from HeidiUpload your character
I was a weird kid, there’s no getting out of it. My mother tells a story about waking me for school one morning and instead of just getting up, I hauled myself towards her across the slippy satin quilt.
‘I can’t go to school today. You’re going to have to send me to Switzerland,’ I insisted.
Mum was perturbed for all of 10 seconds until she spotted a book on the bedside table. It was Heidi and I’d decided during the course of reading it the night before that if only I could lose the use of my legs, I’d be sent to have an adventure up a mountain. Heidi’s life seemed beautiful, otherworldly, and far preferable to my own. Under the not very watchful eye of her loving Grandfather, she was free to explore the world. We were almost the same age and I saw no reason why I couldn’t just be her. I wasn’t happy as a child and words, without question, were my way out. Opening the cover of a book was like opening a door onto another dimension – one where I could escape my difficulties. I was the odd one out in my family and I felt that deeply.
I grew up in a house that contained few books. Like Roald Dahl’s Matilda, I went to the library on my own. Mum was a high-functioning dyslexic, only diagnosed years later in her 60s. With my facility for words and obsession with story, I was a mystery to her. By contrast, my younger brothers were glorious. She’d chuck a ball out of the back door in early spring and the boys would bring it in come the autumn. Heidi’s best friend, Peter the Goatherd struck a real chord with me. A sympathetic male figure of my own age was lacking. My brothers and I did not get on. I had no interest in sport and they didn’t like reading. In the absence of the companionship I craved, I adopted Peter. My imagined world was happier than my real life and I began to inhabit a shadowy space between the two. Heidi was the first book I remember that opened that portal.
It’s hard to say if any story might have done the same job. At the time, I’d read anything but I was only just moving onto longer stories – proper books. In the post-Heidi months I adored Wuthering Heights and The Secret Garden (which features another young female protagonist with a sympathetic male sidekick). The following year I discovered Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer and Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel. I lived in a state of perpetual fiction. Looking back on it, I couldn’t help myself. I was ravenous for imagined worlds. I devoured fables, gobbled up weekly magazines and downed novels whole. I was a gourmand more than a gourmet and I subsumed the characters I met on the page into my real life. So discovering Heidi at the point where I had just started reading properly was a massive influence. My response to her happy mountain existence started me down the road to the imaginative engagement that is so important to all writers. Heidi was free. Even now, some days I wonder if a headscarf and a gingham dress might be the road to true happiness.
Back to gallery
The 26 writing group has worked with The Story Museum as part of its 26 Characters exhibition. The group have produced a collection of poems, and couldn’t resist being part of the gallery of favourite characters.