Playing board games with Edgar Allan Poe and a hand grenade

Halma pieces © Schlurcher / CC-BY-3.0 & GDFL 1.2

My mother taught me to read before I went to school. I was five years old by then so that may not be that impressive but I know many of the boys in my class — it was an all boys’ school — couldn’t read.

So my mother did a wonderful thing for me but it was at my grandmother’s house — my father’s mother — where the magic of reading and of books in particular took hold.

My granny — as I called her — had a best room where we rarely sat. It was for special occasions and special visitors. When adult chat over the dinner table in the less than best room got boring I would sneak through to the other room and nose around. There were knick-knacks in glass cabinets and a loud ticking clock that seemed to measure out the time I was allowed to spend in the room.

Best of all, though, was a cupboard in which I knew granny kept board games. There was Totopoly — a sort of Monopoly for horse racing, which had a two-sided board; the first was for training the horses and the second for the race itself. She also had something called Halma, which consisted of small green and red wooden pieces like small chess set pawns that you moved across a board in an invasive swarm. I played a lot of that with my granny when I stayed with her alone.

I have never met anyone since who played either Totopoly or Halma as a child. They must be out there!

It was the games that first attracted me to the cupboard. I used to take out Totopoly and make elaborate games for myself based on the race. I was an only child; this is normal. Then I discovered the hand grenade.

My grandfather — who died when I was a baby — had been in the First World War and gassed at Passchendaele. As well as ruined lungs, he had brought home a hand grenade. It was black and cold and heavy. Its pin was still in place. I played with it often. I assume still that it had been defused long before it was put into the cupboard.

Then there were the books. It was common then for people to subscribe to editions of nicely bound classics. At some time in the past — in the 1930s according to the publication date on the copyright pages of these books that now sit on my father’s bookshelf — my granny had been sent one a month, perhaps, for a year or two. I think they were published in connection with the Daily Express, which was the paper my granny read. Oh well.

There were books like Lorna Doone and Jane Eyre, of course. But strangely — and fortuitously — there was also The Collected Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. It was to this book that I felt myself attracted and which I started to read as soon as I could read enough to understand what I read.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue. The book was also illustrated with line drawings and the sketch of the monstrous razor-wielding ape — sorry if that’s a spoiler — made me want to read the tale more than the rather newspaper headline title. The Pit and the Pendulum. I was drawn early to horror. But I also liked The Gold-Bug, which involved some basic cryptography — a term I wouldn’t come to know for a decade or two after reading this. It was a story that not only had a plot but was instructive. i learned from reading it.

Poe fired my imagination. Reading — a gift from my mother — became the gift that kept on giving when I discovered exactly what doors and windows were opened each and every time I turned the pages of a new book.