To Kill a Mockingbird: Books in the Blood # 11

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

* TINY SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t heard ANYTHING about Go Set a Watchman and don’t want to – read no further.

What books did you read at school? Books on the syllabus, books you were made to read.

The last Books in the Blood (The Diary of Anne Frank) was one such book for me and for thousands of kids.

Now, a few of the books we were set to read for our O Levels (yes, I am well old enough to remember pre GCSEs) some of my fellow students found a little dry. There was not much rejoicing over Shakespeare, I’m afraid to say, although we studied a few of the more action-packed examples of the Bard’s work: who wouldn’t want to read about political assassination, ghosts, insanity, inter-family feuds and teenage suicide with a big dollop of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder thrown in for good measure? And all in blank verse iambic pentametre – perfect.

Yeah, Lady Macbeth, we know ‘Out damned spot.’ (Don’t you think she would’ve been a happier woman if she’d been able to employ her murderous machinations today? Bit of Swarfega to clean those hands and Vanish on any random blood splatterage would’ve put her mind at ease.)

Macbeth is certainly a better choice for young people than the Shakespeare ‘comedies’ – I can just imagine my peers’ snorts of derision at Malvolio’s yellow stockings in Twelfth Night, or any kind of girls dressed in men’s clothing gender confusion.

Catch them in the wrong mood and you’re hard pressed to get a teenager to laugh at something that‘s funny today,  let alone something that hasn’t really been funny in four hundred years.

Being the weirdy, booky, swotty nerd I was between smoking fags in the girl’s loo, I enjoyed most of our set books. I think the exam boards did a pretty good job of choosing works with plenty of violence and conflict (a must for developing minds, I’m sure you’d agree) that also had literary merit.

And they did something else clever too – they chose at least a handful of books that heavily featured children as the protagonist.

In an early draft of my YA book, I had a few chapters written from the viewpoint of the main character’s Mum, trying to show hard it was for her being a single parent, how much she worried about her teenage daughter when she vanished off on adventures for days on end.

Quite honestly, this is laughable, unpublishable and such a ‘middle-aged-parent’ approach, it’s rather an embarrassing thing to admit. The last thing a teenager wants to read is page after page about how tough it is to be a parent – they want to read how tough it is to be a teenager.

Understanding an adult’s world view is not what being a teenager is all about.

They’ll be plenty of occasions in the future when they’ll feel that slow, creeping realisation that maybe they didn’t know everything about everything when they were sixteen, that their Dad was right about that boy – he really was trouble – and that staying out until two o’clock in the morning downing Jägerbombs is probably not the best way to prepare for a Trigonometry resit.

Apart from dear Anne Frank, another – this time fictional – heroine  I got to know quite well during my O Levels was Scout from

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

It’s a book that’s a truly hot topic at the moment. It certainly is a phenomenon – how many other writers have become so deeply ingrained in culture after only publishing one novel? Actually there are a handful: J. D. Salinger did it with The Cather in the Rye: Emily Brontë with Wuthering Heights: Margaret Mitchell with Gone with the Wind. But most writers have to bang out a library full of best sellers before they reach these levels of fame.

Being on the curriculum helped spread the ubiquity of Mockingbird, with entire generations of children having to read the book. It was an ideal choice for inclusion ‒ aside from being well written, having a gripping plot and unforgettable characters, its themes of moral strength and racism are great jumping off points for class discussion, for exercising young minds.

This may not be the case in the future – at least in the UK – after changes were made to the exam syllabus, forcing teachers to choose more books from British writers such as Dickens. I wonder what the thinking is here, because there’s no greater way to put a child off 19th century literature than making them read Great Expectations when they’re fourteen and filled with hormones. A more inward-looking, regressive step I’ve never heard. Oh, well done Michael Gove.

And as for the sequel / prequel to MockingbirdGo Set a Watchman ‒ I haven’t read it yet and I’m not sure I ever will. Quite apart from the controversy over whether the book should have been released at all – hidden classic revealed to a grateful world or money making ploy by manipulative publishers? – having read some reviews, I don’t think I can face it.

Who wants to have their literary idol – the wonderful, moral powerhouse that is Atticus Finch – dismantled piece by white supremacist piece?

