Friday, October 20, 2006

The Water Babies - the book and the memories

This particularly unassuming book is one of my favourite things. I use the word 'things' advisedly because it is not just that The Water Babies is a favourite book it is that this copy is important to me. I was going to say that it is a cheap edition but I have just looked for it on Abebooks and discovered that it may be a little more expensive than I thought in this condition but it is certainly true that it was produced as a cheap edition and, published in 1948 as part of the Golden Galley series, it has a certain wartime feel to the paper and production quality. I was reminded of it recently talking with a friend about books and eroticism.

Of course, what it important to me is the combination of this actual copy, the memories it evokes, the story itself and the illustrations (by Ian Kerr). This is the copy that was read to me when I was very young and it the memory of that still has a flavour of innocent eroticism about it. I remember the notion of nakedness being exciting in the kind of way that will make a small boy wriggle on his seat and Tom's nakedness in such an open and natural way was extremely appealing. In fact, I spent a lot of teenage hours, sneaking out of the house in the dead of night in order to strip off in the fields and woodlands around where we lived and walk naked through the silver-black of night in the countryside and it was there too that I took schoolfriends in my late teens to fumble my way through my first seduction attempts - some sucessful, some not. Kerr's illustrations reinforced what it might be to be naked in the open air (and indeed under the water - I suspect that with opportunity and more swimming ability I may have been quite the teenage skinny-dipper), Tom was the ideal companion in many ways for a rather odd kid like me and though I must have been in single figures when this book was read to me I was in no way unaware of the affect it was having on me.

Kerr's illustrations include both black and white and full page colour drawings. The black and white is by far the best and the smaller ones, used as chapter headers and footers, no more than devices really, were the most interesting to me as a child and the ones I like most now.

This is, of course, exactly why I am fascinated by books as objects, there are a very few which can act as a kind of focal point for a thousand strands of memory and personality and that requires not just some nebulous idea of the text and illustration, it requires the physical object in the hand.

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