A Life of Christmases

The nature of Christmas changes as you go through life but the Christmases of your first memories stick with you into your dotage.
I can still remember the fever of excitement of going to bed on Christmas Eve having left one of my father’s woolly socks at the end of the bed and of waking with the heavy, crackly weight of a stuffed sock on my feet. I remember how mercilessly I was teased by my brothers because I’d christened my new doll ‘Dereline’. Derelict Dereline became their chant for the next few weeks until they tired of my wails.
Then there was the year that my longed-for book, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ was there, an oblong wedge along the ribbed sock, above the toe which contained a satsuma and a sixpence wrapped in newspaper as well as a walnut.
There were always family gatherings, when more gifts were bestowed [Fuzzy Felt was a new innovation in toy technology then] and we’d be coerced into writing a list in preparation for thank -you letters.
Once we were teenagers the obligation to spend the day with our parents jostled with the desire to be with our friends, others’ homes often seeming to be more fun, more welcoming or more riotous than our own. We no longer wanted to sit around watching the Queen’s speech or playing pencil and paper games with my parents, preferring the anarchic hilarity of drinking games in darkened rooms and puerile jokes and tricks.
Later, as a student I’d often need to work over the Christmas period, a requirement that would set me free from family obligations. Later still marriage and parenthood provided new difficulties as the emotional tugs of two sets of parents clashed.
Parenthood allows you to relive your own childhood festivities for a time as you work to create the magic you experienced yourself. You stay up late wrapping up small gifts and tiptoeing into bedrooms to leave a stocking or a sack. You remember to eat the mince pie, down the sherry and bite into the carrot that was all left as an offering before falling into your own bed for what will be a ludicrously short sleep. You are rudely woken in the small hours by electrified tots jumping all over you…
Having assumed you will never get enough sleep again the tots morph into teenagers, rarely making an appearance before midday and no longer excited by Christmas stockings. They resume their solitary commune with screens and games while you jostle the pans to make a gargantuan dinner they may or may not want. It is clear that mince pies and Christmas puddings will die a death, as subsequent generations reject traditional fare for chocolate concoctions and ice cream.
Then they are gone. They make their own lives [you hope] and in what seems like a blink, have their own children. Your role as a grandparent is an attempt at non-judgmental support. You provide when requested. You step back when not.
In an extraordinary twist and for the first time in twenty-one years, this year we are not playing host on the day. We’ll be celebrating with a late start, brunch, a good walk and dinner in a local hostelry. Magic!

Walking Back to Happiness?

There is a movement afoot, noticeable in the media but not yet glaring. This may be due to the myriad, other news items clamouring for our attention at the moment, but still-

The movement goes like this: there is a stepping back into bygone decades, a nostalgia for the past. It is not confined to those of us who are of mature years, no; all age groups appear to be involved.

First there was a resurgence of vinyl records, believed to be of better sound quality [unlikely] and rendering listening an altogether enhanced experience. I remember gathering with friends as a teenager to listen to a new ‘LP’ from a favourite band. We’d lounge around in someone’s bedroom in total, inert silence and listen to it in entirety. It’s difficult to imagine today’s teenagers doing this.

Then there are books. Personally I’m still wedded to my Kindle; but the wave of paper book devotees has grown, their claims that they must have the aroma, the feel and the weight of paper outweighing the sheer convenience of storing thousands of books on a tiny device. I do have sympathy for the argument that bookshelves are a most attractive feature-otherwise I wouldn’t go back.

According to recent reports, many amateur photographers are turning to film for a more satisfying and authentic photographic experience. This is a strange one. Why? Film is difficult to store, expensive to buy and even dearer to process. Apparently having a limited number of frames prompts a more measured and careful photo. I’d be all for it if it eradicated the odious habit of the selfie, otherwise I’ll be sticking to my digital camera and discarding all my many photographic mistakes.