I’d rather stay in Mockingbird’s world, with my hero defiantly intact, thank you.

Books in the Blood # 10: The Diary of Anne Frank

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I remember being a very self-righteous teenager. I believed that on many subjects, and despite their obvious advantage of years and experience, my parents had no idea what they were talking about – ever.

They didn’t understand how I felt about school. They didn’t get my lack of motivation, or why I became disruptive, abusive to teachers and somnolent in class after being such a hard worker until the start of my O Levels. (For those of you too young to know, that’s what GCSEs were called before they passed through the fiery furnace of Educational Restructuring and were reincarnated into their present, much-maligned form.)

To be fair, I don’t think I really understood why I became such a revolting specimen of smoking, drinking, lazy insolence either. I’d like to say I’d entered the chrysalis of my teen years and would emerge transformed into a colourful adult butterfly. But I’ve never felt like a beautiful butterfly, so that’s codswallop. I’ve occasionally felt like a caterpillar, and on really bad days a slug – but never a butterfly. Oh, and I was once convinced I was made of glass  – but that’s a story for another day.

My parents didn’t understand my relationships either. I had a best friend – a local beauty queen no less – who was the epitome of self-confidence, tall with a waist small enough to meet your fingers around, while I was shorter and wider and preferred to grovel in her shadow whilst simultaneously harbouring a slight resentment for all the attention she absorbed. She was smiley and ballsy and she used her assets to full advantage and my mum didn’t understand why I was happier to grow – mushroom-like – in her peaty shade.

But on a certain level, my friend ‘got me’ – she understood my moods and my sense of humour and my loves and loathings and being understood when you feel like an alien changeling in vaguely human form is not to be underestimated.

When my parents gave me advice, I’d shrug it off and make my own mistakes anyway. Maybe with hindsight they were right, but hindsight has been a long time coming – thirty years or so – so a little too late to be of any practical use.

My stepmother once told me

‘Youth is wasted on the young.’

She may have been right, but

‘glib clichés are also wasted on the young’,

so my only response was over-dramatic eye rolling. Although, inadvertently she taught me one thing – never tell a young person how lucky they are to be their age, how they should make the most of it and enjoy their youth. Maybe they should, but telling them won’t make them climb Kilimanjaro or go and build schools in war-torn areas of the world if they’d rather be playing Halo.

I was self-obsessed as a teen, filtering the world through my own experience. The only way to judge phenomena was on how it impacted on me. ‘Why is she such a bitch when I’ve been such a good friend to her?’ ‘How could he talk to me like that? What have I done?’

I was too egotistical to realise that the world spun on its own axis, not mine.

I was lucky. I had people who loved me and I didn’t get into the kind of trouble that killed or maimed me or changed the course of my life towards some scary, dark alleyway filled with dead cats and bin bags filled with bio waste. I may not be a high flyer, but I survived.

And there was a book that punctured my self-obsession just a little.

Today’s Book in the Blood is:

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.

I’m sure many of you have read this, probably when you were a similar age to Anne. It’s the diary of a Jewish girl, kept whilst she, her family and four others were in hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam during World War II.

The main thing I remember about the book is that in many ways, its preoccupations weren’t with the war, or even being discovered. Anne’s main concerns were her relationships with her parents and her sister Margot, the practicalities and irritations of living with other people. She talked of movie stars and her own developing sexuality, of falling in love – with Peter, the son of the other family in the house – and becoming a writer.

I guess I identified with her on some level.

You know from the first page there is no happy ending, that the families will not be saved, that of the eight people in hiding in that space behind the bookcase, only one – Anne’s father Otto – will survive the concentration camps.

Anne was  a normal girl caught up and eventually destroyed by global events and because of that, this book should never be allowed to go out of print.

When we watch the news and the real life horrors unfolding across the globe, we should remember that each of those victims is an Anne, a Margot or a Peter and each had plans for the future which were denied them through other peoples’ actions.

Books in the Blood # 9: I am the Cheese by Roger Cormier

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Did you have a teacher that made your life a living hell?

