Check Out My Tabs Above

Check Out My Tabs Above - All about books and about people with a passion for reading and writing books in all their forms - old and new. Books as love affairs, memories, surprises, identification and physical entities are part of the passion.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Must-Read Pile: Books have their Reasons

Since I was a child, as I wrote in The Romancer, I have obsessed about books, on shelves, in libraries, in bookshops. And like most readers and writers I gather books like a magpie and end up with a sometimes towering must-read pile. My flowery Kindle has added to, not ta not taken away from this habit. Often the pile expresses just who you are and what you are up to in your life. The pile changes, it does not diminish. It is like the granny's apron in the child's story whose pockets are magically filled as they are emptied.

I thought I'd make a list here of the current pile with the reasons why the books are there.

Writing Poems by Peter Sampson.
I am a professional novelist but a very amateur and innocent poet and this book looks business like and practical, not intimidated by or intimidading about the arcane process. I could learn something here. Also I have a poet in my current novel and am trying to get inside her mind.

Delighting the Heart. A Notebook by Women Writers. Susan Sellers Ed  1989
 Found this in a second hand shop. Very  right-on 1980s but with  some essays by good names, including Helene Sixous (Writing as a Second Heart) and Emma Tennant (A Strong Story Telling Impulse) Worth dipping into. Also there are many self-conscious (in a good say...)  poets here. Useful for the current novel.

Writing with a Vengeance. The Countess de Chabrillon's Rise from Prostitution. Carol Mossiman,(2009)
Academic study and analysis examining the life and works of a Nineteenth Century Courtesan, a self- taught novelist and writer. This is for research for a new novel. Should be fun to read and best illustrates the delight of mixing work with play just written about today on Life Twice Tasted. To be read and noted in depth

France The Dark Years 1940-44 Julian Jackson (2001)
Already read and noted but still on the pile - like a safety blanket - to check facts and approaches for the current novel, nearly complete.

Mr Stephenson Regrets David Williams (2012) To read in preparation for interviewing David Willians for The Writing Game in April

Bridge to The Moon Eileen Elgey (2012)
Novel about a boy who has emerged from the care system by a talented and sensitive writer. To read and review for this page.

For the Sake of Silence Michael Cawood Green (2012)
A magisterial novel about silence built around a narrated biography of  Abbot Pfanner the charismatic leader of Trappists in South Africa. this is a highly imagined novel based on immaculate research and deep thinking.I met Michael and his talk of this novel was intriguing so I had to have it.  As a writer I am interested in it to think through the technical leap from fact to fiction. I am well into this book and look forward to finishing it when I will feature it on this page. Going very well so far.

And piled up, waiting for me on my flowery Kindle are:

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.
To read for the Iconic Book Group

The Chouans  and four other novels  by Honore de Balzac
To read as background for the courtesan novel (see above).

The Sense of and Ending by Julian barnes.
Because my friend Gillian says I should read it. Recommendations by well read friends is the way books go viral.

I know! I know! Looks like the inside of the mind of a raving book obsessive. Well, I suppose that's what this blog is about, isn't it?

Last thought: I wondered if there was anyone out there who would like their own annotated pile shown on this page. If so, let me know.


Thursday, 23 February 2012

Gillian Wales Reflects on Literary Values and Catherine Cookson

Gillian says: 'Catherine Cookson wrote 97 novels during her long lifetime – she was born in 1906 and died in 1998 at the age of 92. Although her books can be classed as ‘regional romances’ her popularity extended nation-wide.

In the public library service in 60s and 70s, we all used to dread the publication of the next CC book – all libraries had extremely long waiting lists for her books and it was not unusual for borrowers to wait for over one year before the latest title became available to read. In the mid 80s her novels topped the best-seller lists and 35 of the top 100 books borrowed from libraries were hers. C always donated her Public Lending Right monies to the Royal Literary Fund to help struggling writers.

CC always felt patronised by the literary establishment, despite having been described by The Sunday Times as ‘the greatest historical novelist of all time’. She had no illusions about her own work – ‘I don’t class myself as a great author but I AM a good story teller … Highbrow literary people look down their noses at me, but their work doesn’t sell does it?’

