Catherine Robertson reflects on her early years from a literary angle, focusing on the intrinsic connection between her memories of books and memories of her mother. Catherine’s latest novel What You Wish For is out now from Black Swan.
Catherine (age 3-ish) and her brother on Raumati Beach.
My memories of childhood reading cannot be separated from memories of my mother. She was the conduit through which books arrived. Every three weeks, she would visit the library and place a new pile by my bed. I was a fast and eager reader, and I’d finish them all, even the ones I didn’t much enjoy. There’s a strong streak of Protestantism in my family. We press on and complete what we start.
Every three weeks, [my mother] would visit the library and place a new pile by my bed.
I don’t remember putting in requests. My mother chose the books and I would have deferred to her because she was the authority. I rarely argued with my mother because there was no point. She overrode all protests and dismissed any complaints. In my teen years, I longed for a lock on my bedroom door, so she wouldn’t come in and throw open the curtains each morning when she believed it was time for me to get up.
The other reason I rarely argued was because I’d intuited at a very young age that my mother didn’t love me quite enough, and that the only way I could ensure her approval was through acquiescence and obedience. As it turns out, my intuition was correct. Decades later, when she was dying, she told me that the staff at the maternity hospital had taken me away immediately after the birth, and kept me apart from her for over two days. “I wish they’d let me bond with you,” she said.
Catherine's mother at 21.
Some of her book choices were fuelled by guilt that she didn’t love me enough. I have one called Jillian Goes to School by Ewing C Stevens. It’s a New Zealand book with black and white photos, published in 1968. Jillian, with her short dark hair and tartan pinafore, looks a little like I did on my first day of school. The same guilt led my mother to buy me Janine, a solid infant doll, again with short, dark hair. I never much liked Janine, but my mother kept the doll until she died.
While this is too long a story to tell here, my mother spent her teens and twenties in an organisation that effectively operated like a cult. My grandparents joined, and gave the organisation most of their possessions, including many of my mother’s own childhood books. The ones she was able to keep attained treasure status in her mind, but she was happy for my brother and me to read them. She liked to read them to us, too, a way of re-experiencing them without feeling foolish about enjoying children’s books. The organisation had been big on putting away childish things.
She liked to read them to us, too, a way of re-experiencing them without feeling foolish about enjoying children’s books.
My favourites were AA Milne’s Now We Are Six, When We Were Very Young and The House at Pooh Corner. All editions were published in the 1940s and their black and white illustrations were hand-coloured by my mother when she was three or four. I loved the Pooh stories, and can still recite many of the poems by heart. One that captivated me was Jonathan Jo, who had a mouth like an ‘O’, and a wheelbarrow full of surprises, including sweets and an Aberdeen terrier, which he was most happy to give any child who gave him a smile.
A wonderful book that I really feel should be reprinted is An Experiment with St George by JW Dunne, who, I discovered recently, is best known for a seminal work on time travel. This book was published in 1938, the year after my mother was born. St George has just married the princess he rescued from the dragon. Cleodolinda is a dab hand with a silver dagger, which proves useful as she and her new husband soon have to do battle with a horde of witches, who have names like Whimpering Willy and Hissing Hester. The head witch is the beautiful, formidable and uniquely non-alliterative Circe. It’s an absolute page-turner, and St George and Cleodolinda are cracking characters. If you can find a copy, buy it.
I have very little memory of The Little Grey Men by BB aka Denys Watkins-Pitchford, and I am keen to re-read it to find out why. I was also not a fan of The Waterbabies by Charles Kingsford. I could cope with the Victorian grotesquery of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland but the creatures in this book were too off-putting.
Catherine, age 5-ish, with a suspiciously rectangular Christmas present.
During her time in the cultish organisation, my mother lived in America. There she picked up a copy of G.O. Fizzickle Pogo by Walt Kelly, starring the opossum, Pogo, most famous for his words, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. This collection of comics was published in 1958, during the International Geophysical Year. Pogo lives in the Okefenokee Swamp, with Porky Pine, Albert Alligator, and occasionally Miss Sis Boombah, who runs the Female Order Of Freedom, or F.O.O.F. I thought I’d lost this copy until I moved house and found it. Good thing because collectible originals are selling online for up to a hundred and sixty US bucks.
There were so many books she introduced me to that I still adore: Russell Hoban’s independent girl badger, Frances (my oldest copy is Bread and Jam for Frances); Down with Skool and How to be Topp by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle (I still say “as any fule no”); Kathleen Hale’s lusciously illustrated Orlando the Marmalade Cat; and Hutu and Kawa by Avis Acres.
My mother’s taste tended towards fantasy and humour, and perhaps influenced by her, or perhaps because I share her genes, my taste does also. When she died, six years ago, she had already given me all the books she wanted me to have, all her treasures. She loved me enough. I see that now.
Catherine Robertson is a best-selling novelist and feature writer. She reviews books for the Listener and is a regular guest on Radio New Zealand’s The Panel and Jesse Mulligan’s Book Critic slot. She is married with two grown sons, two Burmese cats, two rescue dogs and a powerful vacuum cleaner. She divides her time between Wellington and Hawke’s Bay. Catherine’s latest novel What You Wish For (Black Swan) is out now.