You know the type. The kind of unreasonable, dead from the inside-out, black-hearted spawn of Beelzebub who would randomly give you detention for no reason. Well, maybe they’d use some feeble excuse like you didn’t hand in homework, or handed it in late or handed it on time but it was encrusted with desiccated baked beans, which is apparently ‘unacceptable’.

Maybe you had some twisted, power-crazed sociopath who didn’t appreciate the needlecraft skills you had to employ to alter your tent-like, A-line, school regulation skirt so that it was actually fashionable. Okay, this meant taking the seams in, making the skirt so tight you had to walk as though you had a saucer clamped between your knees – but surely this was a small price to pay to defend your right to individualism and freedom of expression.

And, okay, you were caught standing outside the school gates, holding a lit cigarette but was that any reason to take away your Prefect’s badge? You should have been rewarded really, as the fag actually belonged to the Head Girl – Sister Mary-Angela’s pet – for whom you took the wrap, which at the very least demonstrated your strength of integrity and moral fibre.

Free the St. Thomas Moore RC Comp One, I say!

And don’t get me started on P.E teachers. I spent all of my spare time reading books, which common sense would tell you meant I had the upper body strength of an asthmatic hamster. Surely, no such person should be expected to climb a rope? And surely, when that person couldn’t climb a rope, it’s not pleasant or reasonable to make the rest of the class stop what they’re doing, gather round in a circle and watch said person FAIL to climb a rope over and over …

P.E teachers of the world – we do not forget.

BUT … and it’s a huge BUT …

There are always two sides to every coin, even if that coin at first seems tarnished and made of debased metal.

Mrs Anne Shimwell.

Mrs Shimwell was the shiny side of my school coin. She was my English teacher, and a nicer, sunnier, more positive and optimistic soul you’ll never find. She loved literature and encouraged those of us who loved it too to get out there and discover new books, to cherish old ones, to write passionately and openly, to learn, learn, learn. She made words exciting.

It was Mrs S who saw my love of books, who stoked my enthusiasm with her own, who challenged me to read today’s Books in the Blood

I Am The Cheese by Roger Cormier.

Up until then, I read whatever I fancied – mainly fantasy, adventure stories. I Am The Cheese is darker fare than that.

It follows a teenage boy – who we assume has mental health problems – speaking to his therapist. The boy has lost chunks of his memory, isn’t sure at times what’s happened to his parents, what’s happened to him, or even of his own identity. It’s a tough read about memory, alienation, loss and state control. It is deeply unsettling and has a truly downbeat ending and I’m not sure I entirely understood it at the time.

But without Mrs S I would never have read it at all. Actually, without her patience, guidance and encouragement, I wouldn’t be writing this.

Thank you, Mrs Shimwell – you were truly an inspiration.


Years ago, I sent a letter to Mrs S via my old school, telling her what a wonderful teacher she was – she was kind enough to reply. If you had a teacher who made a difference to your life, I heartily recommend you do the same.

Books in the Blood # 8: Midnight is a Place by Joan Aiken

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I love bit of melodrama.

Give me a man with a handlebar moustache, tying a whey-faced heroine to railway tracks and I’m your woman.

Those of you who read this blog regularly may remember me discussing my theatrical exploits as a child going on to a self-conscious, no-please-don’t-look-at-me-I’m-too-hideous-teen. Well, one of my towering performances at secondary school was as the wax-moustachioed villain in a Victorian melodrama. I blew the other performers offstage, sweeping around the school gym/ hall in my top hat and cape, declaiming ‘Drat!’, ‘Blast!’ and ‘Foiled again!’ – always with the exclamation mark, of course.

My acting was variously described as ‘A performance of honest to goodness genius’: ‘Bravura – the best you’ll see this year’: ‘Sod the National Theatre and the RSC – St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Comprehensive’s summer play is the one to watch’. Well at least I’m sure, that’s what the reviewers would have said if we’d had any.

Following my big break aged eight as one of the Three Wise Men, I fear I could’ve been typecast as a man. Not sure where this trend came from, though perhaps the fact that even before puberty  I was able to fashion my own luxuriant facial hair into said top lip face furniture may have had something to do with it.

Anyhow, for good melodrama there are a few ingredients that are a must:

A heroine (usually a vulnerable heiress, often a bit wet and simpering and prone to bouts of fainting, but can have spunk if you’re lucky).