Born in 1906 in Tyne Dock, South Shields, the illegitimate daughter of a domestic servant, Kate McMullen, for many years she believed that she had been abandoned as a baby and that her mother was really her sister – a belief which was reflected in her first novel, Kate Hannigan, which was published in 1950. C’s mother begged bare-foot from door to door and they lived in constant fear of the workhouse. Her biographer, Kathleen Jones, describes C’s childhood as ‘one marred by violence, abuse, alcoholism, shame and guilt’.

An avid reader, C determined to be a writer from an early age. Leaving school at 13 she first worked as a domestic servant. From 1924-1929 she saved the money she earned in a workhouse laundry and established an apartment hotel in Hastings. One of her tenants was schoolmaster Tom Cookson who C was to marry in 1940 when she was 34. Later, after a serious nervous breakdown and a series of miscarriages and stillbirths she began to write as a form of therapy and joined a local Writers’ Group. (Tom was more than willing to help with grammar and spelling).

Despite her books being marketed as ‘romantic fiction’ her novels do not fit comfortably into this genre although in the early 1960s she did write classic romantic novels under the name of Catherine Marchant.
Her central character is as likely to be male as female, her heroes and heroines rarely get their man or woman – and she often introduces some twist of fate to make the central character continue to suffer or to be denied true happiness. Kathleen Jones tells us that when asked if she saw herself as a romantic novelist C retorted ‘What nonsense, My books are social histories of the North – full of reality and no fancy frills’.

CC has been described as a champion of the working class, ‘the voice of the North as Dickens was the literary presenter of London’. Her work is a graphic portrayal of the lives of the working classes in 19th and early 20th centuries. Kathleen Jones again,‘She resisted sentimentality and wrote plainly without avoiding unpleasant fictional truths. Her novels had firm moral foundation despite the violence, sadism, cruelty and sexual perversion … she showed the best as well as the worst in human beings’. CC’s novels somewhat mirror her own life as she believed it was possible to escape and rise above the poverty and shame as she herself had done – but at a price.
In my teens and early 20s I was an avid fan of CC’s novels but later my literary tastes, with most of my generation, moved on from enjoyment of the drudgery of the ‘clogs and shawl’ narratives of the past to novels depicting present day society, a more equal society in which women were no longer depicted as subservient but as successful entrepreneurs, in control of their own destiny – as in Barbara Taylor Bradford’s ‘Woman of Substance’; women who took control of their lives as in the novels of Margaret Drabble and Margaret Forster. Kathleen Jones tells us that CC was not a supporter of feminism and saw it as ‘women wanting to be like men’ despite believing that ‘most women could buy a man at one end of the street and sell him at the other!’

My generation had found ‘The Women’s Room’ by Marilyn French ultimately inspiring and Erica Jong’s ‘Fear of Flying’ liberating and Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch had almost been our bible so it was with some reservation that I faced the prospect of revisiting CC’s work more than 30 years on.
However, at times the quality of the writing produced by this uneducated, working class woman and the ability of her stories, particularly some of the earlier novels, to grip and enthral and continue to weave their magic - even after all this time - is remarkable.

Although the calibre of the writing did not compare, I was reminded on more than one occasion of the Booker prize-winner Pat Barker’s novel ‘Union Street’ – a gritty novel of working class life, set in Middlesbrough. I recommend in particular Fenwick Houses’ written in 1960 and dealing with issues surrounding illegitimacy, incest and domestic violence and ‘The Long Corridor’ published in 1965 in which a sexually transmitted disease within the context of a loveless marriage is handled with compassion and understanding. At no time is CC  judgemental and the matter-of-fact way in which she introduces this forbidden topic shows that she was way ahead of her time.
Recently  I watched a BBC4 programme which proclaimed that the North became THE cultural powerhouse of the 1960s and that the trends in literature, theatre and film of the time confirmed this hypothesis.

As evidence, novels such as Alan Sillitoe’s ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ which showed the factory floor as a dynamic place to be, a place which gave economic freedom to its workers; Keith Waterhouse’s ‘Billy Liar’ which introduced a new sort of Northern woman – carefree, ruthless, free-spirited; Shelagh Delaney’s ‘Taste of Honey’ which started life as a play and was eventually filmed with Rita Tushingham playing the female lead as an exuberant young woman with a sex life; and the start of the soap, Coronation Street which brought the North into national prominence.
But where was CC in the midst of this celebration of an up and coming Northern cultural excellence? The BBC programme described Northern culture in the 1960s as ‘schizophrenic’ – an amalgam of ‘we can do anything versus get on with it’.

