Today is my 56th birthday, and it seems like I'm now finally into the countdown (or perhaps the holding pattern) for my 60th. When I turned 50, it was like cresting a rise above a valley, in which a village called "Sixty" was visible, but still far off downhill. But now I feel like I'm pounding unstoppably down the slope, with a good view of the sort of village "Sixty" is going to turn out to be. Oh, well. Sixty is the new fifty, they say (but, if so, I really don't understand what they're teaching them at school these days).
I have already described my best ever birthday in the post "When Were You Happiest?", and that would be hard to improve on. Ah, too much, too soon! But I must admit I was never that big on birthdays. I had an aversion to parties when I was small, though I did get the hang of it once alcohol and girls came into the picture. But even then it never occurred to me to have one of my own (what, throw up on our carpet?). I also never seemed to experience that ecstasy of entitlement that descends on some children on their birthday. "It's my birthday today!" Oh, really? Get over yourself, kid.
But birthday presents were always special. In those far-off days when there was less money splashing around, a birthday present really meant something. I still remember many of them, and in particular I remember my eighth birthday, when my parents gave me two volumes of a 16 volume illustrated encyclopaedia: a sort of tentative down payment on a lifetime of bookishness. "Face it, the boy's weird, might as well make a virtue out of it..."
It would be hard to overestimate the impact of those volumes on me. I read them from cover to cover, repeatedly. I gazed at the illustrations, intensely. Above all, I was entranced by the covers. In 1962, full colour illustrations were still a bit of a novelty: full colour image-wrapped glossy covers were totally new in Britain. I'd never see anything as lush, as smooth, as pleasingly sophisticated as those covers. Each volume had a different coloured spine, which harmonised beautifully with an elaborate trompe l'oeuil painting of a collection of objects (tickets, postcards, dolls, beads, even a potato), apparently pinned to a wall or dangling from strings, or sitting in 3D space, and each cover was unique to each volume. Needless to say, I wanted them all! And, in due course, a Christmas and another birthday later, I did have all sixteen.
Today, I had the strong urge to see those pictures again, but realised I couldn't even recall the name of the encyclopaedia. Now, if you work with books, you'll know how frustrating it is trying to help someone who desperately wants something, can see it in their mind's eye, but can't put useful words to it. "It's a big book, it has a very green cover with strange gold lettering" just doesn't help. So, as it's my birthday, I thought I'd set aside an hour of quality time, and help myself.
All I knew was that it was a multi-volume illustrated children's encyclopaedia, published around 1962, with really great covers. I searched the British Library catalogue, the COPAC catalogue, and did some Google searches. Eventually, my professional sixth sense started to twinkle around an American item that kept cropping up, "The Golden Book Encyclopedia". It wasn't the right title, but I recalled that "my" encyclopaedia did have a distinctly North American flavour -- although it had been Anglicized, the boys in the pictures had oddly square crewcuts and unobtainable striped t-shirts. As soon as I found a listing of the volumes and saw the title of volume 12 -- "From Paricutin to Quicksand" -- I knew I had hit paydirt.
How could I forget? That volume started with the appallingly disconcerting tale of a volcano springing up virtually underfoot in a campesino's field in Mexico, and ended with the nightmarish porridge-like substance into which characters in 1950s and 60s TV series regularly sank (it seemed that the rule was, "If in doubt, have the Lone Ranger fall into some quicksand"). Hey, no-one said that acquiring all the knowledge in the world would be comforting.
All that remained was to identify the title of the British edition (which was certainly not "The Golden Book Encyclopedia"), and then find some pictures of the covers. Just a little more triangulation, and I had it: it was "The Junior World Encyclopaedia", of course! Armed with the title, I could find and lift a couple of cover images from the Web. Unsurprisingly, it turned out the American and British editions shared the same cover illustrations.*
So, a nice birthday present to myself: finally to rediscover the source of so much instruction and pleasure, forty-eight years ago. My next quest is to find out who painted those covers.
* To discover the association with Golden Books was particularly satisfying, as it was a direct connection with another book I had tracked down for myself, some years ago, before the internet made such quests relatively trivial. In our Junior School library we had a wonderful (illustrated, image-wrapped) book, which showed how to make your own American indian stuff -- from teepees to peace pipes, from totem poles to beaded mocassins. To cut to the chase, after a considerable paperchase (hard to imagine now, but in 1984 you couldn't just try random keyword searches, even for a book title) it turned out to be the British edition of "The Golden Book of Indian Crafts and Lore" by W. Ben Hunt.