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!

Those that can, write, Those that can’t, write too.

                I attend a book club at my local library. It consists of about eight gentile old ladies-[I am including myself in this description although the gentile part is the most inaccurate]. On the whole I love my fellow old ladies. They are smiley, mild mannered, self-deprecating. We talk about a wide variety of subjects-most recently hearing aids, the sights of Rome and foot ailments. Occasionally we come around to discussing the novel we have been allocated by Tracey, the enigmatic librarian. Given that we have all had a month to read said novel we should, by rights have plenty to throw into a discussion about it, however we are almost always as earnest as schoolgirls in our lame excuses.

                ‘I’ve read it but so long ago I can’t remember it’

                ‘I read some of it’

                ‘I couldn’t find it until this morning’-

The Book Club equivalent of ‘the dog ate my homework’.

                The problem lies, I believe with the kind of books Tracey chooses for us [or rather, the set of books that has become available for us]. They are rarely riveting, or if they are, I’ve generally read them already. Hence several recent issues have been, for me unreadable.  

                One of the ladies has literary tastes which are in direct opposition to mine. If there is an odd book that I enjoy I know she is going to declare it ‘rubbish’. One such book was The Great Gatsby, which I had read many years ago and enjoyed rereading. Other tales, such as the very popular ‘One Day’ by David Nichols did nothing for me but gave her much pleasure. You would think, would you not, that such discrepancies in reactions to books would lead to interesting and lively discussion, yet this has still to happen.

                I’m sorry to say I blame Tracey for this lack of debate. Were she to arrive at our table armed with provocative questions the conversation would be sustained and would not veer off on to subjects such as bunions or where to buy fruit teas. We could discuss characters, plot lines, whys and wherefores. We could say why we did or did not get something from the read [or lack of read]. Really there is no excuse, since many novels come ready pressed with the book club questions and stimulants all there at the end of the narrative.

                Just for once though, last week the opinions were unanimous. Everyone was agreed that the novel was one of the very worst we’d ever been given. The book? It was Richard Madely’s ‘Some Day I’ll Find You’.

                Richard Madely is a lightweight journalist and TV presenter who made a name co-presenting a daytime TV chat show with his wife and subsequently as a TV Book Club host. Now I understand completely what makes someone who is interested-even passionate about literature become motivated enough to take up the pen themself. This has happened to me. But the difference between myself and Richard is not associated with writing ability. It is that he, with all his lack of talent has simply thrown into his novel every cliché, formula and hackneyed device he has encountered and produced a tired story which he has not had to send to every literary agent known to man in order to get published. He can sell his boring book on the strength of his name.

It goes to show that reading, whilst useful to aspiring writers does not a writer make. Do I sound jaded? Indeed I am!

It’s all about the Story

                We have made good our escape from windy, waterlogged England and are making for [hopefully] warmer, drier lands to the South.

                In preparation for this first jaunt of 2014 I loaded up my e-reader with some novels I’ve missed, some I was seduced by, having read reviews [though not Amazon’s-having been fooled more than once before] and some I feel it my duty to read.

                The first book is one that surprised me by its 99pence price tag, since it is the book from which the current blockbusting, award winning, sweep-the-board movie was made from-‘Twelve Years a Slave’.

                Now I have yet to see this film, and I’ve no doubt I will, but in my view films rarely match up to their book form. Although I am less than 25% through the story, ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ has gripped me and held me in its absorbing clutches. Solomon Northup’s account of his capture and subsequent subjection as a slave is both dignified and moving. He recounts the horrors that he and his fellow slaves endure in a measured, matter of fact narrative. Some of his descriptions are particularly moving, such as his account of the people of the Indian village celebrating with their visitors, enjoying a meal and dancing around a camp fire accompanied by music played on a fiddle [Solomon is himself a fiddle player]. He is captivated by the scene, whilst not once pointing out the irony of their freedom against his captivity.

                There is much to be said for personal accounts of horrific events in history. They tug our emotions more than facts. We all know of the dreadful horrors wrought on so many during the war, but Anne Franck’s diary story, documenting her life and including domestic trivia, teenage angst and family squabbles brings to life the awful reality of the events. It is the story of an ordinary family, one that we can relate to. How much more poignant than factual accounts!

