Books in the Blood 17: why reading the paperback is better than revering the hardback

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

When I was a kid, the way we kept books in our house reflected our attitudes to reading.

My mum had a shelf in the kitchen-diner, jostling with well-thumbed Catherine Cookson and Georgette Heyer novels and factual history books with tatty dust covers. The books were close to the table, well-used, accessible. My mum did – and still does – read incessantly, so she always needed something absorbing to hand, even if she was in the middle of making a white sauce or slicing a gammon joint at the time. Books were an everyday essential to be consumed along with the gammon and white sauce.

I don’t remember having a bookshelf of my own and as I caught the reading bug from my mum and like her always had a book ‘on the go’, I suspect I ‘shelved’ mine on the floor. To say my bedroom was untidy would be to seriously underestimate the health and safety – and hygiene – implications. Imagine the contents of every chest of drawers, wardrobe and toy cupboard in a nine year old’s bedroom – the pink denim flares, the Sindy dolls, the Teddy bears … the amputated limbs and severed heads of Sindys and bears. Now imagine all of that tipped on the floor and mixed with orange squash, crushed Bourbons, mouldy tea cups and Toffo wrappers, with the vague whiff of stale socks and you’ll be getting somewhere close to the ‘experience’ that was my room.

The tragedy is, of course, that when I eventually did clean and tidy this biohazard, I probably killed a cure to some exotic disease along the way. Cleanliness: potentially disastrous for the future of mankind.

My dad treated books in a much less cavalier fashion.

His education had not been the best. It’s not that he wasn’t intelligent, but I suspect he had undiagnosed dyslexia and as he was at school in the 1950s when dyslexic kids were usually filed under ‘slow and lazy’ he was never given the option of Further or Higher Education – manual work was his destiny.

I think because of this, dad put reading and education on a pedestal. He saw them as gateways to a better life, a kinder, easier life. Maybe that’s why he collected serious books – nothing lightweight, nothing ‘fun’, always educational, informative or worthy.

The books I remember most clearly were the complete works of Charles Dickens. Green leather bound with gold lettering on the spines, they sat in a row on the shelf, a little out of place on the plasticised hardboard – too perfect to be touched.

I remember him telling me how wonderful Dickens was. How Oliver Twist’s Fagin could charm and cheat and Bill Sikes would terrify, and the murder of Nancy would leave you breathless, sleepless, drenched in the poor girl’s blood. How for every Quilp, Wackford Squeers and Uriah Heep that emerges to blight the lives of our heroes, there’ll be a Peggotty, Joe Gargery or Mr Brownlow to help them.

He clearly loved the books, but I was nine or ten at the time and more into reading The Beano or finding my lost Misty comics than slipping onto a nineteenth century idiom. It was too challenging for me – to boring.

I never read a single one of those bright shiny tomes. They stayed on the shelf, remaining relics to gaze on, rather than worlds to experience.

The Works of Charles Dickens have become Books in the Blood not through my dad’s copies, but through ones I bought myself years later. Mine were only cheap paperbacks – not a scrap of green leather or gold leaf anywhere. But the words were the same – those amazing characters, old London brought to life – and that was what mattered.

Books in the Blood #14 : Why do fictional heroines have to be beautiful to be loved?

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

Now, so far my Books in the Blood have been on the populist side, or at least books many of you will have read. Some of this is due to my featuring so many school set books – To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, Shakespeare plays, Lord of the Flies.

Clearly the curriculum developers know what they’re doing. It’s not meant as an insult when I describe some of these choices as the literary equivalent of a parasitic bug that’s burrowed into your brain – once it’s got its hooks in, it won’t detach.

But with BITB #14 – or Bitby 14 as I’ve suddenly decided to call it – the book choice is one that many of you won’t have heard of, by an author who died almost ninety years ago and I’m suspect is largely unknown.

Now, just as a preamble, I must explain there’s a big part of me that’s always despised romantic fiction.

Before you legions of ladies (and let’s face it, it’ll be mostly ladies) rise up and bludgeon me to death with your nearest weapon – a pair of Manolo Blahnik stilettos, say, or a passing Pomeranian – I admit that (as you can deduce from my sniffy comment) I have a twisted view of the genre.

You see, when I was growing up, the only examples I’d heard of were Barbara Cartland and Miles and Boon and the covers of M & Ball hazily painted swooning females and towering Milk Tray men – were enough to put me off. Remember, I loved mystery and adventure stories most and would soon embark on years of little else but Dean Koontz and Stephen King novels. I was beyond heaving bosoms and being swept up in manly arms.