The afore-mentioned writers, mostly male I trust you’ve noticed – belong to the former set, whereas I suspect CC, perhaps BECAUSE of her popularity rather than despite it, can be categorised as the latter and her novels seen as depicting the ‘get on with it’ attitude were not considered worthy enough to be part of this celebration of newly described Northern culture.
Ironically, as CC’s biographer Kathleen Jones informs us, in 1957 CC began a novel entitled ‘Bonny Dawn’ – a new departure for C as it was a contemporary novel with the action taking place during a single day, a day in which an innocent dawn encounter sparks off a series of incidents that reveal terrible secrets festering beneath a veneer of respectability, including child abuse, illegitimacy and homosexuality – a taboo subject at the time.

Her publisher, Macdonald, held back publication, arguing that it was not the kind of novel her readers had come to expect of her. It was 1996 before it finally appeared in print. One can only wonder what the reaction would have been had it been published – obviously it would have caused a stir, dealing as it did with rarely talked about contemporary social problems – much as John Braine’s ‘Room at the Top’ or Stan Barstow’s ‘A Kind of Loving’ did at the time. Had it been published shortly after it was written it might have catapulted C out of the ‘romantic genre’ that she had been slotted into and increased her standing as a writer of serious issue-based novels and hence completely changed the course of her subsequent writing career.

In the 1990s reviews of her novels became more critical yet ironically in the USA her work was studied as social history and was also on the university curricula in Australia and New Zealand. Many of her books were filmed or made into TV series and she is still the most borrowed author of the last decade in public libraries nationwide, seen as a writer of ‘tragic yet safe stories’. C was awarded an OBE in 1985 and in 1993 was made a Dame of the British Empire.

Today her work is often categorised as ‘of its time’, somewhat quaint and of little relevance to the fast pace of 21st century life. But I urge you not to dismiss her out of hand. Try Kathleen Jones’ excellent biography which will certainly wet your appetite and encourage you to read Cc’s novels. The background to her novels may be seen as reinforcing the myth of ‘the blighted north’ but they also reinforce true family values; they tell of the courage and endurance of many of the men and women they portray: above all are ‘a good read’.

CC was a born storyteller, in the words of my little aunt, she could be described in Northern parlance as a real ‘romancer’, a teller of tales par excellence.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Guest Avril Joy reflects on Jeannette Winterson's New Book

I asked Avril Joy to reflect on Jeanette Winterson's new book.

Avril Says:  'It’s difficult to be objective about a book that grabs you by the throat from the word go and doesn’t loosen its hold until you reach the end. Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is one of those books.

The Devil , the Cold War and Mcarthyism are all invoked on page one, along with the biggest monster of all: Mrs Winterson ( we first met her in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit -occasionally referred to as my mother) The woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. The woman who wore face powder to keep herself nice but not lipstick – too fast and loose: who weighed twenty stone; who had two sets of false teeth - matt for everyday and a pearlised set for best- and would have her daughter beaten to order by her husband.

Not surprisingly Mrs Winterson, Jeanette Winterson’s adoptive mother, dominates this book and the memoir charts Winterson’s struggle to survive; a struggle that makes her the bare-knuckle fighter that she is.

The tone is tough and uncompromising, the pace fast, as Winterson weaves deftly back and forth in time. Despite the savagery of her childhood she is never sorry for herself: never blaming. She simply tells it as it was, without worrying about where memory comes from or about the things might be too painful to say.

For me as a writer one of the great achievements of the book is the way Winterson shows us (a wonderful extended example of the power of show don’t tell) that this cruel, sometimes bizarre, fanatically religious, and most definitely northern upbringing has made Winterson the person and the writer she is. She owns her past with a fierce pride and interestingly when she searches out and finds her birth mother - a difficult and painful process - surely we should make it easier than that! – she will not join with this woman in any criticism of ‘Mrs Winterson’. There was, despite everything, a bond had grown between them - a bond of unreliable love, … she was always striking me down, and then making a cake to put things right.

I understand such bonds and what they can do to you. I understand too what it is to have a mother who was never ordinary and how in the end it can be cause for celebration.