                At school we were taught the dry, fusty dates and facts of history; the reigns of Kings and Queens or the politics behind the wars. If we’d have been given the personal stories behind the events I think we’d have been more interested-interested enough, perhaps to have ceased the passing round of a particularly smutty and sexually explicit paperback that some miscreant had purloined and divided into lesson-sized portions.

What would Solomon make of all the Oscar hullabaloo, I wonder. After all, the success of the film relies entirely on his story, whatever the performances and direction were like.

                We have reached the South of France, where the early March weather is already warm enough during the day to bring a blush of heat to the skin, though plummeting sharply at night. We cycled 25 miles up and down the Canal du Midi in glorious, unbridled sunshine without a cloud, the vineyards laid in neat rows ready to come into leaf. Along the side of the canal those who’ve made their houseboat homes in Dutch barges are busy spring cleaning and sprucing up. Spring must surely be the nicest season, with a promise of long, warm days to come.

                

Another Tedious Round of Kiss and Tell

                The customary, annual circus of celebrity autobiographies is cranking up already, as the first signs of sparkly window dressing in the shops appear and even the miniscule pharmacy next to our doctors’ surgery has sprouted some tinsel along its dusty shelving-that is, unless it has been left over from last year?

                First out of the traps are a couple of football managers, following up their published memoirs by appearing on an overabundance of talk shows and magazine programmes, promising plenty of ‘kiss and tell’ revelations. You can’t blame them. Presumably in retirement they need every penny they can get to keep them in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. The level of writing competence will be adequate, since they will have engaged the services of ghost writers, and in any case I suppose their readership will not be purchasing their books for their literary qualities, characterisation, plotlines, descriptions, imagery or philosophical debate. No, the punters will be interested in two things only-whether they dish the dirt-and what the dirt is.

                Then there are actors, pop stars, footballers, ‘presenters’ and comedians. I used to feel it incongruous for pop singers or models barely into their twenties to pen [or have someone pen] ‘My Story’ but of course then I realised it is the ultimate gravy train. In another couple of years, having become addicted to some substance, had a couple of stints in The Priory, got married, had an affair or two, come out, been arrested and done community service the material is all set for ‘My Story-the Next Chapter’. Look at Katie Price. She has created an entire industry from living her orchestrated life in the public eye, thus generating enough story lineage for a library full of autobiographies.

                If I appear to be less than enamoured of celebrity autobiographies then it is true. In fact the biography is not a favourite genre of mine at all. Unlike the unlovely Noel Gallagher I’m a great fiction fan. Has Noel any plans to publish his own memoirs? If he has not already done so, I’m betting it will happen at some stage. I’m also willing to wager it will contain a fair portion of fiction, a genre that Noel abhors.

                I do make the odd exception to my biography reading rule. Jennifer Saunders has been reading her own on the radio; fresh, entertaining and funny. In contrast, Dawn French’s offering [doled out to my book club-hence not a choice] came across as self congratulatory, inflated and at times, resentful.

                If there is a redeeming feature about the eruption of Christmas biogs it is that they are unaccountably popular [or why would there be so many on the shelves of WH Smith and Waterstone’s], which means that a great many people pick up a book who would otherwise be reading nothing more than The Daily Mail or the numbers on their lottery tickets; that is, if they are read? They do, after all, tend to include a plethora of glossy photographs…

The Fickle Art of Reviewing

                How wearying it is that reviewing has become such a cynical marketing ploy, instead of the useful consumer tool it was invented to be. It is no surprise, these days, to learn that companies such as publishers and tour operators are prepared to pay vast sums to get positive evaluations, but saddening all the same, that large conglomerations see us, the consumers, as so easily manipulated.

                I was ‘stung’ a couple of times myself when trawling through the cyber aisles on Amazon. I was seduced into buying ‘One Day’, a shallow rom-com [never a favourite genre of mine], which was eulogised about by hundreds of gushing reviewers. I did, at least manage to get to the predictable end of the book. Then there was ‘Shantaram’, which also achieved massive acclaim, and which I assumed would be more my style-it concerning travel in exotic locations, and which I deleted after less than two chapters. I also vented my spleen by writing my own vitriolic review of this egocentric and tedious story.

