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December 3, 2011

Alan Bradley on the Gift of a Proper Book

Posted by Katherine

Alan Bradley was born in Toronto and grew up in Cobourg, Ontario. With an education in electronic engineering, Alan worked at numerous radio and television stations in Ontario, and at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University) in Toronto, before becoming Director of Television Engineering in the media centre at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, SK, where he remained for 25 years before taking early retirement to write in 1994. Alan Bradley’s latest novel, I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS, the 4th in the Flavia de Luce series, was recently published by Delacorte Books. Here he talks about the up-side of childhood illness: enough leisure time for reading.

My childhood was plagued by a freight train of illnesses.

One after another, they came and left like passing boxcars: measles, mumps, chicken pox, tonsillitis, scarlet fever, and so on and so forth.

Surprisingly, there were a number of benefits to this torture: in the first place, I developed an immunity to virtually every ailment to be found in the pages of THE MEDICAL HOME ADVISOR: Your Health And How To Preserve It, by Dr. Morris Fishbein. In the second and third places, I got to stay home from school and read a lot of books.

My older sisters, so that they wouldn’t have to entertain me, had taught me to read even before I started kindergarten, and it wasn’t long before I had worked my way through my mother’s lovely green-and-gold set of Mark Twain’s works and was panting for more.

That was when my uncle Frank came to the rescue with an armload of Chums annuals. 

Rescued from his own boyhood, these fat, red, heavy volumes (each with its year gold-stamped on the spine) were filled to the brim with tales of derring-do: complete stories and serials of blood and pirates, highwaymen, oriental criminals wanting to take over the world, motorbike cinder-track racing, public school (meaning private school) hi-jinks and intrigue, Arctic and Antarctic exploration, tales of the Mounted Police, grizzly bears, cabins in the wilderness, wartime adventures, and boy aviators.

They became my school. 

Who could ever forget the prolific W.B. Home-Gall’s tales of The Terrible Three: that merciless trio of school chums of whom one was a conjuror, one a ventriloquist, and the third a rubber-faced boy capable of forming his features into the most gruesome and upsetting countenances? Pity the poor village constable!

As if that weren’t enough, there were columns of jokes –

Old lady, stepping down onto railway platform in the middle of the night, addressing a native:

‘Where are we, my good man?’
Native --- “Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.”
Old lady, to her friend --- “Stay on the train, Mildred. They don’t speak English here.”

(In a spooky repeat episode, upon hearing that my wife and I lived in Saskatoon, a gravedigger in the cemetery where Mark Twain is buried retailed this same joke to me again fifty years later, almost word for word.) 

But back to Chums:

Besides the jokes, there were columns on how to collect stamps, build wireless sets, raise pigeons, and manufacture your own fireworks.

I’ve been given many books in the years since then, but none that had such a profound effect on my life.

Although I never managed to become a pirate or a ventriloquist (although I had a cousin who achieved the latter), I did become a teller-of-tales and a spinner of yarns.

Sometimes, as I write in the early hours of the morning, I think of a reader, somewhere in the world, challenged in health as I was, smiling over my pages, illness forgotten for a time, preparing to be a writer of the future.