And Jeanette Winterson finds much to celebrate: the Glory Crusades for one, which meant setting off on your bike in the school holidays to wherever the tent was pitched to join the religious meeting; she could celebrate the books of course and her determined reading from A-Z in the literature section of the Accrington Public Library, And she could celebrate eventual acceptance to Oxford.

 She conveys acutely the healing and restorative power of books and story – it is, she says the place where we meet each other on the steps, the way we can speak in tongues and not be silenced.

She lived for books. Books for me are a home. Books don’t make a home- they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space – I understand that too, visiting the Library as I did sometimes twice a day, Then I discovered again what it was to step into another world when I began writing.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? has an urgent and at times disturbing narrative, none more so than when we witness Winterston’s unravelling and her attempted suicide; a time when language leaves her, when.. I was in the place before I had any language. The abandoned place. It is without doubt, especially given the media’s past intrusions into Winterson’s life, a book that took great courage to write.

And for now at least, the story ends in love. When the beautiful, intelligent and compassionate figure of Susi Orbach (who is there with love and thanks in the acknowledgements) walks into Winterson’s life we breathe a sigh of relief for her  and feel that maybe at last she has been saved.

Like I said at the beginning it wasn’t easy being objective.

Thursday, 16 February 2012


 (My friend Gillian, a chartered librarian used to manage my favourite Library. Theatre and Art Centre, and is the organiser - with Avril Joy and Myself of Room To Write - a writing workshop and micro publishing initiative. See the website for details of our forthcoming residential Kindling Workshop. Gillian has also co-written biographical studies of painters such as Tom McGuinness)

I asked Gillian if she would be my first guest blogger. She first talked about this - a favourite theme of hers on The Writing Game, our community radio programme.

Gillian says:  ‘As a child growing up in the 1950s my favourite colour was red – wasn’t everybody’s? And my lucky number was 7.  Seven, not because of Enid Blyton’s ‘Secret Seven’, although I devoured the books, nor because of T.E. Lawrence’s ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom or Agatha Christie’s‘Seven Dials Mystery’ or ‘The Seven Songs of Merlin’ – none of which I’d then heard of. Now was it because - as J.K.Rowling was later to affirm via her hero Harry Potter - that number 7  was THE most powerful magical number (interestingly there are 7 books in the Harry Potter series ) – but because 7 was the amazing age one had to be to join the public library!