A villain (preferably moustachioed, definitely money grabbing). This man hasn’t lost his moral compass: he had one but decided he had no use for it so smashed it into tiny pieces, gathered those pieces together in a dirty hanky and buried them somewhere – probably under his neighbour’s prize-winning roses – the cad.

A hero: (usually a bit soppy-arsed like the heroine). Often a craftsman, for some reason: a carpenter, a stonemason, a cordwangler. Clearly nothing speaks decency like a man who’s good with his hands.

You can add various other characters if you wish – a side kick for the villain is common, as is a father for the heroine, though you might want to consider bumping him off early in the narrative, so you can have your heroine nicely vulnerable and available to take advantage of – protective fathers do tend to block the narrative flow. Of course, you can always make him a step-father instead, for if literature has taught us anything, it’s that step parents uniformly loathe and despise their step kids, and aim to be rid of them, by hook, crook or – in the case of Snow White – by huntsman, as quickly as physically possible.

Now, I must confess this preamble has been triggered by my having a senior moment. Well, a middle-aged lady moment anyway. I needed to remind myself of the plot of today’s Book in the Blood. You see, I know Midnight is a Place made an impact on my young mind, that there is a terrific, terrifying scene in it where a house burns to the ground, but I couldn’t remember the details.

On a visit to author Joan Aiken’s website, I found the book described as a melodrama, hence the above ramblings.

I was surprised by this, as the word has rather negative connotations – overblown, high camp. And anyway, if you’re looking for traditional melodrama, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

There’s a heroine but she’s only a child, she’s not of marriageable age and she doesn’t have a fortune . There’s a hero and he’s also a child, although he does get a chance to use his hands a lot. There’s a villain, but he gets charred to a crisp relatively early in the story. There are other baddies too, but the real villain is an industrialised society that chews up and spits out young lives as if they were so much grist to the cotton mill.

I remember Midnight is a Place as a rollicking good read, with plenty of action, adventure and scares.

And like all good melodrama, it has a happy ending.*


*It also has a very good title. The house the children come from is called Midnight Court, and a darker, drearier, less homely home you are never likely to find. So you have a house which embodies all of the frightening, other worldly, creepy aspects of the witching hour, hence Midnight is a Place.

Here’s the folky theme tune from the late seventies TV series. Altogether now – ‘Midniiiiiiiiiiiiiight is a Plaaace …. ‘

Books in the Blood #7: Misty Comic

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Can you trace your adult obsessions back to the quirks of your childhood?

Did your love of Space Invaders and Pacman translate into a forty-hour-week asking customers ‘have you tried turning it off and on again’?

Did a toddler fixation with your Granny’s dentures – the pop and thud as she opens and closes her mouth, the fact they looked like they were stolen from someone with a MUCH bigger face ‒ lead you to six years at dentistry college and a lifetime of looking down in the mouth? (Credit to my eleven-year-old for that solid-gold gag).

Although the confident, graceful, well-adjusted adult I am now is unrecognisable from the cripplingly self-conscious, moon-faced kid I was – well, in a good light ‒ I can see the silver thread of interests that link myself and that snot-nosed little dweeb.

Okay, so I don’t eat soil anymore. Or coins. Or dog biscuits. But then, I don’t have pets, so going to the shop with the sole purpose of buying them for myself would perhaps warrant an episode of Freaky Eaters or some kind of therapy. Though I did have a VERY glossy coat and a nice wet nose throughout my childhood, so there’s something to be said for my pre-teen consumption of marrowbone jelly.

I also no longer chew on spent fag butts, or wee in the corner of my bedroom at night rather than visit the loo for fear the Toilet Monster will eat me if I do.

Yeah, probably habits best left behind.

But I do recognise the love of all things historical which was there from primary school – I remember a particularly stunning project I did about Queen Victoria with my best mate Sandesh. There was a lovely, wonky drawing of the monarch with a tinfoil crown, as I recall. Queen Piglet features looked like she’d had a stroke, but apart from that … 

Of course, there’s my love of books and reading. And also present were the subjects I read.

