When I was young, I knew nothing about the lives of the writers I read so avidly; Rosemary Sutcliff, Geoffrey Trease, Kate Seredy (does anyone else remember The Good Master?) Noel Streatfield, Pamela Brown… They were all remote mysterious beings to me. There were no websites, no blogs, no school visits in those days, just books ranged austerely on library shelves, usually with the dust jacket which might at least had managed an author photograph, lacking.
Only Enid Blyton gave us a carefully edited glimpse into her happy life in Green Hedges with Gillian and Imogen, except that I never really believed in her existence. So many books came out in her name, I felt, even as a child, that she must be a committee. Anyway she was never a favourite.
As for writing to one of my idols, it just would never have occurred to me. If I had done, I guess I would have tangled myself up in Dear Miss So-and-so, and hoping they would forgive me etc etc.
How different it all is now. Even J.K. Rowling can be looked up on her website – fans can at least get the illusion they’re in contact with her. Lesser mortals visit schools, hold workshops, answer emails. If a young reader contacts me, they’re more likely to start the letter with ‘Hi Frances’ than ‘Dear Miss Thomas.’ And good for them – as long as they spell my name correctly, (Francis is a bloke) I don’t mind at all. I think it’s all to the good that writers and the people they write for can come together in this way. That a child who might one day want to write can actually meet, and ask questions of, the adults who manage to do it.
But I don’t think I could ever shake off my hero-worshipping attitude. Some years ago, meeting Judith Kerr at a party, I could only gush vacuously about how much we loved Mog – and that wasn’t even my generation of readers, but my daughters’. Nowadays, I like to know all about the writers I read; I’m very happy to tuck myself into a biography of Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, George Eliot, though what I know, or don’t know doesn’t usually affect my enjoyment of their books – it’s a rather low-grade curiosity, I feel. As an adult, I don’t especially want to meet other writers, unless I’m going to like them as human beings. But it’s different for children ; it’s nice for them to be close to the magic, even if they take it for granted, don’t even realise it’s magic.
In my adult life, I had two encounters with the writers of my childhood. One, a good review of one of my books from Geoffrey Trease, was one of the proudest moments of my life – I wanted to dance and sing around the living room, Geoffrey Trease liked my book! Geoffrey Trease liked my book! Of course I had to write to him and thank him. But I tore up several attempts; I couldn’t get the tone right, couldn’t say, without gushing, just how extraordinary it was for someone I’d idolised as a child – and whose books were one of the reasons I wanted to write myself – to encounter me as an adult and award me this accolade. In the end, I think I wrote rather a dull little letter – Dear Mr Trease, Forgive me but… or something. Well, I was never going to write Hi, Geoffrey, was I?
And the other occasion was even stranger. At a writers’ event, someone whom I’d read as a child – not an idol, luckily, was overcome by the hospitality and threw up over my shoes.
Visible or Invisible? Does it matter? Not really. Except that things are different now; we’ll never go back to the old ways, and really, remembering those scary formalities, those inexplicable social rules, it’s probably a good thing. Though being sick on someone’s shoes is probably taking informality a bit too far.