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.

Are you too old to be a successful author?

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There are days when I feel utterly ancient.

Now, some of the scarily young folk reading will absolutely agree with this image of me. I am, after all, 45. I’m not particularly fit – I spend way too much time tapping at the keys of my old friend Dominic Silverstreak* to be in good enough shape to run for the bus, let alone a marathon, a half-marathon or even a 10K.

Mind, being blobby and bookish from a young age I was never going to be a Nadia Comaneci or an Olga Korbut. Let’s face it, I was never gonna make it to the heady heights of Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards.**

I’ve got flat feet and a mild case of sciatica which means I have to do a fair old range of physiotherapy exercises just to keep trucking. My hair’s greying and my sagging face makes it look like I’m gradually melting in front of a three bar fire.

All of this is okay.

I’m vain enough to feel a faint wistfulness at the loss of taut, glowing skin, at the black shadows that will just NEVER vanish no matter how much sleep I get or how much concealer I smear on them. But I’m not vain enough to worry about being an invisible middle-aged lady too much.

Give me a few million quid and I wouldn’t have plastic surgery – no, seriously, I wouldn’t. Like tattoos, having your face cut up and stretched is addictive and I don’t want to look like certain people in the public eye – you know, that caught-in-a-wind-tunnel-eternally-surprised-mannequin look.

I’m happy for my life to be written across my face, even if that face is starting to resemble my Nan’s.

What is disappointing is how late I’ve come to something I love, something which is now so deeply entrenched in my life I don’t think I’ll ever be able to dig myself out of it. No, it’s not the ferret juggling, naked spelunking or my collection of plastic coffee stirrers.

It’s writing.

Sometimes I become down-hearted. I’ll read an interview of a young writer – a published, successful young writer – who claims to have known from the second they emerged as a mucus-smeared whelp from their mother’s womb that they were going to be an author.

You must’ve read these yourself.

‘I’ve always known I wanted to write,’ they burble, going on to explain how their first novel was published before they were potty trained and that sales have now passed the five million mark. Caitlin Moran is one such person. Don’t get me wrong, I love her – she’s clever, sharp, witty. She also published her first book and became a rock journalist at the age of sixteen – this girl was an early bloomer.

It’s not that I resent her for that – much.

But I spent years convincing myself that no-one who worked in an off-licence or as an apprentice hairdresser or as a florist wrote books. Writers have parents who are writers or at least lecturers. Writers are from families who eat at the dinner table, not huddled round the TV. Writers eat proper vegetables with their Shepherd’s Pie, not baked beans. All rubbish, of course, but it’s easy to convince yourself that some jobs are special, out of the ordinary and done by ‘other people’.

For all the amazing, confident young people who start pre-school with a publishing contract tucked in their training pants, there are the rare others, from whom I take heart and courage. These are the ones I think of when another birthday comes round and I still don’t have a published novel to my name. These are the ones that make me think I’m not too late.

Celebrate with me, the writers who came to writing success later in life.

Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t publish her first Little House on the Prairie book until the age of 64.

William S. Burroughs published his first book at the age of 39, motivated to write ‒ he claimed ‒ after shooting his wife dead.

Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes wasn’t published until he’d turned 66.

Charles Bukowski quit his job at a post office to write full time at the age of 49. He’d previously only had a couple of short stories published.

The queen of all late developers, Mary Wesley, published her first novel at the age of 70 and went on to become one of this nation’s most popular authors, selling three million books.

Finally, and by no means leastly, Catherine Cookson published her first book at the age of 44. Taking up writing as therapy to help her recover from a devastating illness, she wrote historical novels set in the North East of England and was hugely popular – for years she was the most borrowed author in British libraries.

Her writing – often dramatic, always female-ccentric and read mainly by women – has been critically much-maligned, but she had a grit and social conscience to her characters and settings that raised her stories way above the slushy Mills and Boon/ Barbara Cartland fare. Maybe it was her popularity and productivity which went against her – she wrote nearly 100 books before she died aged 91, selling 123million copies.

She would have been 109 last Saturday.

Ms Cookson, I salute you. And along with all the other successful late-bloomers, thanks for giving this old girl something to aspire to.


*My love – my laptop.

**For those of you not old enough or British enough to know who I mean, Eddie represented us at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics – at the ski jump. Not an event we’re known for – and after Eddie’s performance, still not an event we’re known for!

For a short reappraisal of Cookson’s work see this article, claiming she’s the missing link between Dickens and Irvine Welsh!