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The fascist dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco, resigned from office as prime minister in 1973 and remained head of state until he finally died in 1975. In those final years of the government that had originally been put in place with support of the Nazis in Germany, happy families from all over Europe decided that it was safe to holiday in Spain again, and millions flooded to the lovely Mediterranean resorts.
One of those families was mine, and in the very early stage of the un-Franco-ing of that beautiful country, we boarded a dreadfully decrepit airliner at London’s Luton Airport to fly to Palma, on the island of Mallorca, where we were pushed into a creaky old bus and driven to our coastal resort hotel.
At the time, I was going through a curious phase in which I refused to read books. I didn’t want to pick up a book, hear about books, browse for them in shops, or talk about them with friends. I cared nothing for following the adventures of some tousle-hared imps who solved mysteries on farms or in forests, and I wasn’t drawn to comedies or tragedies or even histories in the slightest.
I was eight years old, and this behavior of mine was clearly going to be troublesome. After all, freshly enrolled in boarding school, about to learn Latin and French, study Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” in class, and required to know what the Magna Carta, glaciers, sheep farming, rain forests and industrialization were all about, I was causing a silent storm of deep concern among my elders if I wasn’t going to read.
I packed my suitcase to Mallorca without adding a single book, magazine or even comic.
English prep school boys are supposed to travel everywhere with a book to read, and I was determined to be the exception.
Leaving Luton without a book might be quite normal these days because there are in-flight movies and a host of other distractions, and carrying a book around is really a bit nerdy now, but in the early 1970s it was just about expected of all children.
My parents, being frightfully clever, had observed this rebellious streak in me and hatched a cunning plan.
Descending from our hotel room to the beach, my mother carried a small paperback. Her shoulder bag was stuffed with them. If I reached for a sandwich, a drink, a tube of sunscreen or even a piece of rather runny chocolate, I’d find a book. If I went to sit on a beach chair, it’d be occupied by a book.
Seriously, there were books everywhere.
When my brother and I were building sandcastles or looking for lizards, my mother would be deeply involved in a book and would suddenly laugh at something… and if we asked what it was all about, she’d be very furtive and say, “Oh, gosh, it’s just this book I’m reading. But you go ahead and build your sandcastle…”
And, of course, like a cat that can’t leave a crinkly piece of paper alone, I forgot about the sandcastle and the lizard that was now locked in its dungeon (poor thing), and promptly took the book as soon as she put it in her bag.
You see, what I had been missing was literature that fed my mind at my age level. I had been in a transition between juvenile stories about rabbits in buttoned trousers and proper books in which people did realistic things and plots actually unfolded with each turn of the page.
“If you start reading and forget everything around you, and if you feel as if you’re actually there, then you’ve found the right book,” my mother said. “And if you can’t put it down, then you’ve found the right author.”
I’ve been hooked ever since. I can’t go anywhere without a book. Obviously, I progressed quickly from children’s mysteries, swept right through everything Agatha Christie wrote, and dived into fascinating biographies, histories and sidesplitting comedies.
At age ten, I found Douglas Bader’s autobiography “Reach for the Sky” so fascinating that I read it again and again. I made no time for Tolkien, as I had little patience for absurd fantasy. As time passed, I fed my hunger with Sartre, Camus, Borchert, Grass, and Brecht.
While I appreciate what my mother did and the fact that she must have gone to Mallorca with almost no other luggage beyond paperbacks, I’d also like to thank Generalissimo Franco for kicking the bucket at just the right time.