Then came the BBC adaptation* of Mary Webb’s

PRECIOUS BANE,

with the towering Janet McTeer (literally towering, as she stands at just over 6 feet) in the role of Prue Sarn.

Prue’s my kind of heroine. You see, I’m always mildly irritated by attractive leading ladies. You know the ones – they’re feisty with tousled hair and an untamed beauty and men tend to fight over them at the drop of a tricorn hat.

This seems to me an inherently flawed starting point. Most of us – even in a kind light with a little Vaseline softening the lens – can’t be described in such terms. Most of us are lucky enough to be okay looking, neither drop dead gorgeous nor ‘cover her face’ ugly. But even if we are conventionally unattractive, should it naturally follow that we’re undeserving of love? No, of course it shouldn’t.

So why are many romantic heroes and heroines so stunning? Surely, that alienates the majority of readers, demonstrating to the young and single that the only way any of us will receive passionate, breath taking love is by having a new nose / boobs / chin / cheekbones and industrial strength liposuction.

I adored Prue because she starts the story on the aesthetic back foot. You see, she’s born with a harelip (we’d more generously call it a cleft palate these days) which gives her an unmistakable facial deformity. Not only that, she’s unlucky enough to have been born into a rural society during the nineteenth century, so because of her lip, she’s believed to be cursed and possibly a witch.

Prue’s probably a little retiring for modern tastes – she does have to be rescued by a man at one point – but as the book was first published in 1924, this is hardly surprising. She’s cowed, bullied and put upon by family and friends alike – the assumption being that a ‘hareshot’ girl will never get a lover, and as she can work as hard as most men, she may as well be used as free labour on her brother’s farm.

But Prue is kind hearted, intelligent and brave in her way and she wins her man not by looks alone – but by being a lovely girl. As I was a lumpy, lonely singleton living in a thatched cottage in the broad expanse of the Suffolk countryside when I first encountered this story, you can imagine how it appealed to me.

Along with the romance, there’s a lot of death, a whiff of the supernatural, plenty of superstition and a beautiful snapshot of a lost, rural Shropshire, filled with ‘sineaters’, a wizard called Beguildy and a brooding countryside of meres and mists that is both protector and death bringer to the inhabitants.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Precious Bane and old cynic that I am, it still weaves a spell over me now.

‘Saddle your dreams before you ride’em.’


*With apologies, this is the only clip I could find for the BBC adaptation – skip through and you’ll find Janet. I gather it’s not available on DVD either. As Sarn Mere, it is lost in the mists.

Lord of the Flies : Books in the Blood # 12

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

The Romans believed that human beings were not born properly formed, that they need shaping to enable them to grow into decent citizens. This is why they beat their children as a matter of course – how on earth were you supposed to breed effective conquerors and Empire builders if you didn’t punch all the softness out during the formative years?

In the Middle Ages, people thought bear cubs were born as a formless lump and the reason their parents licked them so much was that they had to be pushed into the right shape – imagine a blob of furry modelling clay and you’ve got the idea. Hence the expression ‘licked into shape’.

‘Where are you going with this?’ I hear you cry, and by the way I do wish you wouldn’t do that – it’s like having a virtual Greek Chorus following me across the webby-sphere. Stick with me – a point will be made.

I can see where these ancient thinkers were coming from. Maybe not with the bears, but to be fair they probably just made that up – I’m sure you could count the number of Medieval thinkers who got close to a bear cub and lived on one hand. Not one of their hands, of course, because presumably they’d come away without digits to do any counting on. But I digress.

But the Romans had a point, because human’s are born only partly formed. We lack in experience and knowledge, of course, as anyone who’s ever watched a toddler try and do almost anything can testify. They fall over,  bump into furniture, burst into tears seemingly without reason, burble nonsense then start throwing things when you can’t understand them … They are my Uncle Stan after a Payday Friday visit to the Squint and Spyglass pub.

And emotionally, small children are bit … Odd. This may be controversial (and completely unproven), but it seems  to me children are born without empathy – it’s something they learn with experience. Ever seen a toddler fall and hurt itself whilst surrounded by other toddlers? The rest of the crowd carry on pushing building bricks up their noses and eating the contents of the sandpit.  I’m not really suggesting that we’re all born sociopaths and that it’s only with experience and example that we learn to care for others … Or am I?

