Books in the blood # 1

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The reluctance to put away childish things may be a requirement of genius.  ~Rebecca Pepper Sinkler

Ooh, let’s hope so, because I’ve been meaning for some while to write a regular post about books I loved as a kid, books that hooked me, inspired me, and maybe I’ll sneak in some books that peed me off too.

I’m talking independent reading here, so I won’t include anything that involves flaps, is made of fabric or stars caterpillars with eating disorders. Or anthropomorphism in any form.

Truth is, I’m curious to know if the books I read as a child and young adult informed my writing preferences and style, or if I was drawn to these books because I was already inclined to The Dark Ways. I’m not sure if I’ll be any clearer by the end of this thread, but it gives me the chance to rattle on about some books I love.

Now we have the ground rules covered, let’s begin.

First up is Charlote Sometimes by Penelope Farmer. (That’s the book, not the song by The Cure. The song is based on the book, though the video stars a VERY grown up, saucy, make-up-laden version of Charlotte!) 

Now, I was no reading genius. I was not devouring the words of Homer at my mother’s breast or quoting Plath at nursery school or discussing the merits of Dickens over Austen whilst eating my fish fingers and chips. In fact, part of the reason I won’t be including many books for very young children, is I don’t really remember many. I don’t know if that’s because I have a terrible memory or because my parents didn’t read to me – I’ll leave that for my shrink to work out.

But the first book I do clearly remember is Charlotte Sometimes. In fact, I think it was the first book I read entirely alone.

Picture the scene. It’s the late seventies, so there was a lot of brown, big floral prints and the smell of Findus Crispy Pancakes hanging in the air – I guess I’m about eight-years-old. If you want to imagine mini-me, think of a moon-faced, knock-kneed barrel on skinny legs with a huge gap between her front teeth, with long, tangly reddish hair and B.O. (All kids had B.O in the seventies in the UK, as most of us were still only having one bath a week and an occasional scrub down at the bathroom sink in-between. I’ve asked lots of other people of my age and we were all the same – delightful.)

This little barrel is being encouraged to read by her teachers. There is a school library and on the shelves, wrapped in a thick plastic cover, with its dog-eared pages, is this book. Imagine my sticky little fingers grabbing it to my chubby little chest. I open the cover and read…

The book is about a young girl called Charlotte who is sent away to boarding school. On arrival, she finds she can travel back in time, swapping lives with the girl who slept in her bed during the First World War. Charlotte has to be clever, deceitful and resilient, especially when she’s in danger of being stuck in the past forever.

I don’t know what it was I loved so much about this story.

There was the pride of reading a book alone.

There was the whole boarding school genre, popular with generations of children and authors (see Harry Potter, the Malory Towers books, The Worst Witch etc, etc etc) though, as a parent, I’m not sure what it says about home life that many of us find the idea of dormitories and shared bathrooms so alluring.

There was the fiesty heroine, of course – always a lovely thing when you’re a plump no hoper with low self-esteem and bully issues.

And there was the time travel. Now, those of you who have read my previous posts or my About page will know what a weird, obsessive personality I am when it comes to history. It snakes into my own writing – including my YA novel a lot.

It’s an open secret that on the day Stephen Hawking invents a time machine (and he will) I’ll be at the front of the queue, wearing a ruff, a doublet and a pair of hose I’ve had made especially for the occasion.

And, of course, when Charlotte goes back in time, she is effectively talking to ghosts, girls who are dead in the present.

So, there you have it. The first book to spark the flame of reading for me, full of history, time travel, the supernatural and plucky young gels in pinafore dresses.


Do you have a first book? One that sticks in your memory as triggering a love of the written word, that made you read under the covers at night?

Let me know. 

The joy of additives

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Instant food seemed a big thing when I was a kid.

Partly because it was the seventies and manufacturers were riding the wave of the sixties processed food revolution and partly because my mum worked two jobs and no sooner had she come home from the first did she have to leave for the second. Instant food that freed people from the ‘drudgery’ of the stove was thought miraculous back then, no matter how much goodness was stripped from it or additives pushed in.

