After a long car trip spent teasing my sisters when I was seven years old, my parents dragged me into a second‑hand bookshop, threw a tatty hardback at me, and cried “enough! Just shut up and read”. And my world changed.
Hugh Lofting wrote The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle in 1922. The story is narrated by nine‑year old Tommy Stubbins, who becomes the Doctor’s apprentice. From the back seat of a 1980s Toyota, I peered through Tommy’s eyes into a world that was as dazzling to me as Dorothy’s Technicolor Oz.
The world of Doctor Dolittle celebrates intellectual curiosity for its own sake – a world in which the Doctor chases a rare jabizri beetle through the jungle like an excited schoolboy, or furiously scribbles notes onto the lining of his hat while conversing with the Great Glass Sea Snail.
I learned that the world's horizons are limitless, and you can set your own rules for exploring them.
When the Doctor decides to go on a voyage, he explains to Tommy that he selects his destinations through Blind Travel: he blindfolds himself, lets the atlas fall open, and drops a pencil. When Tommy dropped his pencil, it landed on Spidermonkey Island, a floating island off South America, and that is where Tommy and the Doctor went.
Imagine the fireworks those words ignited in my seven‑year‑old brain, as I learned that the world’s horizons are limitless, and you can set your own rules for exploring them.
Like Tommy Stubbins, I grew up wanting to experience the thrill of discovery. I had never heard of an –ist before, but the Doctor was a naturalist, a botanist, and a linguist, and I have no doubt that I was drawn towards becoming an archaeologist by following Doctor Dolittle’s footsteps.
Dr James Fraser is Senior Curator at the Nicholson Museum.