On to games. I’m right behind this one. When electronic games became a thing board game activity seemed to die a death. But so much of electronic gaming is solitary! Monopoly, Scrabble, Risk, Ludo, Cluedo etc-these are the games of my childhood, where we practised counting, adding up, reading and, best of all, turn taking. Now I’ve discovered that board game cafes are springing up-places where groups can go to enjoy some time together, which seems to me to be one of the best ideas ever. People may even begin to speak to each other, perhaps rather than spend their time together transfixed by their little screens.

The latest contributor to the bygone era crusade may be cash. Anyone interested in science fiction writing might be forgiven for assuming that in the future cash will have tumbled down into the slots of history but no, evidently there are those who are turning to comforting notes and coins in a reassuring bid to stave off penury. It does seem counter-intuitive, does it not? We are encouraged to cut our bills by using direct debit and protect ourselves by carrying less cash.

What’s next? Are these changes are a part of a more sinister world that is taking backwards, retrograde steps in terms of shaking off modern, enlightened liberalism? If so we’ll soon begin to see the reappearance of some of the rough justice, bigotry and xenophobia that I, for one had hoped would have disappeared forever.

The Good the Bad and the Unreadable

It would not be an exaggeration to say that writing has spoiled reading for me. This is not to say that I no longer read. I do. In fact I consider that reading-widely and variedly-is essential for anyone hoping to produce any written work of their own. But the sheer hedonistic escapism that ensues when you are engrossed in a rip-roaring, breath-taking story is rare nowadays.

I became a voracious reader as a child, devouring the written word as soon as I could read; beginning with fairy stories and developing an appetite for fantasy in the form of the Narnia books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and the Alan Garner novels. A friend with a penchant for Enid Blyton led me to flirt briefly with The Famous Five but I was soon disenchanted by the formula aspect of the plots [although I was keen to replicate the ‘gang’ aspect by forming a club and pursuing some vague exploits].

Later I flogged my way through Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, indulged in an Ian Fleming phase with some gentile porn thrown in [a furtive, febrile partaking of Lady Chatterley plus a few dismembered sections of Frank Harris’s ‘My Life and Loves’ undertaken during geography lessons and passed around partly opened desks-little wonder I was not invited to pursue my geographical studies].

Later, during my hippy phase I spent every spare moment during one week reading The Lord of the Rings and became sucked in to the extent that when Gandalf disappeared down the chasm I was devastated to the point of despair and felt my own life to be at an end. Such is the susceptibility of youth-and Tolkien’s writing of course.

As a student I was influenced to read more widely and began to enjoy modern classics like Catcher in the Rye or Sylvia Plath’s fascinating and darkly comic The Bell Jar. I became aware that there were differences between good and poor writing.

Once real life had set in with the onset of work, marriage and babies there was a hiatus in my reading while I dipped into Dr Spock and Penelope Leach whilst wringing out the nappies. Still later, teaching left no time or energy for reading outside of holiday periods, when I’m sad to say pure escapism took over in the shape of thrillers. There was a Stephen King period, a Ruth Rendell/P D James/Minette Walters period and even a Lee Child stage before, short of a book I stumbled upon a dog-eared paperback in a hotel in The Gambia. It was The Blind Assassin. The title grabbed my attention then I was gripped, following up by reading more Margaret Attwood. I discovered Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and began to read Sebastian Faulkes, Ian McEwan etc

At last the work of good writers lured me into having a bash myself-a foolish notion. The work of such writers only serves to underline how futile my own attempts are. Worse than this-the [still published] work of poor writers induces a powerful frustration. I wasted a lot of time last year trying to read ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’, which won the Booker Prize!

Onwards and upwards…

Tales from the Red Carpet

Film award season is upon us. I must admit to a passing interest in the BAFTAs and the OSCARs in spite of myself. I’m not a fan of the hype, the ‘loviness’, the millions of bucks chucked at those whose earnings are already millions of bucks, the horrible, fawning adoration and blitz of papparazi resulting in tabloid, red carpet effluent. Then there are the ceremonies themselves; the over confident, self-congratulatory smugness of whoever is hosting, the simpering and the tearful gushing of the winners. On occasions there is a glimpse of a plucky loser as the camera pans around the glittering audience, applauding with as much generous enthusiasm as they are able to muster.