An avid reader even then, I was fortunate to be brought up in a household in which my two cousins read stories to me and always bought me ‘classic’ children’s story books for birthdays and Christmas, including different collections of fairy tales. These so inspired me that I still collect to this day books of fairy tales and legends illustrated by such incredible artists as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and the Robinson Brothers.
Books were also used in a practical way in our household as the afore-mentioned older cousins also made me walk up and down the kitchen balancing a heavy book on my head – to aid my deportment!
Entering the library, at last, in June 1955 was to my sugar-rationed generation like being given carte blanche to chose anything from the best sweet shop in the world and I can still remember the first 2 books I borrowed – ‘An A – Z of Animals’ and one of the books in the Tarzan series.
Later, working as a librarian, I well remember the sudden proliferation  of books for under 5s – and the delight at the advent of ‘the picture book’ which used illustration as a major component to complement the text – in particular the trail-blazing pop-up book ‘The Haunted House’ by Jan Pienkowski.                                   
Haunted house [Book]
Hence some of the books I have chosen here reflect both my interest in book illustration and the necessity of a story to transport the reader to another world - one in which anything is possible.
There are some wonderful illustrators of children’s books working in this field today – Anthony Browne, Babette Cole, Tony Ross, Quentin Blake to name but a few – but my favourites will always be the Ahlbergs, Janet the illustrator and her husband, Allan, the wordsmith. Their 1978 classic, ‘Each, Peach, Pear, Plum’ which won the coveted Kate Greenaway Medal for children’s book illustration in 1978, is a book which cleverly incorporates nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters in cumulative rhyme to encourage children to find the characters within the pictures
Each, peach, pear, plum I spy Tom Thumb. Tom Thumb in the cupboard I spy Mother Hubbard. Mother Hubbard in the cellar I spy Cinderella   and so on.
Equally delightful, full of charm and ingenuity is the Ahlberg’s ‘Peepo’ which follows a baby through a typical day. A series of holes literally peeping through on to the next page lead children on to the next event in the baby’s day. Interestingly, for its time, we see father not mother, making the tea and preparing to give baby a bath. The most original and charming of all their books, however, must be the ‘Jolly Postman’ trilogy – the first of which, The Jolly Postman and Other People’s Letters, took 5 years to produce. Once again they use rhyme to incorporate fairy tale characters into the narrative, but this time they use the innovative device of envelopes which include not only letters but also cards, games and even a tiny book!
‘Later on the postman, feeling hot, Came upon Grandma in a shady spot. But Grandma what big teeth you’ve got! Besides, this is a letter for ‘– I’ll leave you to guess who!
Inspired by the books I read as a child, I spent quite a bit of time in my Aunt’s wardrobe , trying to find the door to Narnia and tapping walls in old houses, looking for secret passages and hoping to find priests’ holes. Books like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’ in which Mary Lennox, a sickly and spoilt orphan, is sent from India to live with an uncle she has never met, a hunchback recluse who spends most of his time abroad. home, Misselthwaite Manor proves transformative and Mary, with the aid of good Yorkshire fresh air and the friendship of two plain-speaking characters, Martha the housemaid, and Ben Weatherstaff the gardener, becomes a healthy and agreeable child.
With the aid of a friendly robin who unearths a rusty old key, the key to a hidden door, Mary discovers a secret garden and she begins to garden with the help of Martha’ s brother, Dickon, a young boy with the almost supernatural powers of charming nature.
 The ultimate  secret of Misselthwaite Manor is uncovered when Mary, hearing strange cries in the night, discovers her guardian’s son, Colin, who has been kept hidden in the manor house. Bed-ridden, he is convinced that he is an invalid, unlikely to live for long. Mary succeeds where no one else has dared to try in braving Colin’s tantrums and persuading him that he can lead a normal life. From then on the two share the secret garden and Colin’s strength recovers as the garden blooms and he is subsequently reunited with his amazed and delighted father.
Philippa Pearce’s ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ shares much with the previous book – young Tom is sent away from home and stays with a childless aunt and uncle who live in a flat which is part of what was once a fine country house. Bored and lonely and unable to sleep, Tom hears the grandfather clock in the hall strike 13. On investigating he discovers a door which leads into a splendid garden. In the morning the garden is not there. Tom, however, learns that each night he can return there and becomes involved in the lives of the people he meets – the Victorian family who once inhabited the house. Most of all he becomes companion and playmate to Hatty, a young orphan girl who is rejected by the family. Only she can see Tom and their friendship becomes very close. However, Tom realises that time does not stand still in the garden and that both his and Hatty’s lives must change accordingly.
Moving on to the present day the trend, particularly for the oldejacket image for How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff - large versionr age range, is for stories which reflect today’s concerns and there are many accomplished authors writing issue-based novels now, writers of the calibre of Children’s Laureate, Jacqueline Wilson with her heroine for today, Tracy Beaker; the lauded American writer Meg Rosoff with her award-winning novel ‘How I Live Now’  set during a third world war and the controversial writer of ‘Doing it’ and Junk, Melvin Burgess for example. but my own favourite writer for this teenage market is the Australian author, Sonya Hartnett. Winner of numerous awards and described as ‘the finest Australian writer of her generation’, Sonya Hartnett wrote her first book at 13. ‘Thursday’s Child’ published in 2000 went on to win the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Set in the Great Depression it follows the young Harper Flute as she observes her family’s struggles to survive. Her silent little brother, Tin – the Thursday’s child of the title - has ‘far to go’ as he literally does just that and spends his time escaping the real world by building tunnels with disastrous consequences.
Her book ‘Ghost’s Child’ is completely different and tells of the encounter between 75 year old Mathilda who lives alone and a solemn-faced boy she finds in her sitting room.
Who the visitor is and why he has arrived only become apparent towards the end of the tale as Mathilda tells him her life story – a life in which she eventually finds a purpose and an occupation and finally understands ‘Bit by bit some of your sorrow changes to joy. And that’s how you go on living’.
This is a perceptive novel which poses huge questions about the meaning of life and the finality of death yet, ironically it is a novel of hope and one which reduced me to tears when I read it – on holiday with Wendy in  Cracow whilst she was researching her latest novel ‘The Woman Who Drew Buildings’.
 (I remember your tears Gillian. Wx)

Oh, to be nearly 7 again with a treasure chest of reading delight still to be unlocked! But it’s not possible – for, as Hatty says in Tom’s Midnight Garden “Nothing stands still, except in our memory”.

