Reviews

‘a delightful amateur sleuth novel with a well balanced mix of domestic and academic life and a strong sense of place.’ [Stage Fright]

- EUROCRIME.CO.UK

Gender-specific books? No thanks . . .

Posted on Mar 31, 2014 in Biggles. Capt W. E. Johns, Superman | 2 Comments

The Independent on Sunday has declared its intention not to review any children’s books that are marketed in such a way as to exclude either gender. My feeling too is that children’s books should be available to whoever wants to read them. This chimes in with a comment on my previous post from Moira at ClothesinBooks, who remembers reading Biggles as a child. When she mentioned that, memories came flooding back. My friend Linda and I adored them when we were ten or eleven, and I don’t think it occurred to us for a moment that these might suitable only for boys. Quite why we adored them, it is hard to say now. I am amused to read in the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature that the Biggles books, written by Capt. W. E. Johns, are regarded with contempt by librarians and critics as being racist and jingoistic. No doubt they were, but I guess they were also gripping yarns.
Similarly later on – aged around twelve or thirteen – I became friends with Pauline, who had the best collection of Superman comics in the school. We spend hours reading and rereading them together. We also read and reread Jackie. An omnivorous diet is best for young readers.
Linda and Pauline are the only ones I am still in touch with from my schooldays. Those hours spent poring over Biggles and Superman led to lifelong friendships.

The First Book I Ever Bought

It was The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Though perhaps I ought to amend that and say that it is the first book I remember chosing for myself in a bookshop. My grandparents – I think – actually paid for it. My memory is hazy. I am sure it was W. H. Smith’s in Redcar, but I don’t know how old I was. Maybe around eight? In my mind’s eye I see a lot of wooden panelling: it was far more recognisable as a bookshop than W. H. Smith’s is now. Later as a teenager and a student I continued to buy books there. What I most remember about that first occasion is the agony of indecision, a scenario which has been played out in many other bookshops over the years. I choose well that day with The Borrowers, a wonderful children’s classic.
When I was old enough to save up my pocket money I loved the books about Jill and her ponies books by Ruby Ferguson. I see that first editions are going for incredible sums, and that there are plans to reprint them. For me the books were sheer wish fulfilment as I was a keen rider, and, like Jill, longed for nothing more than a pony of my own. Alas, it was not to be. But the books provided me with a rich fantasy life. These no doubt rather flimsy paperback are long gone, but I do still have a more ambitious work, a fine red hardback with a gilded title and crest: Introduction to Riding and Stablecraft by Major-General Geoffrey Brooke, C.B, D.S.O., M.C. It was aimed at adults, but from the address that I wrote on the flyleaf, I can’t have been more than ten or eleven when I acquired it. Did I save up for it, or did I ask for it for my birthday or Christmas? This book was my horsey bible and I knew it more or less off by heart, could identify all the points of a horse and every kind of bit.
It didn’t occur to me at the time to be curious about the author, but it does now, and the website of the Western Front Association tells me that he was a cavalry officer in the first world war, wrote lots of books on equinine subjects, and that his second wife, Dorothy founded a charity to rescue ex-war horses in Cairo, an animal welfare charity that still exists today. My eleven-year old self would have approved.

Another Early Love

Few of the books that I read as a child have survived all the house moves over the years. Looking on my shelves just now I found only What Katy Did at School, Anne of Avonlea, The Count of Monte Cristo, an abridged Alice in Wonderland (given to my mother by Chesterfield Congregational Sunday School) and Princess Anne by Katherine L Oldmeadow. They are all in hardback, which may account for their longevity. Princess Anne, I see from an inscription, was given to me as a Christmas present when I was eight. Katherine L Oldmeadow, Google informs me, was born in 1878 in Chester and died near the New Forest in 1963 and that not much is known about her life. She wrote lots of children’s books, including a series of ‘Princess’ books, Princess Anne, Princess Prunella and so on. Princess Anne was published in 1925 (did I read no contemporary fiction?) and is the story of a thirteen year old orphan whose sweet, but impetuous nature and lively imagination endear her to those around her, but also get her into scrapes. It occurs to me now it owes something to Anne of Green Gables. Truth to tell, Oldmeadow is not a distinguished writer, but I loved reading about Anne and her adventures – and still do, if I’m to be honest.

The first book that you remember?

