When I was a girl, courtesy of my mother’s own girlhood literary leanings, I read and re-read and read again, until the pages were torn and the covers fell off, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. (The Twins of St Clares genuinely didn’t have a cover for the decade my sister and I turned to it, often, as a sort of comfort read. Like comfort food, but better.) My sister, far horsier than I was, got deep into my Mum’s Jill books collection and some trickled on to me. She also let me read her James Herriot tomes when she wasn’t reading them, and I was always quite impressed by the wide-reaching knowledge on all things animal-related that she accrued from Herriot’s writing. Really, save for a few books here and there, like The Seven Little Australians or anything by Morris Gleitzman, and the phase of believing there no life more worthy of emulation than Jessica Wakefield’s, my literary upbringing was decidedly British. (I suspect that is why words like ‘shall’ pepper my sentences, and I am quite comfortable with the ‘owts and nowts’ of the Yorkshire accent.)
My diet of Dahl, Blyton, and Herriot paved the way for a teendom of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole (his first volume also read until cover-less) and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, and put me squarely on the receiving end of the boom of late 90s, early naughties British chick-lit, some good, some truly terrible. It is also possibly why, still, my favourite authors are English and my favourite TV shows of all time are English.
There were a few parallels between my childhood and those of the characters I read about; I went to an all girls school, which had a boarding population and a borderline obsession with sport, including hockey. I grew up with the sort of free rein on a large property that allowed the Famous Five to get into their scrapes. Although I do recall being shocked their mother/aunt allowed them to take a caravan off to some village for the entire summer, where they lived off sandwiches and cake that Anne made. That was another level of freedom entirely, and they were lucky to survive the carnival folk and their weirdly clever animals.
There were, of course, more differences than parallels. I was an Aussie in the other hemisphere, growing up in the 90s, as opposed to post-war England. In my books, the squirrels ate acorns and snow fell at Christmas. Their school terms were all around the wrong way, and fields seemed scattered with moles and hedgehogs and berries. Winters were cold and bleak and there seemed to be a tremendous fixation on spring. There were no goannas on the look out for your recess, no snake to keep an eye out for in the hot summer grass, no burning your arse on the slippery dip in January. No backyard cricket using the otto bins as stumps, no Christmas Day spent in the pool with your cousins, or watching Mum heroically time it so the ham and turkey, piping hot in the midst of summer, were ready at the same time, and Nana had enough room at the bench to make any last minute brandy cream.
The other day, I found my childhood copy of My Nut I Think! by Enid Blyton. I gave it to die Lüdde to read, because she had recently developed something of an obsession with acorns found in a long and trudging tale, Herr Uhu Macht Urlaub. As she turned the pages and pointed out every single acorn she could find, being ferried home by a very industrious red squirrel, and then stolen by a bossy nuthatch, I idly thought about how we should take her looking for real acorns on the weekend.
And then it hit me. We can go looking for acorns. Acorns ferried about by industrious red squirrels. It will probably snow this Christmas, and school has just gone back for its first, as opposed to fourth, term. The childhood unfolding for my own child, is one I read of only in books, books that formed a literary childhood quite opposed to my actual one, but a childhood of sorts all the same. And as we collected acorns a few days later, die Lüdde warmly eingepackt against the cool autumn wind, a type of wind I only sometimes met in winters growing up, it was one of those moments in which it was so very clear to me how different her experiences growing up will be to what mine were.
This is, of course, true for all parents and their children. We cannot and do not live the childhoods our parents did. But when you grow up in the same country your parents did, inheriting bits and pieces from their own upbringing is an easier, more unthinking process. When you raise a child outside of the country you grew up in, giving them pieces of what you had becomes a more deliberate act, one made obvious by its separation from context.
Of course, we are enriched by, and rich in, our ability to give our children both squirrels and koalas, snowy, cold Christmases and ones spent in the pool. They will read of both hemispheres, and in as many ways as we can provide, live both as well. Already, they hear the Australian in my language, eat it on their toast, read it in books sent over by friends and family.
And yet. It will never cease to be wonderfully strange to me, that these squirrels and acorns I knew of only from books, these topsy turvy seasons the absolute opposite to the ones I always knew, will be the norm for my children.
What is life, I suppose, without a little bit of wonderfully strange.