary Sutcliffe, adventure stories by Ian Serrallier, retellings of legends by the aptly named Roger Lancelyn Green.
There was no TV, of course, and I hadn’t even heard of video games. We did have batteries, recharged through a little solar panel system rigged up by my father, and you could listen to most of a cassette before the batteries ran out and the singer’s words slowed and slurred. They were all chosen by my parents, so there were quite a few musicals, which suited my story-loving side.
Of course, my brother and I did have education to be getting on with. The local school at the time was very poorly funded so we were home-schooled. What this meant in practice was that my mother bought text books for all our subjects, and she set us to working through the chapters, supplementing them at times with tasks she devised herself. It was the quintessential seventies education. I wrote stories to consolidate my knowledge of the Saxon invasion and the role of the red blood cell, and built models out of cardboard, feathers and pebbles to demonstrate my understanding of Stone Age architecture and the bower bird’s mating ritual. My brother, four years younger than me, had a different curriculum, and he was less cunning than me, too. I would daydream with my eyes on the page but he would let his gaze wander to the roof beams, and be told off. My mother regularly went off to keep up with household chores and we threw rubbers at each other until the clack of her Scholls on the concrete told us she was coming back, and we put our heads down quickly.
Without assemblies or PE, we could fit the curriculum into the mornings. The afternoons were ours. The local girls were expected to stay at home and help their mothers, so I relied on my brother for company. When we weren’t squabbling we invented stories with Playmobil, cared for wild baby hares that local farmers sold to us (they all died sooner or later) and read. When we were older, we roamed further afield in the tough, dry grass, our flip flops kicking up the red dust of the snaking footpaths. The air would vibrate with the shrill of cicadas and the haze of the heat, and the waxy leaves of the little writhing trees rattled in the warm breeze. We weren’t allowed to swim in the nearby river because of the risk of river blindness, but we could walk barefoot in the fresh green grass that grew on the banks. A cool breeze passed over the sparkling water as we jumped on the flat stones that sat like islands in the flow. A dam crossed the river some distance from the bridge and you could cross it there, to explore the caves made by interlocking tree branches over dips in the river bank. If you got to the top of the levee you could see about a mile – a great distance in such a flat landscape. On the horizon lay the rice fields, an unreal green.
Colour! It was like a cold drink in the desert. The local people brightened up their landscape with African prints – yards of cotton imported, in fact, from China. I brightened up mine with pictures – images and words. We had the World encyclopaedia, quite Americo-centric, but much more accessible to children than the Britannica, and I squatted on the cool concrete floor to pour over the colour photos of ballets, plays, castles and illuminated manuscripts. And there were Ladybird books. Who was the genius who first designed them? One page of simple, dramatic text, one page of bright, exciting action. Yes, the history was so biased it was totally unreliable, but it lit the flame of my love for the past.
Out of the isolation, the freedom and the quantities of books grew a passion for writing stories. I penned them in blue-covered exercise books printed for schools – fantasy when I was younger, a further chronicle of Narnia and the life story of a unicorn, historical “novels” as I grew a little older.
They are awful. Really, they are. They are for the most part poor imitations of what I read. I never plotted, I just wrote. At some point I was so embarrassed by them that I destroyed a few. I wish I hadn’t. They will never be published like the juvenalia of Jane Austen or the Brontes, but they were part of my history, part of my journey.