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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A Month of Fiction

It’s November, a month that brings dark evenings and chilly weather; a month for curling up by the fire and indulging in a novel or a short story. Here on ‘Anecdotage’ fiction is celebrated in November with a month of stories, new and hitherto unpublished. 

Story 1 begins with a simple, uncomplicated woman whose curiosity mingled with a desire to help lead to complications…

Chalet Concerto [Part 1]

           I’ve been married to Dave for twenty five years. Sometimes it’s hard to get his attention. I often think I could swing naked from the light fitting with a beer can in my teeth and he’d still be glued to the football; so when I told him someone had arrived to the chalet next door he didn’t so much as grunt, even though it was gone eleven and the Match of the Day credits were rolling up the screen.
I was looking out of the curtains when he turned the telly off. A light was on but nothing else. He said ‘Are you coming to bed or what?’
There was no chance I’d see who it was until the morning. Once I’d cleaned my teeth and got into my nightie Dave was already asleep, lying on his back snoring as I was tossing and turning, wondering who would arrive to a chalet at eleven fifteen. A single person-and with no car.
When I was making the tea next morning I kept looking out but I had to wait until after breakfast to spot her: Anne-only I didn’t know her name then. I went outside to put the shower towels on the rail-there’s a little decking area with a rail around and she was coming out with a handbag on her arm, a small, grey haired woman, hunched over and behaving a bit suspicious, like a burglar. She looked neat enough though, in a navy jacket and a pleated skirt. Only I thought to myself ‘it’s not holiday wear’; it’s not the kind of outfit most folks here put on to go walking the dog or sunbathing, or sitting on a lounger doing a puzzle, which is my preferred activity.
I called out to her. ‘Morning!’ and she turned her head to mumble something back before scuttling away towards the park shop. ‘I’m just going down the shop, Dave’ I yelled and I dived in for my purse. I was thinking we can always do with something or other-biscuits maybe or a nice bit of cake to have at coffee time.
I got down to the shop and said ‘Hi’ to Wendy on the checkout.
‘You’re an early bird this morning’ she said. It’s not a big shop, just a mini-market with stuff campers might need and it’s bit gloomy and cluttered. There were only two or three shoppers besides me and I soon spotted the woman in the middle aisle, looking at the tea bags.
‘They only have one sort’ I told her. ‘If you don’t like those you are welcome to borrow some of ours-I always bring tea bags. We’re quite picky about our tea!’ She half turned, not looking me in the eye. Her face had a sort of pinched, haunted expression. My mum would have said ‘like someone walked on your grave’.
‘Thank you’ she said, ‘I’m alright with these’. Her voice was refined, quiet and a bit posh. She had the packet of Red Label in her hand.
‘The milk’s at the end, in the chiller cabinet.’
‘Thank you’
‘Angela’ I stuck out my free hand. ‘Nice to meet you’. I waited then she took my hand. Hers was cold and dry. She had long, thin, papery fingers which struck me as unusual for such a tiny woman.
‘Anne. My name’s Anne’. It was almost as if she was telling herself as much as me, like she needed to remind herself who she was.
‘How about coming for a cuppa at ours this afternoon, Anne? Dave, my husband, he goes out playing golf in the afternoons so I’m on my tod most days.’
‘I don’t know.’ She was frowning, turning the Red Label packet over in her hands.
‘It’s nice to have a bit of company. I’d only be sitting doing my puzzle book otherwise.’ I gave her my best smile. Then she nodded, down at the tea bags, not at me.
‘Perhaps I will’
‘Good! I might see you this afternoon then!’ I left her and went to pick up a Battenburg and some Cherry Bakewells for later.

‘There’s a single lady next door-Anne she’s called. She might come round for a cup of tea this afto’.