I’ve pointed out before that I love the ghostly, the other worldly, something with a kink in its fender (I don’t know if that’s an expression, but it is now!) and I’ve been trying to work out when this interest began.

Whilst diving and delving through the deep, dank potholes of my memory for this very thread, whilst compiling a patchy and in no way complete list of my childhood reading landmarks, I realised I’d made a glaring and terrible omission. An omission that puts my interest in the OTHER back at least two years earlier than I had thought.

You can imagine my amazement. This realisation was akin to finding the Queens of the Stone Age  album Songs for the Deaf buried alongside a flint hand axe, an antler plough and a pair of granite leggings. In other words … in the Stone Age.

This rare, sparkling jewel of excavated reading matter memory was Misty Comic.

Now, for those of you who were not adolescent British females during the late 1970s, Misty was a comic aimed specifically at girls and if similarly named comics of the time ‒ Jinty, Tammy, Bunty for example ‒ featured plucky schoolgirls triumphing in testing situations, it was only Misty who would run stories on telekinetic children, tower blocks that could transport you back to the Second World War, Arabian Djinns disguised as ordinary teenagers and toy lions that could kill.

Misty was first published in January 1978 when I was eight and a half years old. I know I bought the first issue, because I remember the bracelet with the blue plastic fish charm that came as a free gift. I was convinced it was mystical, beautiful and would almost certainly activate what I assumed were my as yet dormant magic powers, therefore allowing me Total Power over Space and Time … Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! 

Unfortunately, the only magic powers I had as a child was the ability to do poor Frank Spencer impressions and eat way more Mr Kipling’s French Fancies than was necessary or healthy.

I collected every issue of Misty, every week, for around six months (a lifetime in kid years) until the family moved across the country. I know I packed my collection carefully, but mysteriously, that box ‘vanished’ during the move and my collection along with it.

Were the forces of evil trying to stop me from discovering their wicked ways, disabling my ability to fight the Devil in all his forms? Or could my parents just not be arsed to move that heavy box the few hundred miles from Greater London to Derbyshire? Perhaps we’ll never know.

Unfortunately, Misty herself suffered a similarly terrifying fate – after two years she was cannibalised by the much less interesting Tammy. I had by then moved on to consuming my mysteries in longer form chunks, but I give my thanks to Misty, for filling the smallest of niches and being in the right time and place for me.

Reading was never more magical.


P.S. The comic was personified by Misty, the witch who often appeared from … the mists, to grace the front cover. I think she had a passing resemblance to Lucy Lawless in her Xena days – any thoughts?


Did you have a favourite comic? Did your Mum sell your mint-condition collection, only for you to discover years later that each copy is now worth the price of a flat screen TV?

Books in the Blood # 6 The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

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Is it me, or has the world gone Superhero crazy? 

They’ve been around a long time, of course. Marvel and D.C Comics – the two publications most famous for their superheroic activities – have both been publishing since the thirties. In fact, pretty much all of the Superheroes you can think of – Batman, Superman, the X Men, all of the Avengers – have been around for fifty, sixty, seventy years plus.

I’m going to meander now, but bear with me and I’ll wander back to my point in a mo.

Do you think it might just be possible those early illustrators had deals with DuPont, the manufacturers of elastane, the rubbery stuff known as Lycra. Think of all of those all-in-one, figure-hugging, yes-the-caped-crusader-is-definitely-a-boy body suits ‒ all of the tights.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but this sort of thing was NOT every day wear for the dapper gent around town in the thirties, was it? Was Bogart wearing a pair of budgy smugglers under his Zoot suit? Did Cagney exclaim ‘Top of the world, Ma,’ clad in a rubbery onesy? If they did, I’ve – thankfully ‒ erased it from my memory.

There was clearly something about a chap wearing his underwear outside his brightly-coloured leotard in the thirties that spoke of manliness, mystery identities and a can-do attitude to an emergency situation that it perhaps wouldn’t if the characters were invented today.

Anyhow, I digress (and lord knows any regular followers out there will know that my posts are pretty much all digression).

The point I was trying to make before I was so rudely distracted by Spandex, is that although Superheroes have been popular all of our lives, they seem to have grown and grown, until you can’t go near a multiplex  cinema during the summer months without being bombarded by crashy, bashy, smashy big-men-and-busty-women-hitting-each-other movies.