I have fond memories of some instant foodstuffs.

There’s the first time I ate a Vesta chow mein and watched hard strips resembling cut offs from laminate flooring transformed via the deep fat fryer into crispy noodles.

There was butterscotch flavoured Angel Delight which was like something from a sci-fi movie. You began with a pale powder that could easily be the earthy remains of someone’s Nan, add milk and whip until your wrist threatens to detach and you end up with a thick, creamy pudding that tastes how a robot would imagine caramel mousse- mainly sugary with an undercurrent of ash and plastic chairs.

Pot Noodles came later, but still ticked a box in my head- the ‘salt’ box mainly. I loved the weird, shrivelled peas, the paper-thin slices of dried carrot, and the square of desiccated noodles all reconstituted with half a pint of boiled water and a sachet of tomato ketchup- delicious.

Despite the waves of plasticised food that hit the shelves then, it seemed most people in the UK still had a roast dinner for Sunday lunch. The scent of boiling brassicas and gravy that filled our house and emanated from every neighbour’s kitchen once a week seemed permanent, timeless. Then the Sunday trading laws were changed and we all decided we didn’t want to stay at home peeling spuds and hovering over a slab of meat the size of a walrus’s buttock. We wanted to leave our homes, drive out of town and go to aeroplane hangar sized ‘outlets’ so we could row over furniture or shoes or DIY equipment we didn’t really need. Ah, progress.

Anyway, before the Sunday lunch was swapped for retail parks, there was another instant foodstuff, an occasional Sunday treat that delighted us all.

Our first peak of excitement was on seeing the finger biscuits. Pale, crispy little sausage shapes, each coated on one side with enough sugar to down a rhino, my mum called them boudoir biscuits, which made them sound terrifically sophisticated, surely made in Parisian garrets by chefs wearing tall white hats and sporting waxed moustaches.They actually came out of little plastic packets, but they signalled something wonderful- the appearance of a Bird’s Trifle. I remember trifle being served at Christmas, Easter, maybe a Bank Holiday weekend, though they felt rare as hen’s teeth to me.

After the boudoir biscuits came the ripping of the jelly cubes, a weirdly primal activity, which involved pulling apart the segments of a square of rubbery, fleshy jelly ready for it to be dissolved in boiling water. Because it was always raspberry flavoured it was red and being the weird little soul I was, I always imagined I was a zombie, tearing the limbs from an unfortunate victim. Yeah, I know, but I’m over that sort of thing now.

After the jelly was made and set, the custard was next, though I don’t think I can have been trusted to do this, as the preparation of it passed me by. Next was Dream Topping- like cream but not as nice.

Finally, the best bit, and the sign of true sophistication- hundreds-and-thousands. Yet more sugar and coloured like shredded rainbow, these sugar strands had to be sprinkled just before serving because the colour bled.

That was it, the ceremony of the Bird’s Trifle. It was all sugar, very little nutrition and about the most exciting pudding conceivable in the seventies. I remember the remains being left in the fridge for the next day and the colours from the hundreds-and-thousands had always run Pollock-esque on the top and the jelly took on the flavour of beef or dripping, or whatever else was in the fridge.

But it was still a joy.


This was written for the Writing 101 course, Day Ten.

Today’s Prompt: Tell us something about your favourite childhood meal — the one that was always a treat, that meant “celebration,” or that comforted you and has deep roots in your memory.

Wednesday Word Tangle

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Ever been stumped for the right word?

I don’t mean those days when your brain’s as thick as cold porridge, when you need three espressos and a Red Bull chaser just to get a few jaded synapses to sparkle into life. When you just know there’s a word out there that’s precisely right, that just fits what you want to say. It’s on the tip of your brain but every time you scrabble for it, it darts out of reach, a thought-beetle scurrying into the dark when you lift the rotting log of your memory.

