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My grandfather was a man who didn’t like to compromise. A rural Welsh boy who had made it to Cambridge University and then on to a career as a scientist, he became a conscientious objector during the Second World War. Throughout his life he rarely backed down from confrontation. He had little time for children, and his early gifts to me—always books—demonstrated what I can only call an impatience for me to grow up. For my eighth birthday, he gave me an illustrated collection of works by Edgar Allan Poe. When I turned ten, he presented me with Crime and Punishment. I think the general idea was that I should come back when I was ready to discuss them. I was flattered by the books, by the challenge they represented, but I didn’t actually read them until I was older. The gift that made the most immediate impression on me was one I received when I was perhaps six or seven. It was a Soviet edition of a Russian fairy tale, Marya Morevna, a beautiful book, twelve pages long, a facsimile (in an English translation—he made that allowance) of an edition published in 1901, illustrated by an artist named Ivan Bilibin.

The hero, Tsarevich Ivan, goes to visit his sisters, who have all married shape-shifting birds. As he’s traveling, he comes across “a field where a whole host of warriors lay routed and dead.” He calls out to ask who has vanquished them, and the only man left alive explains that it was “Marya Morevna, the Lovely Tsarevna.” Bilibin’s illustrations are incredibly vivid, done in a bold art nouveau style that made them both exotic and immediate to seven-year-old me, but it was the image of the dead on the battlefield that etched itself most deeply. It is, for one thing, very gory. The bodies are heaped together, pierced by arrows, their clothes saturated with blood. One man stares out of the frame, blood dripping around his eyes and soaking his beard. The prince, on horseback, looks down from a ridge, his head bent, as if struck by the gravity of the scene. His sympathy only goes so far, though. He leaves the dying man and rides to Marya Morevna’s camp, where he is invited to stay in her tent, and within three days he has married her.

This image and the strange tale that accompanied it blended with other, equally bloody ones that were coming into my life from a different direction. The Amar Chitra Katha series of Indian comics retold stories from history and mythology. I had a large collection of them, bought on trips to see family in India, and I read and reread them, wondering at the gods and demons, the avaricious rajas and sages, whose meditations had the power to blot out the light of the Three Worlds, all drawn in a style that derived partly from traditional vernacular illustration and partly from American superhero comics. The historical stories included hagiographies of revolutionaries who fought against the British, and I puzzled at the way the British villains were depicted with lurid pink skin, while the natural tone was reserved for the Indian characters. The realization, when it finally came, about the relative nature of “normal” was a sort of eureka moment.

Around the time that my grandfather was trying to nudge me toward existential despair, I became a proud member of the most wholesome organization to which I am ever likely to belong. The Puffin Club was organized by Puffin Books, Penguin’s children’s imprint. Members got a booklet, an enamel badge imprinted with the Puffin logo, and a set of bookplates. We were expected to greet one another using the code word “sniffup,” to which the response was “spotera”—the two together, when reversed, making “puffins are tops.” I don’t remember ever having occasion to do this. There were bookfairs and other gatherings, one of which featured a time capsule, but the club’s real focus was a magazine, the Puffin Post, which published children’s writing alongside that of esteemed Puffin authors. The club was a British institution through the Seventies that at its peak included two hundred thousand child “Puffineers.” Seeing the names of other children in a professionally printed publication piqued in me a desire to see my own there, and duly gave me my first taste of literary rejection, as none of the stories or drawings I submitted were ever accepted.

The Puffin canon included classic children’s series such as Swallows and Amazons and Doctor Dolittle, animal tales such as Tarka the Otter and Watership Down, historical adventures by Rosemary Sutcliff (she did Romans, mostly) and Henry Treece (he did Vikings and knights and Celts), and fantastical tales by such writers as Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and C. S. Lewis. Lewis’s Narnia was my gateway drug to The Lord of the Rings, which was to become an obsession. I even set up a Tolkien club at school, so that my friend Alex and I (the only two members) could feel sufficiently formal as we discussed hobbits and orcs.

What I liked about heroic fantasy was its elevation. The world as I found it was disappointing and gray. I was also dismayingly weak, and threatened by various grimly realist Seventies British dangers. On alternate planes of existence, people were either beautiful and idealistic and powerful, or else so terrifyingly evil that it was worth risking your life to confront them. The escape these tales represented was lifesaving, in a way that was perhaps not altogether metaphorical. My gratitude to the writers who provided me that escape led eventually to the thought of becoming a writer myself.

