Home Children's Burning Books Q and A—Philip Womack

Burning Books Q and A—Philip Womack

Philip Womack talks all things bookish for the companion series to our popular podcast, Burning Books

A book from your early days

I remember Gobbolino and the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams—I think it was the first ‘proper’ book I read all the way through, around 5 or 6 years old, and it just sparked something inside me—the magic, the animals—I must have read and re-read it a dozen times. I would definitely save this one.

Dog ears or book marks?

Both. Some books I love to read and re-read, and then the dog ears and bent spines and bits of paper stuck into them act as reminders. I’m quite precious about books in general, though, and if it’s a first edition or a nice paperback, I will look askance if I find people putting them face down on the table…

A quote you can say by heart

I was encouraged, as a little boy, to memorise poetry, and so I have a few poems off by heart, notably “Long-Legged Fly” by Yeats, and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by Keats. On and off through my life I have memorised things—I think you really get to know works if they inhabit your mind.

I can do the first few lines of The Iliad in Greek, and the first stanza of Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, “A gentle knight was pricking on the plain…” Lots of odds and ends here and there.

A book you return to over the years

My three current constant companions are The Iliad, which I’m slowly re-reading, ten lines at a time, and Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, which again I’m re-immersing myself in—it’s so wonderful, brimming with invention and fantasy.

I also return a lot to Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, marvelling at its complex plot lines. And I’m currently re-dipping into Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of A Fox-hunting Man, which is such a vivid and exciting account of field sports in Sussex (where I grew up), as well as being an important anti-war novel and an insight into one of our greatest poets.

Do you lend without expecting a book returned?

I never lend books. The last time I lent a book was when I was at university. It was a novel by William Sutcliffe, New Boy. I leant it to a friend. She took it on holiday. Did I ever see it again? No. So I bought a new copy and every time I look at it I am reminded of the lost one.

Best book someone gave you

My family are under strict instructions not to give me books as presents, as it is impossible to walk into my study thanks to the shoals of unread books… But my grandmother left me her books, which included some Dickens from my grandfather’s side, and even some from her grandmother’s, and it’s been lovely looking through them and seeing what they read and liked.

There’s a collected Pope, for example, which has still got bookmarks in it. It means, now, that I have four Collected Tennysons, but then, who doesn’t need four versions of Tennyson?

A book that makes you laugh

The novels of P G Wodehouse are always a tonic. You only have to pick one up and read a few lines to raise a smile. Every sentence is perfection. But lots of recent children’s fiction has made me laugh out loud: I was reading Diana Wynne-Jones’ Conrad’s Fate to my son, and it is full of hilarious situations.

A book you associate with a particular life event 

I would save my Oxford Classical Dictionary, because my parents gave it to me before I went to university. It’s rather a door-stopper, and would probably impede my escape from the flames, but it’s one of those books that draws you in with its articles—it’s a great place to start for any research into the classical world, from myth to history and beyond.

One of your own books you would save over others

This is a very hard question! I would save Ghostlord, because it’s the one I’ve written most recently… But if I could I would save all the others as well, even the ones I don’t particularly like any more.  

You can save one non-book item: what is it? 

I would save the pocket watch I was given for my 21st birthday. It’s engraved with my initials, and on a silver chain. I love it. It makes me feel like the White Rabbit.