      I was getting a bit of lunch while Dave read the paper. Once he’d finished eating he’d change into his golfing clothes, get his clubs and be off. I knew he wouldn’t be back until this evening because he always stops at the clubhouse for a drink or two or three. That’s when they discuss the shots they missed and pick over it all which is enough to send anyone into a stupor and the reason I don’t go and join them. Golf is boring enough, but golf talk would bore the shell off a tortoise.
To be honest I like it when he’s gone out. I put my lounger in the sun and get on with my puzzle, or read a magazine or even a book. I’m fond of Mills and Boon but sometimes I do a bit of historical romance. I usually make a cup of tea and now and again I have a glass of wine, which feels a bit wicked but indulgent-like I’m spoiling myself.
I sat out with half an eye on next door until about three o’clock. There was no sign of Anne so I put my wordsearch down, went to her chalet and knocked on the door. I realise this seems a bit pushy and I didn’t want to intrude but I had the feeling she’d wanted to be persuaded-and she could only say ‘no’, couldn’t she?
After a moment she opened the door. ‘The tea’s made’ I said ‘and I’ve got a bit of cake if you fancy it’. I’d made it difficult for her to refuse, so she stepped out, closed the door and followed me up on to our decking.
‘Now Anne, sun or shade?’
She sat on the wicker armchair where a small triangle of shade appears in the afternoons. I sat down opposite her in my usual sunny spot. I’d made a pot of tea and put out cups and saucers.
‘How do you like it? I like a good strong cup. Do you take sugar?’ She shook her head.
‘Help yourself to a slice of cake-or a Bakewell?’
She took the cup and saucer from me and stared down into it then as she raised the cup to her lips her face was wet with tears. I ran indoors to fetch a tissue and dropped it into her lap. She put the cup on the table and blew her nose.
‘Thank you. I’m sorry. It’s just-you’ve been so kind, Angela.’
‘Not at all. We’re neighbours, aren’t we? Even if it’s only for a few days! Is there anything I can help you with? I don’t want to pry and there’s no reason why a single person shouldn’t take a holiday on their own but here, it’s unusual.’
She twisted the damp tissue around in her slender fingers. I ploughed on…

Chalet Concerto continues next week…

Picture-free Posts

As a child I learned to read early, almost immediately I started school, at four and a half. And this was in spite of the deadly reading schemes that abounded at the time [in the 1950s]. Two years ago I wrote about reading schemes [ ‘Reading the Years’ ]. Reading is a fundamental, key skill and once you’ve acquired the key everything else in life is unlocked.

During my career as a teacher of young children I met many parents who’d say, regarding the process of ‘hearing’ their child read at home, that the child was not ‘reading’, rather describing the pictures and we’d have to explain that the pictures are the clues, the scaffold that supports the decoding process. Take the scaffold away and the structure may collapse.

And as an early, able reader myself I must confess that I wanted pictorial content in my reading matter until I was around ten or eleven years old, despite being able to read quite sophisticated books.

And these days the genre of the graphic novel has its own following, albeit niche.

As fully literate adults, however we should be able to read without pictures, which is why I am interested in how it is that blog posts with pictorial content produce a greater footfall than those without. I assume that one of the many reasons for tabloid popularity and the more contemporary ‘youtube’ is the lure of pictorial content as opposed to pure text.

A substantial portion of adults never reads for pleasure, four million according to a 2013 report.

Each week I post something in the region of 500 words-most of it, admittedly, drivel. A great deal of it is travel-related and of course it is entirely suited to photographic inclusions. I post a link on to social media. There is footfall from the WordPress community and there is a little footfall from the link. The ‘likes’ are on Facebook, rather than under the WordPress post itself, which is preferable.

But I know that those ‘likes’ on social media are from some who’ve viewed the photo accompanying the link without following the link to read the post! I know this because comments pertain to the picture and not the body of the post. Aha!

So this week’s post is entirely without pictorial content. And next month, being November will be Fiction Month, when I will be posting short stories, some in instalments. Short stories, completely without cost, for the whole of dull, cold, miserable old November, to curl up next to the fire and read!

Fiction Month is the exception to the non-pictorial rule, inducing more traffic than most months, which is heartening! Someone, somewhere out there is happy to sit down and read a story, even in these times of tabloid immediacy.

Teach your Children Well

Years ago, when I was a proper working person and not a layabout pensioner, I was a teacher. I worked in primary schools, beginning with the oldest children, in a tenement style school in Stockwell, London and finishing with the tiny tots in the reception class in a seaside village.

During the first, pre-career break time there was room for some experimentation in the classroom. There was the freedom to implement such ideas as ‘bay-working’, where the room was split into areas or ‘bays’, each bay being set up for some independent work in a specific curriculum subject.

When I returned to reaching after a ten year career break [having my own children] there was still a culture of freedom and the school where I taught implemented a system called ‘integrated day’, the idea being that a topic was chosen and the learning arose from delving into curriculum areas around that topic.