No. I don’t mean that. I don’t mean that at all. Anyway, for me that’s an everyday occurrence. It’s a fact of life that keeps good company with walking into rooms and forgetting what I went in for, trying to remember that actor’s name- you know the one- he was in that thing with wotsit out of that other show and absent-mindedly putting the milk in the cupboard instead of the fridge. I have reached THAT age.

No, what I mean is those occasions when our brilliant, complex, varied language, used by literary geniuses over the centuries to describe shared emotions and experience, the wonderful, horrible feelings and thoughts that make up a human mind, that inform human existence, that describe what it is to live on this blue-green bauble rolling on the black velvet groundsheet of space-time- when all of that just isn’t enough.

You know what I mean. No matter how many billions of people have lived before, are living now, will ever live, sometimes it seems that what you feel is different- that what you’ve experienced is unique in some way. That existing wordage just isn’t enough.

What I mean is YOU JUST WANNA MAKE STUFF UP. You wanna snatch syllables from the air- ones that are nearly right, almost there- and squish them together, mash them so they fuse together like some hybrid mythical creature- a bit griffin, a bit sphinx- kind of weird and totally amazing.

And here’s where my word of the day comes in.

GINORMOUS.

Isn’t it great? It’s the kind of word that eight year-old boys love to use to describe conkers or slugs or farts.

Enormous just isn’t big enough. What about gigantic? Yeah… good, but it needs to be bigger, like all the huge things you’ve ever seen or thought of rolled into one.

GINORMOUS. 

For days when BIG just won’t hack it.

A nod to Kittykat– the originator of W4W

A Tribute to Boredom

The ’70s in England was a great time to be bored.

There were only three telly channels and they finished at midnight with the National Anthem and the Test Card. If you’re unfamiliar with the Test Card, just search- it’ll pop up. I warn you, it’s a truly sinister work of art involving a girl, a chalk board and a creepy green clown, apparently called Bubbles. Creepy puppet, starey girl… good night, Britain, sleep well!

There was no internet, mobile phones, computer games, central heating… man, it sounds like the Middle Ages.

Sunday was the longest day of the week as the entire country closed. No 24 hour corner shops or supermarkets: if you finished the milk on Saturday night, you’d be eating dry Ready Brek on Sunday morning, and as that’s like eating powdered feathers, it’s a thing best avoided.

The highlight on a Sunday was a roast dinner and if we were lucky a Bird’s Trifle for desert. The sugar strands always melted, their colours splashed Pollock-esque over the Dream Topping.

We weren’t a family prone to bracing afternoon walks or any form of fresh air, so the telly would go on and I’d spend the hours before tea hitting my brother, avoiding the football coverage and trying to ignore the feeling of dread as Monday loomed- P.E first lesson and I hadn’t done my Maths homework again. Ahh!

BUT…
If I was lucky, I’d irritate my parents enough to be banished upstairs and once I’d given my Sindy doll felt tip eye shadow and used the nail scissors to style her a very attractive mohican, boredom would drive me to the book shelf.

Leathery sacrificial corpses, each whorl in their fingerprints, each silvery hair preserved by peaty bog water: Tutankhamen’s funerary mask- the boy king’s sweet, solemn face immortalised in gold and lapis lazuli: the ladies of Pompeii, gathered to fetch water and to gossip, oblivious of what the tremors will become. Our bookshelf held all this.

So, although there was football on the telly and the flatulent scent of gravy in the air, I saw the ripples on the misty Danish lakes, felt the Egyptian sand catch under my fingernails and the mountain shudder under my feet.

Thank you, Mum, for that crammed bookshelf and thank you the 1970s- the decade that taste forgot- for boring me rigid and giving me the chance to daydream.

To see what has become of poor old King Tut’s mask, click the link below
http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/01/23/king-tuts-mask-worlds-most-famous-archaeological-relic-has-been-irreversably-damaged/

This chap’s face has haunted me for over forty years
http://www.tollundman.dk/

These ladies are actually involved in some kind of Bacchanalian rite, so who knows what’s going on here!
http://spazioinwind.libero.it/popoli_antichi/altro/pompei-misteri.html