It used to be that boys wanted to be train drivers or pilots or rock stars. My son wants to be Tony Stark (Iron Man to the uninitiated).

I guess I don’t blame the film companies. If the budget for one film is big enough to fund a small war, then to stay afloat they need to make a profit big enough to end the same war by buying off the enemy with Ferraris and holiday homes in the Hamptons.

It was different when I was a girl.

Yes, we had the animated Spider-Man (who can forget that theme tune? Even my son knows it and he’s never seen the programme!) and we had Adam West and Burt Ward as the deliciously camp crusader and his feathery sidekick in Batman and Robin (now those boys really knew how to wear Lycra). But none of them made it huge at the cinema.

And even though they had a delightful array of gorgeous girls playing Catwoman, I had no aspiration to be her. The reasons for this were threefold. One, I got out of breath trying to high kick. Two, I could never have been that flirty and seductive – I would’ve turned beetroot red and hidden in the Batcave if asked to be alluring. And three, PVC is unforgiving over dubious curves, a pot belly and knock knees.

What I wanted when I was a girl was to be Laura Chant from The Changeover by Margaret Mahy.

Laura starts the book as a normal girl whose younger brother Jacko is possessed by the brilliantly named Carmody Braque, an ancient, parasitical being who preys on humans, sucking out their life force until they die and he moves on to his next victim.

Now, Laura is, of course not normal at all. She’s a witch-in-waiting, a fact recognised by a boy at her school, the gorgeously dreamy, and if I remember slightly brooding, Sorenson ‘Sorry’ Carlisle – also a witch.

There follow trials, danger, lots of sinister witchy behaviour and a race to save Jacko. In the end, Laura has to sacrifice her normal life and ‘changeover’ to being that of a fully-fledged, pointy-hat wearing, dancing-naked-in-the-moonlight-for-Satan witch to save the wee one (except not the last bit).

I cannot tell you how much I loved this book. I wanted to be Laura so much it was physically painful.

There’s a scene near the end where she creates a miniature zoo on her rug – elephants, giraffes, the lot – just with the wave of her hand.

I wanted to be a witch – I wanted ‘Sorry’ Carlisle – I wanted a miniature elephant.

Hmm. Replace incantations with superpowers, pointy hats and cloaks with Lycra, killer boots and capes…

Maybe I can see why my son is so besotted with Tony after all.

Preview Tuesday*

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Hmm. Preview Tuesday, I hear you mutter through the blogi-sphere. Not really a ‘thing’ is it?

Well, you’re right, it’s not. If you’re gonna preview the week it should be at the start, before it really gets into gear, not one day in, when we’re just stumbling into our stride, haven’t hit the doldrums of midweek and have yet to even glimpse the dizzying peak that is Friday PM – or as I like to call it ‘knock off early and nip down the pub for twelve tequila slammers before staggering home via the kebab shop’ afternoon.

But, you see, I’m a bit over-excited because I actually have the week’s posts planned and I had to share. 

In chronological order they are,

Wednesday Word Tangle, my weekly jaunt through the world of words, where I drag you, my loyal readers (or should that be ‘reader’?) through the knotty world of language. This week, I foresee great things…

On Friday we shall plunge, knee-deep into a frozen, flaky foray into flash fiction. (It may not be seasonal to write a snow-based story in June, but considering the apocalyptic weather we’ve all been experiencing, it feels appropriate.)

And on Saturday, join me if you dare, for more flash and yet more chills. The fall of snow, a hint of the afterlife… What else you gonna do as you slip, half-comatose into the day’s first bucket of Java and look on, helpless, as the kids take the dog apart like he’s a VW Beetle in need of a service? It’s what weekends are for.

Of course, next Monday will bring another Book in the Blood, and just for a change, it’s a fantastical one.

But I get ahead of myself.

Take care and keep safe. Until tomorrow.


*Will Preview Tuesday be a regular post, I hear you cry? That was you, right, or am I hearing voices again?

Well, I think I’m just too mysterious and mercurial to predict that one. (And too disorganised – if I haven’t planned the posts, I can’t very well tell you about them.)