One of the pleasures of parenthood is the excuse to buy children’s books. There are wonderful picture books for children these days, and I loved reading and looking at them with my daughter. It’s strange, looking back, that I don’t remember any picture books from my own childhood. Of course there were far fewer books around generally and, relatively speaking, they were more expensive and we didn’t have a lot of money. Yet, both my parents were readers, so I can’t believe there weren’t any. It’s even stranger that I can recall so few books at my little village primary school. The only one is The Hobbit, which was read out to us in class: the description of Smaug asleep on a vast mountain of golden treasure has lodged in my memory.
I learned to read quickly after I had started school at five and I read everything I could get my hands on. Those were mainly from two sources. One was the local library in Helmsley. My mother used to take my brother and I there on the bus, a journey which took us past the neo-Gothic splendour of Ampleforth College, so romantic to my child’s eyes. I was enthralled by the Norse legends and frustrated by being able to take out so few books. I had usually read mine by the day after the visit and there would be nearly a week to wait until the next time. My other resource was a collection of my mother’s books from her own childhood and these were often read and much loved: Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School, Alice in Wonderland (not so much loved, that one: I found it rather sinister). And there was Dumas’s The Count of Monte-Cristo. I still have that and inside it is a  book plate recording that it was awarded to my mother in her second year at Staveley Netherthorpe Grammar School in 1938. I was reading it at the age of eight or nine and I have never forgotten the thrill and the terror of hero’s escape from the Château d’If. Most of my reading was of books meant for older children or even adults, but that didn’t deter me. I just read whatever was to hand and made the most of it.

Homer nods, but copy-editors should be ever vigilant

We readers will swallow virtually anything. Talking animals? Fine, and not just in children’s books: what about Animal Farm and Watership Down? Ghosts, monsters, stories set far in the future or on other planets, novels set in the unknowable past such as Golding’s The Inheritors? Fine, fine, fine. Of course they won’t be to everyone’s taste, but essentially there is almost nothing that we can’t accept as long as the writer can pull it off.
It’s not the big things we baulk at, but small inconsistencies or anachromisms. As long as the internal logic isn’t breached we can stay immersed in the story. John Gardner in The Art of Fiction, his classic work on the craft of writing, calls it the fictional dream. We don’t want to be jolted awake and reminded that what we are reading isn’t real, that someone, and a falliable someone at that, made it all up. This happened to me on a memorable occasion years ago when I was reading an engrossing novel – oh, alright, it was The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve. I can’t remember the precise details, but on one page a character was, let’s say, 67, and a few hours later she was 72. This little surprise pulled me out of the book. More recently, I read a novel where a character had recently taken ‘O’ levels (no-one has done that since the 1980s when they were superceded by GCSEs) even though the novel was clearly set in the 2010s.
All writers make mistakes and I am no exception. Editors, copy-editors, and eagle-eyed friends have saved me from various clangers. And with both these novels I got over it and read on. But neither author was well-served by their copy-editors who really ought to have spotted these bloomers. I suspect that publishers in general have cut back on both editing and copy-editing, expecting that – far more than in the past – agents will sort out this kind of thing and that manuscripts will arrive without needing much more attention.

A Proustian moment

Not long ago, with time to spare before a Eurotunnel crossing my daughter and I wandered into the perfume section of the duty-free shop. And what a stroll down memory lane it turned out to be. The story of my life was there. The first perfume that I associate with my mother is Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew which I remember her wearing when I was a teenager. It remained a favourite and was a great standby if I couldn’t think what to give her for birthday or Christmas. She also liked the packages of five or six tiny bottles of different perfumes that were handy for keeping in a handbag and I often picked those up for her at the duty-free coming back from holiday.
My own favourite perfume as a very young woman was Rive Gauche. I loved its smart blue, silver and black packaging and the intellectual connotations of the name: perhaps Simone de Beauvoir wore it, hanging out with Jean-Paul Sartre in Les Deux Magots!  Of course the naming of a scent is a powerful piece of marketing – but even knowing that, what magic there is in those names. A present of Miss Dior on my nineteenth birthday seemed so elegant and sophisicated. Later I loved the minimalist chic of Chanel No 5 and Chanel No 19.
There was – perhaps still is – a shop in York that sold discount perfume and my mother and I used to see what they had got when we met in York for the day. Nina Ricci’s L’air du Temps brings back memories of those days – and shopping for my wedding dress in Droopy and Brown just up the street.
After my mother died I kept her unfinished bottles of scent and they reminded her of her when I used them. They are long finished, alas.
Back to the Eurotunnel duty-free: ‘This was Grandma’s favourite perfume,’ I told my daughter, spraying on some Youth Dew from the tester. We sniffed it. ‘I remember,’ she said and so did I. For a moment I was back in my mother’s flat in Scarborough, sun streaming in through the windows. It’s been six years almost to the day, but it sometimes seems no time at all.