Sometimes I will have seen one or two of the nominated films. If this is the case it will either have been due to having read the book or because something about the story has grabbed my attention. This time I have seen ‘Room’, drawn by the fact that I’ve read it and that Mark Kermode, a reliable BBC critic gave it a ‘thumbs up’. Having initially been interested to see ‘The Lady in the Van’ I am now deterred by the [again reliable] remarks of my writing group members, who declared it ‘awful’. This is disappointing, in view of the fact that the writer, Alan Bennett is a national treasure.

This year I am intrigued to see that traditional story-telling appears to dominate the selected movies, rather than over-blown productions salivated over for their special effects. I can see no virtue whatsoever in resurrecting tired old Star Wars. Give me some gritty drama and a brilliant story and I’m happy-oh and the acting has to be plausible.

Of course, a film is about more than the plot or the acting. There are costumes, photography, direction, locations, ‘stars’. But for me the overriding element is always story line and while I am inevitably compelled to see a movie about a book I’ve read I will always come away knowing the book was better. Yes, ‘Room’ the movie was excellent and the best actor award well deserved but the book got into my head in a way that seeing the images never could.

I’m always surprised by how many people have no interest at all in fiction and I’ve a sneaking suspicion that most are of the male gender, but I may be wrong. Throughout all the years of my previous life as a teacher I never once encountered a child who didn’t love stories. What happens during the transition to adulthood to turn some people off reading them?

 

The News, Les Nouvelles, La Noticia or Las Noticias?

We are at the end of our first camper-van trip of this year, an odyssey very much unplanned that took us to Portugal, Spain and France, depending on where the weather was best according to the forecast.

Unlike the many who rumble around the roads of Southern Europe in search of sunshine we have not succumbed [yet] to a satellite dish to give us the evening diet of TV that we would get at home. Ideally we would be near enough, when parked up to access a lively bar or two but circumstances don’t always work out this way and we are sometimes left with the choice of books, internet [if it is available] or local TV. Failing all this I am forced to write!

We are at the mercy of Portuguese, Spanish or French TV programmes; most often their news bulletins or the equivalent of our ‘BBC News 24’. While we are adequately equipped linguistically in French to inquire the whereabouts of the nearest ‘boulangerie’ etc neither Husband nor I have more than the sketchiest idea of what is going on in Spanish, less still Portuguese, so the results of our viewing are often confusing and down to guesswork using pictures and the running text along the bottom of the screen.

All this gives a sense of what it may be like to be a young child learning to decipher the squiggles and symbols of words when learning to read and makes you realise how crucial the pictures are as an aid. While I like to think it is improving my linguistic skills I somehow doubt this is the case, since we’ve no idea whether our guesses are correct.

One excellent benefit of watching other countries’ news is that the angle is no longer at UK degrees, the world does not revolve around our own country. At home, even world issues will only be dealt with from a UK viewpoint. The Alpine air disaster item will focus on any British passengers, a climate summit will centre on our own delegate; grim beheadings will be given scant coverage unless the victim is British. Elsewhere in the world the focus swings to their own delegates, victims or disasters. Here is an aspect of that broadening of the mind that travel is supposed to offer.

Another advantage is missing a huge chunk of tedious UK election coverage broadcasting which, judging by the un-edifying glimpses caught since our return has been a blessing. From the quality of their baby-kissing to their stance on pot-holes, is there any pebble left undisturbed in the relentless unearthing of new stories about the opposing politicians?

And what can they possibly write, spout, blog or tweet about once the entire circus has left town? They must be praying for a heatwave/earthquake/alien invasion-otherwise it will be back to road congestion and house prices.

Reading the Years

Janet and John

Janet and John

I learned to read with Janet and John; that is to say-I was taught using the reading scheme, Janet and John, not alongside 4 and 5 year olds with those names [although there may well have been Janets and Johns in my class]. The prose was simple, repetitive and tedious but did the trick. I recall that the satisfaction of achieving the decoding of the words was enough to motivate me. I believe the time taken to learn to read was very short, as I was very quickly moving on to the likes of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ which I was soon able to quote long chunks of, so familiar did I become with its enchanting story line.