I explored the rest of the fantasy canon, trying to recapture that Middle Earth feeling, but found myself disappointed. Only much later, while studying Old and Middle English at university, under a tutor who had herself been taught by Tolkien, did I understand that the beauty I had found in the books of the so-called Oxford School (the group of fantasy and folkloric writers that includes Lewis, Tolkien, Roger Lancelyn Green, and, among younger generations, Wynne Jones and Philip Pullman) came from a deep understanding of the roots of the English language. These writers drew on a body of cultural material that was wrapped up with etymology, with meanings that lay underneath the meanings of the present. Most of the writers attempting to imitate Tolkien weren’t steeped in the rhythm of Old English kennings, or the spiritual yearning of chivalric romance. (An exception was Ursula K. Le Guin, whose prose still provides a bridge between the reading worlds of my childhood and adulthood.)

But in the meantime, hoping to go to the source of all heroic narrative, I embarked on a grueling and rather thankless phase of reading Greek and Roman writers in translation. I ground through E. V. Rieu’s rendering of The Iliad, hoping for more battle and less moping about in the tent. The Odyssey was better. I even read Tacitus, my eyes glazing over accounts of debates and decrees, lighting up occasionally when encountering descriptions of battle or despotism. It was all much less like Asterix than I’d hoped, and far more like the Latin lessons I sat through at school.

In retrospect, my most important early aesthetic influence was the Whipps Cross Hospital fete, an annual fundraising event with games and stalls selling homemade baked goods and bric-a-brac—and second-hand books. As a doctor, my father was expected to show his support, and an easy way to do that was by giving me a five-pound note and a cardboard box and telling me to buy as much as I could carry—which turned out to be a lot, given that the books were keenly priced at around ten pence each. Ignoring the children’s titles, I delved into piles of old science-fiction paperbacks, and my mind was well and truly blown. I read Golden Age tales about John Carter of Mars, Conan the Barbarian, and the Galactic Patrol of Lensmen. I read New Wave stories by J. G. Ballard and Samuel R. Delany and Philip K. Dick about the wildness of psychological “inner space.” I discovered Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land, books that matched the epic scope of The Lord of the Rings. I read grim English dystopias and cosmic space operas, going as fast as I could, without any regard for literary quality. I discovered the writing of the English fantasy writer Michael Moorcock, packaged with psychedelic cover art by Bob Haberfield. Like much of what I was reading, these books were the detritus of a counterculture that was deeply unfashionable by the time I got hold of them. I didn’t know, and probably wouldn’t have cared.

My parents, while conservative in certain respects, never monitored what I read, even when concerned librarians queried whether they were happy for me to dig so far into the adult fiction shelves. Alongside my other interests, I developed a taste for sleazy thrillers, having found some kind of violent adventure story on the shelves of a rented holiday cottage. I liked gritty war stories such as The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat, spy stories by Len Deighton, and disaster blockbusters like Arthur Hailey’s Airport. A special favorite was the Scottish writer Alistair MacLean, who favored rugged settings—polar bases and impenetrable Nazi castles. Briefly hospitalized for pneumonia at age eight, I was outraged when the nurses confiscated my copy of Fear Is the Key, which they thought inappropriate. They had the nerve to direct me to a cart of well-worn board books, an outrage that I can still feel in my bones.

What did I learn from all this pulp? I discovered heroin smuggling and honey traps and communist assassins. I read Frederick Forsyth and learned of mercenaries overthrowing African governments. I read Dennis Wheatley and learned about Satanic sex cults. I imbibed a huge amount of misogyny and racism, and also an attitude of cynicism and a tolerance for cruelty that I still associate with that cultural moment.

A few years ago, after a flood in my basement, I found copies of my school’s magazine, containing stories I wrote when I was nine. There was one about a polar exploration in which I killed off my school friends (bear attack, crevasse, etc.) in reverse order of how much I liked them. There was another about a giant diamond, set in Rhodesia, which at the time was under white-minority rule. My voice in both, or at least the voice I was trying to imitate, was recognizably that of the stiff-upper-lipped English hero, a David Niven or Jack Hawkins type, grimly rakish in the midst of peril.

All this reading took place before I hit puberty. As I did so, my inchoate yearnings began to cohere. Reading Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, I learned what sex was about—not just the part about making babies, but desire—from the scene at the wedding in which Sonny Corleone and the bridesmaid Lucy Mancini go upstairs. My reading had strayed a long way from Poe and Dostoevsky, but the circle was beginning to close. As I entered my teens, I was far from being able to express an ambition to be a writer, but I knew I wanted to read all the books—good and bad, elevated and base—because everything was in them. Everything. The whole world.

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