Wednesday, March 07, 2007


A childhood incident transported Lydia Teh to the wonderful world of books

I WAS HIT BY A CAR while cycling to school one day. I was out of school for several days. When I returned to class, my thoughtful classmates presented me with two Enid Blyton books—The Naughtiest Girl in the School and Second Form at Malory Towers. To this day, I can still remember the cover of The Naughtiest Girl in the School. It showed a girl with a mop of curly brown hair with defiant sparkling eyes, standing with arms akimbo.

Despite what critics may say about Enid Blyton (her books have been criticised for their racism, sexism and snobbishness), she has done a great favour for young children the world over. Her stories of talking toys, gnomes, boarding-school girls and young sleuths have captured the hearts of millions of children all over the world. I’m one of the beneficiaries who have acquired a love of reading, thanks to her. I enjoyed all her books, though my favourites were the Famous Five and Secret Seven series.

Secondary school saw me moving on to young detective series like Caroline Keene’s Nancy Drew and Franklin W. Dixon’s The Hardy Boys. I spent so much time in the school library hunting down these books that the librarians saw it fit to rope me in as their secretary. When I get home from school, I had to have a book in hand before I can sit down comfortably for lunch.

The amateur sleuths later lost their appeal to Mr Tall, Dark and Handsome of M&B books (the initials stand for Maths and Biology when speaking in the presence of teachers; at other times they were known as Mills & Boon). I hogged the bookstands set up on five-foot ways. They rented out M&B books for 50 sen a pop which is still cheaper than paying three or four ringgit for a brand-new book.

At about this time, a Filipino family moved into our neighbourhood. The father was a bank manager and the pretty teenage daughter had an entire library of M&B and other romance novels. Gasp! I was like a toddler turned loose in a sweet shop. Gleefully, I borrowed stacks of books at a time and devoured them till the wee hours of the morning. And my mother thought I was studying! Little did she know that I was ensconced in a saccharine romantic world spun by the likes of Janet Dailey, Denise Robins and Barbara Cartland.

After a while, the same old formula in the romance novels began to turn stale and predictable. I was up to my chin with the same old fluffy plots, the same old dashing heroes and swooning heroines, and cookie-cutter kissing scenes. I reached saturation point where one more helpless stammering heroine and one more aristocratic hero with inscrutable expression would make me scream like a banshee.

Exit Mr Handsome and Ms Pretty. Enter Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s eccentric and fastidious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and his “little grey cells”. (I seem to have this thing for detective stories.) Their acute powers of observation and deduction earned my highest admiration. To this day, I’m wont to spout “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary” when I wanted to sound clever. And not forgetting the kindly but shrewd and irrepressible Miss Jane Marple of St Mary Mead, the English spinster who solves crimes without resorting to fancy high-tech gadgets, relying instead on her feminine sensitivity, empathy and intuitive intelligence.

Sixth Form exposed me to the works of William Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters and poets like Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning. I digested these works in the course of duty rather than the pleasure they could afford but I learnt to respect their skilful penmanship in critical appreciation class. These literature classes stood me in good stead later in life when I would voluntarily pick up copies of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Emma and read them with much enjoyment.

When I joined the nine-to-five brigade, reading was relegated to the back burner. Still, I did find time for the occasional Sidney Sheldon, Arthur Hailey and Stephen King novels. However, when I became a mother, time became the scarcest of commodities. There was hardly time to catch my breath, let alone read a book. Reading had become a luxury.

I remember going on a special holiday once. Hubby had to attend a seminar in Singapore for a few days. I borrowed two thick novels from the library, left the children with my mum and tagged along with him to Singapore. While hubby was out, I holed myself in the hotel room and read till my vision blurred and my temples throbbed. When I went out to grab a bite, the book went with me. When I went down to the pool, I brought the book to read on the sunlounger. That was one unforgettable holiday. I hope some day soon, I’ll have the opportunity to have another such break but it’s going to take some working. Then, I had only two kids; now, there are four.

It is difficult to find time to read books these days. If I do read them, they are confined to how-to books and short-story collections. Something like The Elements of Copywriting or The World’s Greatest Cranks and Crackpots. These don’t have the pull of page-turning novels like John Grisham’s or Amy Tan’s.

I can’t resist a good yarn. I would become like an ostrich. Instead of the head being buried in the sand, mine would be stuck in the book. My eyes would be glued to the pages and my posterior to the chair. Meals would be served late. Children’s whining would be ignored. Hubby’s grumbling would be shut off. Television would have lost its lure.

Nothing beats a good book.

An excerpt from Life’s Like That: Scenes from Malaysian Life, by Lydia Teh (Pelanduk Publications, 324pp, 2004)

LYDIA TEH is a homemaker who enjoys writing while raising her brood of four. In between cooking for her children, chauffeuring them around and coaching them in their studies, she loves observing the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Malaysians. Her second book, Honk! If You’re Malaysian (MPH Publishing, 2007), her follow-up to Life’s Like That: Scenes from Malaysian Life (2004), was published in January 2007.


Blogger Lydia Teh said...

Eric, thanks for posting this. Since writing that article, I've started to read more. Writers can't afford not to read if we want to improve our writing.

Thursday, March 08, 2007 1:49:00 AM  
Blogger Kak Teh said...

eric/lydia, I think we went through the same titles when we were in school. I can remember being told off by my mother for bringing these books by Enid Blyton to kenduris. So very anti social. These days I find myself reading books about old, so many things I still dont know about my own country.

Thursday, March 08, 2007 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger Xeus said...

Lydia, how lovely. Thanks for bringing back memories. Incidentally, the article I wrote for Eric was also about Enid Blyton.

Don't know what else to write for you la, Eric! Any suggestions?

Saturday, March 10, 2007 12:08:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Lydia, Zaharah & Lynette - I believe all of us went through our fair share of Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys and Agatha Christies and Perry Masons. I too read Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I still buy these books after all these years for the memories they evoke.

Saturday, March 10, 2007 5:20:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home