I’ve always loved fantasy.
I don’t just mean sword and sorcery, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. What I really love is when fantasy and reality weave together so you don’t know where the frozen fish aisle in Asda ends and the Yellow Brick Road to Oz begins.
I never wanted to read books based in the real world, unless they’re set at least a hundred years ago and everyone in it was wearing breeches or petticoats and either giggling behind fans or pooing in the street.
If you have the patience to stick with this thread – and I’ll endeavour to make it entertaining enough that you will – you’ll see what I yearned for most as a kid was ESCAPISM*. When I was young, the Berlin Wall was still up, the Cold War was still many degrees below zero and nuclear threat was very much a real and present danger.
I remember the delightful Protect and Survive pamphlet plopping through our letterbox, a piece of light reading that shared the comforting knowledge that you can make a bomb shelter from one of your interior doors. If I remember, you had to prop the door against the wall to form a prism-shaped cavity to hide in – wood panelling and gloss paint being renowned protection against a nuclear blast and subsequent fallout.
From Sting’s Russians, Frankie’s Two Tribes and Raymond Briggs’ wonderfully terrifying When the Wind Blows, nuclear Armageddon seeped into popular culture as a kind of morbid entertainment, there to distract us all from the horrors of jelly-bean shoes and Kajagoogoo. I was convinced I wouldn’t make it out of my teens before my hair and teeth were dropping out from radiation sickness whilst the Queen and Margaret Thatcher ate tinned peaches and played backgammon in their bunker under Whitehall.
The worst for me was Threads (think a typically pessimistic English version of The Day After), a TV programme based around a nuclear strike on Sheffield. The theory was that the Russians, overcome with jealousy over the northern town’s steel making heritage, wanted to finish off Sean Bean before he could wear a breastplate and cut through Orcs with his Yorkshire accent (I know, he killed them with his sword, not his accent, but he’s a talented guy, I bet he could if he tried).
Okay, you got me, the Russians in the film were supposedly aiming for a NATO base, not a young Sean Bean, but the fallout was the same. The programme showed Sheffield turned to a wasteland and the people of Buxton in Derbyshire (where I lived at the time) dying slowly, horribly, starving to death as bits of them rotted and fell off.
Is it any wonder I retreated into fantasy?
One book in the genre that I loved was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S.Lewis.
Filled with fauns, talking lions, Turkish delight and Ice Queens, it ticked every magical box for me. A wondrous Otherworld you can reach just by walking into a wardrobe? Check. A snow-covered landscape where it’s always winter but never Christmas? Check. Mythical creatures that serve afternoon tea and cake before crackling open fires? Check. It was every plump daydreamer’s idyll.
Years later, I’d feel cheated when I discovered Aslan and his journey from freedom fighter through self-sacrificial hero to resurrected figurehead was a way to teach the story of Christ to young children (I like my magic pagan) but you can’t deny the strength of Lewis’s imagination and his storytelling powers.
*Environmental catastrophe, austerity, religious extremism, global terrorism. . . Thank goodness for George R.R. Martin’s Westeros – a modern day Narnia and Great Escape.