A Reading Life

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I’ve been interested in the readings of ‘Why Women Read Fiction’ by Helen Taylor, being read on BBC’s Radio 4. A recent episode explored women’s favourite childhood novels, giving clues as to why the books instilled a lifelong passion for fiction reading.

Children’s books are glorious. I have a collection of my own [the only paper books I tend to want, these days]. Some of the precious treasures on my shelves, tucked away in the bedroom reserved for small grandchildren are saved from my childhood, notably a beautiful copy of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ with stunning colour plate illustrations I saved up my pocket money to buy, the leather-bound copy of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking-Glass’ that I discovered nestling on the end of my bed one Christmas morning and the romantic ‘The Glass Slipper’ by Eleanor Farjeon that I read and re-read with all the others. I also have an age-spotted copy of ‘Struwwelpeter’, a book of rhyming cautionary tales I found in a second hand bookshop and had to buy because it had held a horrific fascination for me when I attended my first school at 4 years old and I spotted it on the shelves in our small, village classroom.

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I have described before how I became fixated on some books after hearing them read on the radio [The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was one]. As a child, along with my two brothers we read weekly comics and were familiar with the characters in ‘Beano’, ‘Dandy’ etc. We couldn’t imagine a weekend without Dennis the Menace or Minnie the Minx.

Offspring 1 and 2 loved books, although Offspring 2 [female] was the more voracious, famously in our family history for being fleeced by Offspring 1 [male] 20 pence each time she wished to borrow a book from his shelves. I was never sure whether to be horrified at the cavalier treatment of his younger sister or impressed by his early entrepreneurial skills…

Research shows that women read far more fiction than men and that the fiction that this minority of men do read is mainly by male writers. Do those men who dislike fiction feel it to be less valuable in some way? Or is it less manly to waste time in such a frivolous pastime as fiction? Myself I believe there is as much to be learned from reading [good] fiction as anything else.

I know for sure there are men’s book clubs out there, although few and far between. My own book club is all female. When we meet up [large enough in number for it to be tricky to get a word in!] it must seem daunting to other users of the hotel bar we inhabit. Our chatter is animated, enthusiastic, argumentative, often rowdy in the way that all female groups can be. The discussion ranges from what we’ve read to politics, relationships, childhood, environment, psychology and everything in between but is never dull. There is no ‘ban’ on male members, but I wonder how the dynamic would change if there were some?

In the meantime I have a good book to get on with. It’s ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owens [soon to be released as a movie].

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The Power of the Written Word

So 2019 is grinding towards an end, and what a complex, mangled year it has been for us, here in the UK.

On our small island with its natural water barrier between us and the world, a civil war of words has raged since 2016, over whether we should pull up the drawbridge to our sea moat and withdraw into our brittle little shell or continue to relate with our nearest neighbours in the same convivial way we’ve enjoyed for 50 years.

I’m disconsolate to say to my overseas readers, not only that the drawbridge fans have won the war of words, but that all of we ordinary citizens, those of us who don’t have huge investments squirrelled away or are not hedge fund managers, who are not the fabulously rich elite and right wing newspaper owners, we have all lost.

I can’t dwell for too long on an issue which has been divisive enough to make me sick at heart. Instead I turn for comfort to my own community and to the groups which provide solace, friendship and distraction in these gloomy times.

While I have only been a member of my current book club for about a year, the members feel like old friends already, with their lively, cheerful discussions and their enthusiasm for reading and sharing views. During the evening we spent enjoying a Christmas meal I discovered I am the oldest in the group [by 4 days!], although I’ve never felt myself to be a different generation. I love the range of ages and stages of life. Members relate to the books differently depending on these stages, which provides a wealth of varied insights. The group has grown so much that numbers have had to be regulated!

In contrast, my writing group, the wonderful Spokes, has kept going for years with fluctuating numbers, on occasions dipping to three of us, the original three. We’ve moved venue several times and seen writers come and go, some getting published, some moving to new areas, others giving up their writing journey. But new members always turn up, currently a disparate but interesting set of characters with very different levels of expertise to bring to our group. People have different reasons for attending a group; perhaps writing is an outlet for them, perhaps they are serious about pursuing writing as a career, or perhaps the feeling of belonging and being valued is all they need.

We are fortunate, these days to be housed in our wonderful, local library, a facility denied to many since austerity crept around the country pruning services to the ground. If you are still lucky enough to live near a functioning library, please use it! There are few greater treasures than books, even in this digital age.

So at this point, I wish you-readers from all around the world, all faiths or none, all nationalities, a very happy and peaceful Christmas.

 

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.