                None of this, of course applies to my own, lowly and self-published contribution to Amazon, my debut novel, ‘The Year of Familiar Strangers’ [by writer Jane Deans]! The book has managed to elicit two reviews so far, contributed by such acquaintances as I have persuaded to press finger to keyboard following their purchase. Between them they have bought it three and a half stars, hardly meteoric acclaim, but nevertheless respectable for a first go. Verbal feedback, however, has been startlingly gratifying. In another life, where I’d have begun to write novels in my youth, I might even have achieved the limitless wealth that could have bought me hundreds of rave reviews. Who knows?

                I get through a number of fiction novels each year, though I no longer look to Amazon to suggest the selection. It is tricky, as an innocent consumer, to know where to look for a good read. How can you be sure to get unbiased opinion? I go, often to book prize long-lists, which can be a reasonable guide; not so my recent purchase, the Booker choice of Richard House’s ‘The Kills’, which I found incoherent, confusing, boring and frustrating. I had more luck with Christine McKenna’s ‘The Misremembered Man’-a quick, light, amusing read with stereotypical characters but plenty of comedic, Irish, homespun philosophy.

                But I suspect my ‘big reading hit’ of the year will be the current occupant of my Kindle screen; A M Homes’ ‘May We Be Forgiven’, which has started explosively, a stonking rollercoaster of a story, darkly, bleakly comic in its exploration of a dysfunctional American family. It was an Orange prize winner, but gets mixed reviews, although I very much doubt anyone was paid to write them! 

Reading Life

                Reading habits differ as much as tastes in TV or music. There are those who do not read at all, choosing to derive their entertainment from the screen. There are those who eschew books in favour of newspapers, magazines or manuals. There are those who consider fiction beneath them and opt for worthy non-fiction. Then there are issues of class or generation.

Years ago I was quizzed by a gentile, elderly great-aunt-in-law as to what my preferred ‘light’ reading tastes were and I responded with more enthusiasm than prudence, eagerly blurting out a long list that included lurid thrillers, shallow romances, juicy, explicit murder mysteries and science fiction. Her stony faced response was an impressive put-down as she shared her leisure time favourites- Jane Austen, George Eliot-and for more vicarious pleasure, Charles Dickens. I refrained from inquiries about her ‘serious’ reading choices, fearing I may have already become so far out of my depth my feet had floated out from underneath me.

I was a voracious reader as a child; the child who could not be torn from a book for anything, not to help with the dishes, to lift her feet for the vacuum cleaner or for sleep. There were books I longed for, having heard them serialised on the radio [a joy children are deprived of these days]. The Christmas morning I awoke to find that Santa had left a hardback copy of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ on the end of my bed is my most memorable. I still have it, along with many other beloved childhood novels- Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows and Eleanor Farjeon’s beautiful take on Cinderella, ‘The Glass Slipper’.

As a teacher of young children I managed to squeeze in enough time to indulge my enjoyment of children’s literature by regular readings of my own favourites as well as theirs-Roald Dahl and Dick King-Smith included. It was gratifying to see them coming in with their own prized copies of these novels, even those whose ability was not quite, yet, up to the task of reading the stories themselves.

Then there are the film versions. I have never been able to shake the compulsion to see a film version of a book despite knowing from experience that it is never going to match the depth and pleasure of its print original.

Even now that I am approaching my dotage I still come across novels that captivate me to a point where I become evangelistic about them, urging others to read them and feeling vastly disappointed if the response does not match my own. D. C. B Pierre’s ‘Vernon God Little’ was one of these. I eulogised ad nauseam over it but found no one to share my enthusiasm. When my frustrations at the dearth of post book analysis became overwhelming I joined a book club, only to find that within the narrow confines of those who enjoy fiction novels there is the same mismatch of tastes.

But whatever is read, one truth remains. The written word is the most wonderful invention known to man!