My Favourite Book Ever

My entry for this week’s theme

My Favourite Book Ever?

ROGER, AGED SEVEN, and no longer the youngest of the family, ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer holidays. He ran until he nearly reached the hedge by the footpath, then turned and ran until he nearly reached the hedge on the other side of the field. Then he turned and crossed the field again. Each crossing of the field brought him nearer to the farm. The wind was against him, and he was tacking up against it to the farm, where at the gate his patient mother was awaiting him. He could not run straight against the wind because he was a sailing vessel, a tea-clipper, the Cutty Sark.”  (Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, 1930)

Born and raised in land-locked Salford, I had never even seen a sailing boat, but Ransome’s prose gave me as clear an understanding of the manoeuvre of tacking as I would need for the next 40 years. Now a ‘veteran’ of two sail circumnavigations of Britain, I still carry this image of sailing upwind.

Like Roger, I was seven-going-on-eight years old, and the doors of the public library in neighbouring Manley Park opened to admit me to a world of vicarious adventure. My mother gave me her tickets too, so I could walk home with a double burden of books, often twice in a week. I devoured everything, from children’s stories – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Billy Bunter, and especially my favourite, Just William – to popular science, and eventually every Teach Yourself book in the series! I was a ravenous young worm, gnawing through every section of the bookshelves, and the reading habit was indelibly etched into my developing brain.

So how can I mentally turn back the myriad pages to pinpoint ‘My Favourite Book Ever’?  Surely an impossible mission. Perhaps the book(s) with the greatest influence on my life – apart from, as in Desert Island Discs, The Bible and Shakespeare – could be more achievable? In which case, the adventures of Nancy Blackett, Roger and Titty (her name disgracefully Bowdlerised in the latest version) would rank high on the list. So, onwards from Salford to London to Deal, via Glasgow and Cape Town, I hitchhiked on the boat of any friend who would have me, until aged 44 I bought my first dinghy and raced it (very badly) round various reservoirs, gravel pits and lakes in London and Kent, my very own Ransome adventures.

Already irretrievably hooked, my oldest mates had no problem persuading me to join them on a week long Day Skipper course in the Solent: I passed, but the die was now cast, and the hunt for a ‘real’  boat began. Vega, a 33ft sailing cruiser, was sailed home to Dover, the starting point of all my  subsequent adventures. I joined the Royal Cinque Ports Yacht Club, and two years later, against my wife’s better counsel, I ended up as Commodore, a post more to do with banging difficult heads together than sailing. After many trips to France, Holland and the Channel Islands, we agreed it was time for a greater challenge. So in 1997 we set off to the west, and by a simple strategy of ‘Keep Turning Right’ we completed our first circumnavigation of Britain, with a diversion to the Netherlands, where Vega berthed  for two years of fine inland sailing and excellent Dutch seafood and beer.

Retirement at 60 fuelled another attack of wanderlust, and I persuaded my very compliant and long-suffering wife of the irresistible attractions of the west coast of Scotland. So off we went again, just the two of us, in the same direction, with plenty time to stop and enjoy the Irish coast, the Hebridean Islands, hill walking on Skye, and the fabulous archaeological sites of Orkney. Not to mention visits to numerous distilleries along the way – you see, not all just about tacking and hauling on ropes, the bits my dear wife hates! The trip lasted 99 days in all, and to our surprise we even won the Yacht Club’s prize for the best log!

Well, Favourite Book Ever? Maybe not, but the seed sown by Arthur Ransome in that dusty old Manchester library has taken me to places, first in my imagination and then in reality, that I might never have seen, had it not been for young Roger, forever tacking up that lakeland hill.


  1. This story nicely captured the thrill of a developing love of books at an early age, and the unexpected effect a story can have on one’s life.

  2. You should also incorporate this into your biography. You are so able to pick memories from the past and use them well. Clever writing.

  3. Lovely story of how an early influence can start a powerful chain reaction of events.
    Your story so clearly leads us by the hand into adulthood and demonstrates how this early book/life influence can be so important for ones development into later life
    Great story gets one thinking.

    1. Thank you: I could so easily have chosen Just William, as I always played at being one of The Outlaws!

  4. This is beautifully written and incredibly interesting.
    I really related to your voracious worm! I remember picking an Enid Blyton off the shelf and being very pleased that I had finally made my own choice of something to read – and loving it. Richmal Crompton makes me hurt with laughter!
    There is something very special about connecting with our friends through books that we have read.
    Thank you, benj.

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  6. kentishramblerblog

    I love the way that thinking about a passage in a favourite book inspired some beautifully and fluently written biography. Great bookworm image, too, and that memory took me back to my own weekly library trips as a child.

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