Janet and John was of its time, the 1950s. The family was standardised mother, father, boy, girl and dog. They were white and middle class. Janet was pictured helping mother in the kitchen while John and his father did manly chores involving the garden. These were not riveting tales. Most sentences ran along the lines of ‘Run, John, run’. He would not be running to avoid the attention of the police or to save the planet but in some vague notion of play.

By the time I was myself teaching children to read, the Ladybird scheme had arrived, although the cultural and socio-economic portrayal of the characters was not a jot different. This time the children were called Peter and Jane, the dog Pat. I feel I should apologise, here and now to the children in my class in Stockwell, London who had no option but to use these books with their white, middle class nuclear family. They must have seemed as alien as the bar in Star Wars for children whose cultural backgrounds were African, West Indian or Asian and who lived in tenement blocks in 1970s London.

Later still, my own children were given ‘One, Two, Three and Away’ books, which at least had story lines-albeit surreal. There were the beginnings of some kind of diversity, with deviant ‘Percy Green’ portrayed as a naughty boy-the character small children loved the most.

When I returned to teaching after an eight year child break there was a bright, shiny new scheme. Political correctness was burgeoning and the books went some way towards addressing it. There was still a white family with a dog [‘Floppy’] but there was the addition of Wilf and Wilma, Nadim and Aneena and their families. Everyone continued to be middle class, with no depictions of unemployment or single parents, but this is to be expected since nobody wants children to learn to read using material based on dispiriting circumstances.

Since the early 90s subsequent governments have meddled with increasingly heavy-handed interventions in the teaching of reading-each new education minister eager to make their mark and overturn the previous ‘big’ idea, regardless of what teachers know and have always known. Normal well supported children can learn to read from the back of a cereal packet but get their richest experiences from real, proper books. Those from homes with little language input and impoverished bookshelves cannot.

Who can resist the lure of children’s books these days? They get better every time I visit the book store!

Writing Superstardom

Congratulations to Richard Flanagan, the winner of the Booker Prize 2014 for his novel, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep South’. I have yet to read it, but fully intend to, not just because the judges were unanimous in their praise for the book but because I like to think the act of reading such an acclaimed and feted novel is a piece of research. Maybe there is a remote chance I will be able to uncover the secret of writing superb and successful prose by reading it.
When casting around for something new to load on to my Kindle I often turn to the long or shortlisted books that are in the race for a prize. I learned some time ago that Amazon reviews are not to be trusted [with the exception, of course of my own reviews]. I have posted before about the ghastly mistakes I’ve made-most notably in the case of the tedious ‘One Day’, a predictable rom-com set in the eighties [not a thrilling decade]. The book prize method of selecting reading matter is not always reliable and needs backing up with additional reviews, generally from a respected newspaper.
The only 2014 Booker contender I have read so far is American writer Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘We are all Completely Beside Ourselves’, a story which captivated me for a number of reasons. It is both laugh-out-loud funny and tear provokingly tragic. The subject matter-the tale of a child growing up with a chimpanzee as not only a sibling but a ‘twin’ is unusual and compelling. The book raised many issues including parental, children’s and animal rights. It is certainly a book I would have been proud to have written.
There was something of a shumuncous regarding the opening of the Booker prize to anyone who writes in English. I can see that widening the field does increase the competition, but perhaps it also leads to more diversity. As time goes on it becomes harder to find new subject matter. It is accepted that there are only seven basic story lines and that each and every tale is based on one of them.
The two world wars have spawned an explosion of literature both fiction and fact, much of which is very good-[Helen Dunmore, Sebastian Faulkes] and so any further foray into war territory must necessarily attack from a new angle. I gather Richard Flanagan’s novel is inspired by his father’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war. It is the author’s sixth novel and one that took him twelve years to write, a fact I find most heartening given that my novel 2 is stubbornly resistant to progress!
I wonder how winner Richard is feeling-beyond the euphoria of victory of course. There could be an element of pressure, I imagine, as once the excitement recedes the pressure must surely mount to produce another blockbuster, Hilary Mantel style!