Which brings me onto today’s Books in the Blood,

Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

Now, this is another Secondary School set book that many of you will have read. I already know from previous conversations online that some of you  REALLY didn’t like this book. And who can blame you? To be honest, I’d be a little worried for anyone who read this book time and time again. If this is your go-to book when you’re feeling low, when you want to snuggle up in your onesy, a big mug of Horlicks in hand … You should be wearing that rather fetching jacket with the fastenings at the back – you know the one with the long sleeves and the buckle motif.

This is a book to admire, but is it one to love?

It’s very well written – remember the scene on the beach at night, the description of the light on the waves, of the bright fish swimming around a body?

But the bodies, of course are one of the problems. Because Golding creates a world devoid of adults, stuffed with young boys and once they’ve shrugged of any semblance of civilisation, they revert to that primal state the Romans were so worried about. The world the boys create is nasty and brutish, where there’s no room for the soft, the sensitive or the weak. It’s an unjust world where those with a sense of decency won’t survive long. (I can hear you students of history shouting ‘But that’s what Roman society was all about.’ A discussion for another time, friends).

I suppose it’s many people’s first introduction to dystopian fiction and there’s little out there that’s more dystopian. Have you heard anyone criticise the plots of The Hunger Games and other YA books for being too violent for the young, as if this is a recent phenomenon, a symptom of the modern era’s degradation? Just remind them of this book and the fact it was school that made us read it.

I remember finding it creepy, disturbing, genuinely depressing, making me want to flee back to the reassuring comforts of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. If this was what ‘adult reading’ was all about, give me the Beano.

I’ve said this before on Word Shamble, remember Golding taught at a boys’ school – if anyone knew about how heartless children can be, it was him.

A sobering thought.

Book Review Bloggers and Why I Don’t Follow Them

Mmmm ... Popcorn (Image: Pixabay)

Mmmm … Popcorn
(Image: Pixabay)

I’m a contrary beast – as if you hadn’t noticed.

When wondering what films to watch I’ll scour the net, flick through IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes or online reviews from broadsheets and tabloids to see what the experts think before investing my hard earned.

I hasten to add, I’m pretty picky about whose advice I take and much of that is based on politics and snobbery. I’m a left leaning-individual – you may have gathered that from my occasional backhanded snipes at the current Conservative government and their policies.

As a logical – possibly illogical – progression, I’ve extended this prejudice towards right-leaning newspapers. Clearly, I don’t buy this kind of paper as I’m not scared by immigration, I don’t wish to castigate people because they’ve fallen on hard times and have to draw benefits and I’m not forever on the lookout for fad cures for life threatening diseases – I don’t expect to cure dementia with the shavings from a cuttlefish bone, high cholesterol by licking cane toads or heart disease by stripping down to my knickers, standing on my head and reciting Dad’s Army scripts backwards whilst juggling bottles of Veuve Clicquot champagne.

Because I despise these papers, I automatically think their film reviewers will like films I don’t like and dislike films I do. This is nonsense, of course, but a misconception I can’t shake. So, I’ll read The Guardian newspaper’s movie reviewer’s take on whichever The Fast and the Furious we’re on now and if in the unlikely event they give it a glowing report, I’ll be tempted to rush to my nearest multiplex, buy a ticket along with a bucket of popcorn the size of my bath (never trust food that is served in buckets – we’re not pigs. Well, most of us aren’t) and enough cola to quench the thirst of two dozen Maasai tribesmen, even though I don’t really like blockbusters, and loathe every adrenalin, testosterone filled second of driving movies.

And on a side note, am I the only one put off by certain glowing tag quotes they attach to movie posters? Take my advice – read where the quote’s from. I’m happy to take the advice of film magazines such as Empire and Total Film less so if it’s from Crochet Monthly, The Jam Makers’ Chronicle or Door hinge and Keyhole Magazine.

Anyway, as I’m so picky with films, you’d think I’d apply the same technique to books. I’m don’t. In fact, I don’t usually look at book review blogs at all.

Is this weird for a woman so obsessed by the written word, she keeps magazines in the kitchen so she has something to read as the kettle boils? Actually, though I’m weird in many ways (oh, if only you knew), I don’t think this is one of them and even if you don’t want to know, I’ll tell you why.

Books are just too important.

I love films, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not my passion. If I take another person’s recommendation about a film and don’t enjoy it, I can shrug and move on. It’s the same with TV. If someone badgers me into tuning in to the latest hot TV programme – usually something that’s chocka-block with death and breasts if Game of Thrones is anything to go by – and I don’t like it, I just chunter on about an hour of my life wasted and never tune in again.