During the years I worked in the integrated day system I can never remember any of us, children included, feeling stressed, bored or exhausted [although, to be fair I was still relatively young]. The children, no matter what age, were responsible for their own day’s achievements and became independent from not being ‘spoon-fed’ every skill and piece of knowledge. We considered ourselves providers or facilitators and all of us attended school each day with a buzzy feeling of enthusiasm for what the day would bring.

Within the system we used ‘real’ books for reading. We’d quietly withdraw a specific ability group to teach a skill in Maths or English or hear individuals read then filter them back in to practise what they’d learned. Art, science, story writing, technology or play would all be going on simultaneously.

There were many opportunities for children to help each other and enjoy roles and responsibilities. Everyone could say what they were doing and why. The behaviour was mature and sensible, even though sixty or seventy children would be sharing a [large] area.

Within three or four years of this halcyon period the ‘national curriculum’ was introduced. Nine curriculum subjects were identified and separated. There was no more linking up areas into topics. The concept of targets crept in. Appraisal and the beginning of scrutiny began. Some bright, government ambition-seeker invented OFSTED. Fear became a feature of every day teaching life.

There was no more opportunity for integrated day, for children to feel empowered by their independence. The parents no longer trusted us. Testing, in the form of SATS was thought up, a system the parents fixated on and became obsessed with, their children’s ‘level’ being the only thing that mattered-more than motivation, achievement, self-esteem or happiness.

I believe that parents, teachers and anyone who is involved with children’s development should aim to foster a spirit of independence in thought and action, maintain the natural desire to learn and encourage kindness, respect and support of each other, just as we used to. That way we may have a hope of growing and nurturing a kind, caring and intelligent society and not the grasping, selfish and ignorant culture we are stuck with today.

Festival Time

Weather or not [and more often inclement]-it’s festival season. They’ve become bigger and more elaborate over the last fifty years. As a teenager I escaped the parental gaze and attended plenty of concerts, some of which were outside, notably Pink Floyd in Hyde Park on a blazing hot day, July 1970. I was seventeen. The concert, like other Hyde Park gigs, was free.

The mother of all music festivals, Woodstock had been in 1969. It held an alluring, magical quality for us then; we who would never have the option to attend packing instead into the cinema to worship our heroes-Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, Ten Years After and the rest.

Festivals began to be a feature of the summer. The Isle of Wight, Glastonbury and Reading became fixtures and were supplemented by a rash of music events as time progressed.

Now it seems there is a festival on somewhere every week during the summer months but the free and easy ethos of the sixties is long past. Most of the larger, well known events carry an eye-watering ticket price, often with facilities to match, for those prepared to pay. Glastonbury offers luxury yurts with en-suites, although those with a thirty pound, pop-up tent are still welcome. There are multiple stages offering a range of entertainments, food from every culture, handy stalls flogging much needed wellies and waterproof capes.

Last weekend we were once again running our own, local, modest music festival on a green stretch by the River Stour. The festival has run for twenty five years, charging a small sum for entry and donating any profits to charity. The performers play free, the staff are unpaid volunteers; but the festival is under threat from council regulations and spiralling costs. Sadly, security has had to be put into place to keep real music lovers, festival goers and families just wanting a happy day out safe from gate-crashers, those wanting to bring their own alcohol rather than using the festival beer tent and other party poopers. They are few but still not welcome.

In addition to all of this, we volunteers are almost all getting on in years. Putting up fencing, constructing a stage, fetching and carrying, bin emptying and litter picking late into the night takes a toll-especially on Husband, who has the added anxiety of responsibility for administrative matters. As a lowly ticket seller and general helper my duties are less imperative, but the role can be varied. This year I undertook tasks ranging from repairing plastic swords [purchased from a toy stall] to retrieving a pair of stray dogs that threatened to run wild inside the compound. Then there are arrogant young men who strut past the ticket booth with a nonchalant swagger and have to be called back, large families who flock in, people for whom complaint is a lifetime goal-especially when it comes to forking out £5 for a day’s music!

But in a quiet moment, when the sun shines and we pause to survey the arena where groups of festival goers are lounging on picnic blankets, children playing, a swarm around the beer tent and a full marquee it feels like a great thing to do.

 

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…

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!