Too much information?

The producers of the old Columbo series took a risk when they launched a show that began by showing not only the murder but also revealing the murderer. They got rid of the most obvious source of suspense: not only do we know whodunit, but really we know too that Columbo will uncover the truth. What we don’t know is how he will do it. The pleasure comes from the clever scripts, our enjoyment of the way criminals always underestimate Columbo, and the superb acting of Peter Falk. But for me this series is the exception to the rule. Generally I don’t like to know too much too soon, and I think this is why I slowed down and came to a halt in the middle of Nele Neuhaus’s much acclaimed novel, Snow White Must Die, when some key elements of the plot were revealed. There was still suspense as a character was menaced by someone whom we now knew was not the faithul friend that they seemed. But still I felt that the wind had gone out of the novel’s sails. I’d wanted to go on suspecting and guessing for a while longer. I put the novel down and it was some time before I went back to it. As it happened, there were still plenty of plot twists, but I think the writer took a risk, which for me did not quite come off, in spite of the novel’s other strengths. Judging by the reviews, other people weren’t put off. So perhaps I am just an old-fashioned girl who loves an old-fashioned whodunit . . . .

Where do you get your ideas?

To be honest, getting ideas isn’t really a problem. I’ve just been reading Penelope Lively’s very enjoyable Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time, partly a memoir, partly reflections on old age, partly about writing. She says at one point that her stories have often been inspired by places and I’ve found that too. I think there is something about seeing new places, about visiting as a stranger, that sets one free from one’s everyday concerns and makes one wonder ‘what if . . .’  I have set stories in the Guggenheim Museum in Venice, the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, in a cathedral (inspired by a holiday staying in Salisbury Cathedral close), in an acquarium inspired by a visit to the London Acquarium. And when I say ‘in an acquarium’ I do mean in it: the story is narrated by a fish. So, travelling is great for ideas. So are newspapers: I’ve got four or five box files full of clippings. One way and another I have probably got enough ideas to last for the rest of my writing life. That’s not the hard bit. It’s knowing what to do with them when you’ve got them.
And that is where the magic comes in. Because a plot can’t be worked out as puzzle in logic, or not entirely. I’m writing a short story at the moment and a few days ago I couldn’t think how it would end exactly. I put it aside for a while. I woke up early the next morning and lying in bed, the end of the story began to write itself in my head. The work had been done somewhere below the surface and came floating up when I was in a receptive state. The best advice on how to get into that state is in Dorothea Brande’s classic Becoming a Writer. Go for a walk, have a bath, engage in ‘wordless pursuits’ like going to concerts or exhibitions or knitting. Travelling by train is great, I find, to get ideas flowing.
So getting ideas isn’t really a problem. But finding the time to turn them into stories, that’s another matter . . .

The Time of my Life

I don’t want to read Catcher in the Rye again – or Salinger’s short stories – though I was impressed by them when I was around twenty. Nor am I tempted to reread Wuthering Heights (though Jane Eyre is another matter). I won’t be returning to The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, all cult novels when I was a teenager (taking the Peake trilogy down from the shelf I see that they were given to me for my 21st birthday – and I haven’t opened it for, ooh, I’d rather not say how many years). Are there novels that it is best to read when you’re young as I did with all these? And conversely are there novels that one should keep for middle-age or old age?
The Great Gatsby strikes me as a young person’s novel, yet I could happily reread that. And it’s the same with To Kill a Mocking Bird. In fact I didn’t read that until I was middle-aged and loved it, but I think the optimum age for reading it is probably mid teens. On the other hand Proust is surely a writer for later life. You need to have been through the mill a bit yourself really to appreciate Swann in Love.
There are some writers who have something new to offer as you return to them through life. Tolstoy is one. As a young woman I thrilled to Anna Karenina’s tragic love story, but it wasn’t until I reread it as a mother that I understood Anna’s anguish at being parted from her son. Jane Austen I can always go back to, though it’s more often Mansfield Park or Persuasion now, rather than Pride and Prejudice. Dickens was often pushed onto the young reader when I was young, but I think that was a mistake. You should be an adult to read him. Trollope with his generous sympathies and his understanding of human relationships is evergreen. And Middlemarch is the perfect novel for any age. We have chosen that for our book group’s annual big read and I am looking forward to.
Are there books that you loved when you were young, but couldn’t bear to reread? Is there anything that you are saving for old age?