But a book … A book is an investment of time, money and soul. It’s a commitment that can possess me if it’s good – leading me to wander the house and the streets still reading, that can mean I have to have paperbacks surgically removed from my hands. Well, maybe not the last bit.

If the book’s bad it can lead to simmering resentment, to Reading Reluctance (R.R) – a horrible condition where you don’t look forward to your usual curling up and sinking into a papery embrace because your current book isn’t enjoyable. The thought makes me shudder.

No one knows exactly what I like to read – I’m not sure I can define it clearly – so how can I take another person’s view seriously? And anyway, of all the book review blogs around, many just aren’t that good. I’ve lost count of the number of bloggers who claim to be reviewers and merely print synopses. A synopsis is not the same as a review, people.

So how do I choose books? I’m Old School – I look at covers, I read blurbs. I’d just rather trust my own judgement than that of others. And if I get it wrong, at least I’ve only got myself to kick for my current dose of R.R.


Having said all of this, there is one blogger whose recommendations I do value – bluchickenninja. I’m sure many of you have found her already, and if you haven’t, do visit.

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.

Judging a book by its cover: Can I guess what genre you read from looking at you?

Hobbies: Flower arranging, stamp collecting, bus spotting

Hobbies: Flower arranging, stamp collecting, bus spotting

Do you ever see a stranger in the street and immediately judge what type of person they are just from their appearance?

Oh, come on, you do. It’s okay, we all do it. And I’m afraid at least some of the time we’re right.

My son and me were travelling home on the bus a few weeks ago when I noticed a family sitting close ahead of me. They had a scruffy, food stained pushchair with them, almost tipping over with the weight of carrier bags from a cheap clothes shop – you know, the sort where you can buy ten pairs of pants for a pound but from the way they shred after one wash, they may as well be made disposable. They also had a few bags from a local freezer centre – the one that sells Tikka Masala and doner kebab meat pizza.

They had four or five white haired little kids with them, sprawled over both sides of the bus, dropping wrappers and boxes and drinks bottles from their fast food dinner over the floor. I couldn’t see Mum properly as she had her back to me, but Dad was skinny, a tattoo on his neck, his jaw hanging open, as if air fishing for flies.

I didn’t pay them too much attention at first, but gradually became aware Mum and Dad were involved in a low level row, grumbling and snapping back and forth.

Then Mum began to shout, rolling out expletive after expletive in a ripe Welsh accent, describing what kind of activities Dad had been up to with a third party female ‒ though she used fewer words than I just have, in fact if anything I had to admire her for her brevity and her Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.

Although the rest of the bus hung on every four letter word spat from Mum’s lips, her children merely carried on staring blankly out of the window, half-chewed fries hanging from their mouths.

My son whispered to me, ‘That lady knows a lot of swear words.’

I replied, ‘Love, she knows ALL the swear words.’

I’ve opened this small window onto the adventurous world of the number 90 bus because quite honestly and not without guilt – I judged that family. I would have guessed that one or other of the parents was capable of holding the attention of a packed commuter bus full of people, merely with the volume of their imaginatively used swears. Sadly, I would have also guessed the kids would be used to it.

We may fight against it, but this is what humans do – we judge wealth, class, profession and who knows what other interests and character traits by how people look.

The reason I’m rattling along this confessional track, exposing my inner bigot, is that I wondered what else you can accurately guess from appearance. Can you, for instance, guess what type of books someone reads from how they look?

Marketers do this kind of thing all the time. They’re forever making assumptions about what type of laundry liquid or lawnmower we’ll buy based on our gender, our education and our personalities. One of these forms of classification is called Cross Cultural Consumer Classification, where the entire human race is spilt into seven personality types: we start with Resigned and Struggler, move onto Mainstreamer, Aspirer, Suceeder, Explorer and  finish off with Reformer.

I’m not sure where I’d fit in these groups – I’m too lazy to be Explorer and Suceeder, though I’ve got too much pride to admit I might be a Resigned or a Struggler. I wonder  if I could create a new category? Maybe Good Attempter or Admirable Underachiever?

So, how about readers?

Can I assume that the muscly guy in the camouflage jacket over there has a stack of Andy McNab and Frederick Forsyth paperbacks piled up at home on a bookshelf made from reclaimed ammo boxes? Or that the skinny, acne-plagued, spectacle wearing lad next to him wearing the World of Warcraft tee shirt has read every Lord of the Rings / Game of Thrones / high fantasy series going?