Thank you Gillian

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Raffish Courtesans, Balzac and Elvis Presley

As readers here will know I have been flooded for a week or so with all things Dickens, the life, the novels, the biographies. I am still relishing the insights in Peter Ackroyd’s beautifully written, brilliant Dickens . Ackroyd is not just a great biographer but also a great novelist (se his Hawksmoor – an imaginative tour de force.

And I am now dipping my toes in the flood which is demi-monde Paris in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. As I say today on my writing blog reading the novels of a time are one wonderful way of accessing the feeling and spirit of a time – important if you want to writer authentically about that time.

There is no doubt that Paris at that time had a very raffish element of actors, artists, courtesans, fallen or rising women and exotic if shady people. There is no doubt that the great novelist Honore de Balzac observed this world at the time as part of hos encyclopaedic series of novels known as La Comedie Humaine . So, onto my Kindle, I download twelve of these novels (free!) as start to the research.

Having argued with my learned friend Sharon about what she sees as the dubious virtues of Dickens she is more sanguine about Honore de Balzac, my new passion, my denizen of the raffish Parisian Demi-monde, my spy, my informant for this planned novel. I remember reading three of his novels in French Pere Goriot Eugenie Grandet and La peau de chagrin,when I was seventeen but my Kindle versions are in English for speed, for research, to leave time to write….

I have also ordered (not free) a book called Writing with a Vengeance: The Countess de Chabrillan's Rise from Prostitution - a critical and scholarly consideration of the writer - a fascinating and scandalous woman who was a professional writer (extra scandalous!) writing in and of my heroine’s day. This book's more expensive than the Balzacs but great as a research resource flexing out my understanding of the Paris of my future novel.

Both Sharon and I are intrigued by the notion of raffishness She thinks that ‘… in an odd way, it was a sort of raffishness that existed even in this country up until the 1950s and possibly still does in a more limited way.’

Well, I was there in the 1950s and nothing raffish was going on around me. But then there was Elvis Presley. Would he count as raffish?

Now! I have to get down to that reading.

Later Post-script from the learned Sharon:

'Think back to the 1960s for instance - Christine Keeler, Lord Lambton, Profumo, were all part of that sort of set, that included photographers, gamblers, artists ,actresses and tarts. Even Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret
There always has been, still is now I guess, a sort of demi-monde where all sorts mix.  Now it would include people like  multi national busienss men - Philip Green, perhaps, politicans, writers, artists and celebs.  The sort of A list and B list people that will always form a world within a world that we know nothing about until scandal surfaces.'
Me: But it has evolved. Now because of internet, Utube and fast media any world within a world is exposed the next day, the next week. So the possibility of a world within a world, tacitly acknowledged in certain secion of society, existing and maintaining it own ambience is almost nil. Perhaps I should exclude the criminal/espionage/security complex from that notion.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Excellent Susan Hill on Dickens

Being so involved with Dickens in for last month's Writing Game I was delighted to read this succinct conclusion by the indefatigable Susan Hill on Dickens on the Dove Grey Reader site. See also Susan's interesting views to the filming of A Woman in Black.

To quote: 'Those still matter but after many years of reading him you come to see how balanced Dickens is, how the political and humanitarian issues are offset by family happiness, requited love, and above all, by humour. The irony and bleakness are countered by the sweetness, and yes, the sentimentality, of the love affairs. There is nothing, nothing that he does not know about, understand and explain by presenting it in fiction. Domestic violence, the betrayal of children’s innocence, ‘the insolence of office and the law’s delays,’ pomposity and self-regard, pride, humility, self-sacrifice, altruism, greed….it is all, all in Dickens. I often wonder if I need any other writer.'

Friday, 10 February 2012

Glynn's Radio Essay On Charles Dickens

After the February programme on Bishop FM listeners were very interested in historian Glynn Wales’ segment which placed Charles Dickens in the context of Victorian England. He researched this especially for the February Edition of The Writing Game on Bishop FM where we celebrated the bicentenary of the genuius that is Charled Dickens. The podcast (on this page) and iTunes edition of this programme is avaiable if you wish to hear Glynn’s talk and also Peter's wonderful reading of the extracts from Nicholas Nickleby. Click on The Writing Game to read the full text

Thursday, 9 February 2012

King of The Golden River -That First Special Book

Today, in a lifetime of reading what must be thousands of books I’ve learned that books are not just paper and card, they’re parcels of ideas wrapped in words and images pulsing with a concrete magic that draws you back time and again.

