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  • Writer's pictureIqbal Hussain

Harriet - the spy who loved me back

It was a freezing cold Winter's day in Blackburn, and halfway home from school I did an about-turn: I'd forgotten my book: "Harriet the Spy", by Louise Fitzhugh. It was a Friday and I didn't want to be without reading material over the weekend. Books were scarce in the house, and we only really read books either from the school library or ones we picked up at charity shops.

It was a large, orange hardback, the size of a brick. It weighed down my satchel and I walked home in the snow for the second time. But, boy, was it worth it.

Harriet is an engaging character - feisty, opinionated, not scared to say it as she sees it. Over the weekend, I read with delight her observations about her school friends and the neighbours she spied on. Her mission was to be a writer, and to be a writer she had to write down everything. What delighted me as a child was how unlike any other heroine she was. She filled her notebook with wonderfully catty comments that made me guffaw out loud when I read them:

"If Marion Hawthorne doesn't watch out, she's going to grow up into a lady Hitler."

"Carrie Andrews' mother has the biggest front I ever saw."

"I don't know exactly if I like Rachel or whether it is just that I like going to her house because her mother makes homemade cake."

Not surprisingly, her often uncharitable thoughts about those around her didn't go down well with everyone. The book was banned in some libraries in the '60s as it wasn't felt that Harriet was a good role model.

But I disagree. Harriet was a breath of fresh air. She was all about honesty, and being true to herself. I took to keeping my own notebook and even spied on a few neighbours, though, sadly, this not being New York, I wasn't able to sneak into anyone's dumbwaiter to eavesdrop on their conversation, or spy on them through the skylight of their apartment.

Harriet's thoughts ran into all sorts of topics - and many of them were profound. When her Nanny, Ole Golly, leaves in the middle of the book, Harriet's world collapses. She pens the following entry:

"I feel all the same things when I do things alone as when Ole Golly was here. The bath feels hot, the bed feels soft, but I feel there’s a funny little hole in me that wasn’t there before, like a splinter in your finger, but this is somewhere above my stomach."

Or when she realises that her friend Sport does not share the same affluent home background:

"Sport's house smells like old laundry, and it's noisy and kind of poor-looking. My house doesn't smell and is quiet ... does that mean we are rich? What makes people poor or rich?"

Forty years later, after first opening those stiff orange covers, it remains one of my all-time favourite books. It inspired me to become a journalist, and fanned the flame of the writer in me from an early age. Harriet, I salute you!

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