Well, maybe. But we must approach these prejudices with caution.

I know several respectable middle-aged mums – silver haired grannies even – who have Fifty Shades of Grey on their Kindle. There must be some men who’ve read E. L. James, just as there are many women who love sci-fi. And how would we expect Fifty shades fans to dress anyway? I mean, you don’t see many women walking round Asda in manacles and a gimp mask.

And people who only know me from work show astonishment that this friendly, mumsy, anorak-wearing forty something writes stories with quite so much blood and death in them – though admittedly, little sex.

So maybe those marketers and I could learn a little something. We might often get it right, but when it comes down to it, we really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

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

anne-frank-346861_1280

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

owl-31691_1280

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.

The red satin corset of shame: what the contents of your bookshelf reveals about you

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Ever worried someone might open the top of your skull and take a look at your brain?

Not in an physical, ‘err, it’s all pink and membraney and looks a bit like a blushing cauliflower’ sort of way, but in a ‘hell, what kind of twisted weirdness is this? And what’s that horrible, many tentacled thing hiding in the corner that looks like it wants to eat me’ kind of way’?

What I mean is, would you be worried if someone could see your inner workings (again, not the pink squidgy ones)?

We all have our secrets. I’ve written here before about how good people are at acting normal and how great kids are at showing their inner weirdo – well, outer weirdo … Just total, 100% weirdo.

If all adults feel they have to hide parts of themselves in order to fit in with all the other adults hiding parts of themselves and trying to fit in, are there unexpected ways in which these hidden depths ooze out, exposing the red-satin-corset-of-shame below the buttoned-down collar of respectability?

Before you begin to imagine I have a garage filled with life-sized, fully automated Lego models of serial killers or a catalogued assortment of ear wax, body hair and nail clippings, may I reassure you that I’m talking about books here.

Now, some people’s bookshelves may be filled with sumptuous leather bound volumes of Dickens, Hemingway, Austen and Hardy. Those volumes may be well-thumbed and oft read.  The owners may love the Classics, enjoy bathing in the warm joy of words, the love of literary genius.

Or they may just be snobs who want to show off an intelligence they don’t possess, mirrors only ever reflecting, never absorbing these wonders of erudition.

I’m guessing, though, that your bookshelf is very much like mine – a jumble of papery friends you’ve accumulated over the years. As with human friends, they’ll be some you love, that you return to time and again, that give back more each time you return to them.

But, you may also have the book equivalent of a friend-who-shouldn’t-really-be-a-friend, some piece of rubbish you picked up years ago. Maybe you’re not quite sure where or how they came into your life, you keep meaning to shake them off but can’t quite muster the energy to finally throw them out. 

So maybe, your bookshelf is a little like opening up your head and rummaging through its contents. Maybe it’s a window into your psyche, a little hint at still water running deep, or that you’re just a bit of an odd ball with a fixation with manhole covers, beer mat collecting and edible invertebrates.

From my own bookshelf, you’d learn I have a fascination for the Tudor period, especially the life of its seamen (note the spelling please).

You’ll also find a smattering of local history and dialect books, and Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England by Emily Cockayne – a fascinating book about dirty Georgians.

There’s plenty of fiction, of course. Books I read as a kid through to modern YA, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and, yes, some Classics – Dickens, Austen, Mary Shelley, George Elliott, Conana Doyle.

And beside the guides to fiction writing, the books to teach yourself crochet, knitting and gardening (because there’s surely nothing you can’t learn from books) there are some about fossils – and a lovely big picture book filled with skeletons.

So, imagine Sherlock Holmes was trying to work out my personality from the contents of my bookshelf, because let’s face it, that’s the kind of thing he’d do.

I’d be a maiden in some distress, probably with a large fortune and a good line in lace hankies and suspect male relations. From the contents of my shelves, Mr Holmes might learn a thing or two …

‘Our quarry has an erratic mind, Watson – do you see the jumble of tomes, one atop the other, seemingly without rhyme or reason. And the subject matter – from antiquity through to our own day? Surely a sign of derangement, a person who is at once juvenile and geriatric, with a dangerous preoccupation with the grimy underbelly of society, with darkness and with death.

‘Call a hansom cab at once. The game is afoot!’


What does the contents of your bookshelf reveal about you? Would your books on real crime surprise your Nan? Would your collection of French romantic poetry have your work colleagues passing out with shock?