I read three outstanding memoirs last year, Jeanette Winterson, Candia McWilliam and Diana Athill, worthy of their own separate posts but part of a series. Naturally, I should share something of my own memories, as I don't have memoirs written, nor should I expect anyone to want to read them. Maybe a paragraph or two is enough. The writers, whose memoirs I've been reading, have all spoken with such love of their childhood reading lives that it made me think about my childhood and books.
As a lover of books it may be a surprise to hear that I had trouble reading - only getting into my book-reading stride in my early twenties, having properly started when I decided to improve myself at 16. I think reading wasn't a priority in my large family, nor was being read to if there had been time. It was a duty rather than a delight. Hearing all this stuff about August babies makes me wonder if my starting school in the summer term and being a June baby meant I missed out on something critical. I was good at maths and my poor reading managed to disguise itself. I did, however, love English literature lessons when I got to O-level the teachers were inspiring. By good fortune our Head of English used to regularly arrange buses to the Royal Shakespeare company, then at the Barbican in its heyday and so my love of theatre was born.
So unlike Winterson, McWilliams and Athill, I didn't while away my childhood reading, I spent it sewing, sometimes furiously. I spent many hours in the third floor haberdashery department of Army & Navy Stores in Guildford (now House of Fraser) selecting patterns that I would adapt and chosing fabric. I'd lay out my patterns on the floor of my bedroom and make make make. I got quick and could make things in a day or, a skirt, in an evening. In those days we did Needlework at school for a double period a week and I was seemed to excel. I even did O-level 'Needlework & Dress'. I spent hours shopping too: looking at clothes and generally I couldn't afford them so I had to make them. They weren't cheap in those days (the 80's). I knitted a little but, as my grandmother used to say, you were either a knitter or a sewer, and I was a sewer. She was a great knitter and incidentally, a great reader.
My reading started in earnest in my early twenties. I studied Italian and went to live in Italy and had fallen in love with literature. It was a curious experience pushing oneself to read in a foreign language: to read when you only undestand 50% of the vocabulary but I would still get the feel for the book, the narrative and the characters. Over time my vocabulary developed and I was a fluent reader. I think all this reading gave me a deep vocabulary - and a love of Italian writers such as: Daca Maraini, Guseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Alberto Moravia, Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg and many others. At the same time, I was reading more and more in my own language, and enjoying the escape. Maybe as I was now in my itinerant 20s, and without a TV, reading took over from the sewing which required space, time and equipment.
It's always interesting to look at what a child does in those hours of boredom between 8 and 15 before hormones and socialising become the primary concern. I think it offers an insight into the future and what makes one feel satisfied. I was quite academic and so not at all encouraged to follow the fashion route, but in that way I did develop intellectually by doing an arts degree and for this I am very grateful. It led me to spend five years in Italy and this has had a big impact on my work, my approach to quality and 'finezza' as they say, fine-ness - which is so Italian in food, clothing, design. It took me ten more years to synthesise these things and start making again. This time designing my own work I could draw on all that experience: a visual experience from travel and art but also an internal and imaginative one which can only come from books. Maybe it's no surprise, then, that I find writers such an inspiration for my work.