I was a slow learner. I mean I was behind in reading compared to others - I do not know the explanation, but maybe whenever I was given a book with all those words, I tended to think of something else. I wasn't dyslexic - I just do not know what the problem was. However, I do remember having to sit quietly by myself behind moveable shelves of books at a table and plod through books. They must have been those books published by Ladybird for early learners. In all probability they were Peter and Jane books which were designed to prepare children for the world and to read more difficult school texts. Those books were so wonderfully gender stereotyped that flicking through them now, one gets a real sense of how behind the times Britain was in the sixties - before the "blackboard revolution". My school was situated in a Victorian sea resort, where people would come from Wales and Birmingham to enjoy the sands, more mud actually, and the rides. I remember my brother's friend, a little Lord Snooty, would tease me by licking his huge icecream in front of me. This snooty was the son of a hotel owner; the hotel was an impressive building on the sea front. He was also (like my brother) quite an advanced reader. In the school the teachers were very strict. While they couldn't hang you, they could give you a harsh clip or slap. I suffered the indignity of wetting myself after one teacher got angry over my daydreaming.
I had early on been interested in natural history. This is what fascinated me. Nature. I would spend lots of my time investigating what the tide brought in, or what was under a stone in the garden. With my friends I would go down to the local "marine" and catch sticklebacks, newts (which I loved), and lots of tadpoles. These poor creatures would end up in jam jars with the life expectancy of a fairground goldfish. I also caught butterflies. I did not know what to do with them. They were like the stamps I collected - pretty to look at and quite meaningless. I did not catalogue or study either. I somehow liked that chaos. I still do. Nature is messy. At the same time I also, like all the other boys, read lots of comics. Anyone who reads comics knows that there is the world of difference between a comic and a book and in how you read them. I can see why manga in Japan make a wide range of subjects more accessible. Little by little, despite my general maladroitness in everything, I was making progress. This progress was reflected in my school reports. The first few were the type which would today scare parents into taking the kid to a shrink or moving school. I was silent and very reserved. "Stephen does not participate..." I think I secretly wanted to participate, but I was afraid. Indeed, I had something of a speech impediment, not as bad as a King of ours did, nor one that would turn me mute like James Earl Jones, but nevertheless a stutter. This combined with my reading problems compounded my progress. I was despite this, steadily making headway. So much that my teacher decided that during the School Prize ceremony I should be given a prize, for making progress. Actually I got two prizes. For me it was absolutely dreadful that I had to go up on stage in front of the entire school, those teachers, some bullies, and the parents. I hated it. I was afraid I would wet myself! Nevertheless, my name was announced and I went up to the stage in the hall. The headmaster was there, positively beaming. I felt calm when he said some nice words about my progress. Two books were handed over. My memory is sketchy here, perhaps I won the making progress prize twice ! But anyway, there I had the treasures in my hands, and like a choir boy in some Anglican ritual, I slowly walked down the aisle back into my row. My immediate neighbours were already grabbing the books. "Whatdjagot?" I did not know myself, so I opened it up, and I saw this beautiful book plate with my name and the school's name and crest, and then opposite a picture of an old man with a staff. I think I remember it correctly. The book was Aesop's Fables, richly illustrated by Fritz Kredel. I had that book for years. What impressed me most was the way these heterogeneous ( a word I am forever spelling heterogenous!) characters that would not normally come together in nature or life, met. In some ways it was a bit like the comic characters and Disney. However, one story, Androcles the Slave and the Lion was especially impressive. I think I cried when I read it, because here was the "King of the Jungle" helping someone in a lowly position. Here was an example of friendship across the species divide. The other book was an account of William Beebe's descent in his bathysphere. Like the Aesop's Fables, it was intended for a junior readership and was richly illustrated. Unlike the Fables, I felt an uneasiness about this nightmarish world of deepsea fish that looked monstrous. One could not be friends with them! Nowadays, of course, I am fascinated by the deepsea fauna and their beauty - yes, tastes do change. While winning a book for making progress, may seem more like a prize for "losers", I always felt that the award of those books were a turning point in my life, they gave a new world in which to enter, and for that reason I am eternally grateful to the teachers who put my name down for the prize. I have never stopped reading since.