Christmas 1979 and someone gave me a £2 book token. It was a slip of pink paper, a bit like Monopoly money, stating CANNOT BE EXCHANGED FOR CASH and NO CHANGE GIVEN.
It came inside a card with a robin on the front, and to spend it I was taken into Sheffield to Hartley Seed, a big, proper bookshop.
I had never been in a bookshop to browse before.
My pocket money was saved up and spent one volume at a time at the local newsagent, and I was building up my collection of Enid Blyton’s Five Find Outer books (so much superior to the stupid Famous Five and their soppy dog and silly island). With £2 I could complete the set with ease.
I don’t remember getting anywhere near the Blyton shelf. I was distracted by the rows of enticing stories, beguiled by their exciting descriptions and bewitched by their entrancing covers.
I bought four books – four! That makes that £2 book token equivalent to, say, £25 today.
I don’t know whether it was my impressionable age or the novelty of the situation but those books have had a lifelong effect on me.
The first one I fell upon was Dick Turpin by Richard Carpenter. I hadn’t realised you could buy books of TV series that weren’t annuals, and Dick Turpin was, along with Tales of the Unexpected and Sapphire and Steel, compulsory viewing for me at the time.
It was pricy – 75p – but a quick flick through was like watching the series all over again (this is the pre-video age, and I only had my memory to rely on when reliving Dick and Swiftnick’s hair-raising adventures).
I can still remember the thrill when I started reading the first page – that someone had sat down somewhere and typed these words out, and here they were, in a book in my hands. One day, I knew, I’d write a book just as exciting.
The second book was a dud. Overwhelmed with the opportunities open to me, I was beguiled by the blurb on the back of The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford.
It was about two dogs and a cat who, for reasons I never fathomed, become separated from their owners and have to walk across Canada to be reunited.
I don’t like animal stories. I don’t even watch David Attenborough. It was a huge disappointment.
The three pets didn’t ‘escape death at almost every step’ and Bodger the bull terrier’s much vaunted ‘strong sense of humour’ must have lost a lot in Canadian translation.
In the following weeks I bitterly regretted not spending that 50p on The Mystery of the Invisible Prince by Enid Blyton.
But the third book was a dream. It, like Dick Turpin, made such a lasting impression on me I called the main character in Shriven after one of its characters. The Search For Delicious by Natalie Babbitt is a beautiful story, and the one by which I have measured all others, ever since.
It has everything a good fantasy story should have. The hero is a foundling abandoned at the castle gates. There are mythical creatures – a 900-year-old woldweller, cave-dwelling, apple-loving dwarves and a mermaid who lost her doll.
There is a baddie who brings war down upon the kingdom. There is a quest, a magic whistle and the most satisfying conclusion ever. The names are good. It even has a map.
The Search For Delicious was 50p. That left me with 25p. Even in 1979 it was going to be hard to find a book for 25p. But I persevered in the Ladybird section and came up trumps with Garden Flowers for 24p.
This was written by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald and illustrated by John Leigh-Pemberton.
It isn’t a childish book, but a straightforward guide to some lovely English cottage garden flowers. I poured over the beautiful pictures for years, imagining I lived in the stately home you catch occasional glimpses of.
Many of the plants it features have done time in my own garden. Short sentences usually – I have the opposite to green fingers (blue toes?)and my lupins, pansies, lilies and alliums rarely last a year.
These were the four volumes I took to the till – dashing adventure, classic epic fantasy and the ultimate escapist garden. Oh, and a bunch of wet animals wandering about.
Their influence on what I read now, and how I strive to write, has been incredible – tight, clever plots, excitment, intriguing characters, tried and tested tropes, wry humour and a light sprinkling of magic. And no plodding pets.
And, despite the edict that no change would be given, the woman at the till took my voucher and gave me a penny change. Result.