I first experienced that unique feeling with a little book called King of The Golden River by John Ruskin. The book was small, with a blue bound cover with a golden N on the spine - the imprimatur of Nelson the publishers,

Nine years old, in a new strange school in a new new town, mourning my father and very confused, I landed in the lugubrious care of a tall, bony, spinster teacher who did not believe in ‘relevant literature’ for scruffy working class kids so she read to us Keats , Dickens and bits of Shakespeare. She had this long cupboard in the corner of the room and if we were good we could choose our own books from there, keep them in our desks and read them privately to ourselves. Ourselves!

I chose this small blue book with the letter N on the spine, I read and re-read Ruskin’s elaborate fairyvtale about three brothers who live in a wonderful valley - two brothers greedy and destructive, the youngest Gluck, humble and kind. The valley is destroyed the destructive older brothers but the kindness and courage of the youngest brother.leads to a magical replenishment of the valley. The brothers don’t benefit from this as by then have been turned to stone.

I read this book many times in that first hard year. I had no idea that i was reading well above my age. I had no idea that it was a moral fable intended to feed my imagination and teach me the values of living a life of virtue. Ruskin – a moralist in the enlightened Victorian traditions - first wrote this tale for twelve year old Effie who later became his wife.

Much, much later, I learned that - a man of his time - Ruskin held that to educate of the imagination, developing the ability to feel, to empathise was central to evolution of tbmoral human being.

But Ruskin’s high falutin’ principles and the challenges of his style went straight over my troubled nine-year -ld head., I just loved the story, the wonderful woodcut illustrations, the well wrought, exciting flow of the words. I recognised this book’s intrinsic beauty and identified with young Gluck who made the golden river flow again – with the help of the King, of course.

I have this edition of the book on my shelves, having found it in an Oxfam shop forty years after I held it in my desk like treasure in that strange school. This is the book I went back and back to, the book that set me on the road to being a voracious reader – and,most probably, a writer …

If you’re wondering what it’s all about here are a couple of extracts from

The King of The Golden River

‘…The mug was a very odd mug to look at. The handle was formed of two wreaths of flowing golden hair, so finely spun that it looked more like silk than metal, and these wreaths descended into, and mixed with, a beard and whiskers of the same exquisite workmanship, which surrounded and decorated a very fierce little face, of the reddest gold imaginable, right in the front of the mug, with a pair of eyes in it which seemed to command its whole circumference …"

‘… It was the most extraordinary looking little gentleman he had ever seen in his life. He had a very large nose, slightly brass-coloured, and expanding towards its termination into a development not unlike the lower extremity of a key bugle; his cheeks were very round, and very red, and might have warranted a supposition that he had been blowing a refactory fire for the last eight-and-forty hours; his eyes twinkled merrily through long silky eyelashes, his moustaches curled twice round like a corkscrew on each side of his mouth, and his hair, of a curious mixed pepper-and-salt colour, descended tar over his shoulders. He was about four-feet-six in height, and wore a conical pointed cap of nearly the same altitude, decorated with a black feather some three feet long. His doublet was prolonged behind into something resembling a violent exaggeration of what is now termed a "swallow tail," but was much obscured by the swelling folds of an enormous black, glossy-looking cloak, which must have been very much too long in calm weather, as the wind, whistling around the old house, carried it clear out from the wearer's shoulders to about four times his own length .’

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Falling in Love with Paper and Pages

The first books I remember were books made of brown paper and string by my father who cut out the comic strips from the children’s page of the News Chronicle and stick them in sequence to make a permanent book. I would compete with my sister and brother to sit on his long knee (he was very tall) and we would read it together.I think we all must have learned to read this way before any of us we went to school. The magic of the words on the page conjured up places people and adventures which lived and thrived in my mind’s eye. Come to think of it that’s when I learned I had a mind’s eye, a mind’s place – a place of colour and action, a sanctuary in a family where things were not always easy.