Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Stuff What They Had Writted

I was a lucky child - and many say, despite my condition, that I retain that luck in some areas today. Some also say that I retain the childishness but they're just mega-meanies.

One of the areas I was most fortunate with was the writted... I mean written word, in that I both developed a love of books and was blessed with parents who encouraged the passion (for books, at least; girlfriends were a different matter...). I was also inspired to read by a particular teacher who not only stretched my vocabulary, but who introduced me to a whole new style of writing - more adult-oriented fiction (no, not that sort of stuff).

At home, I began with the normal kiddie fare and The Famous Five were firm friends (although I was never too sure about Julian), and Enid Blyton was an early favourite alongside Anthony Buckeridge with the tales of schoolboy Jennings, and the then fairly-new Paddington Bear stories from Michael Bond. I was also inordinately fond of Dodie' Smith's One Hundred and One Dalmatians (and the sequel which no one seems to remember but me, The Starlight Barking). I almost hate to admit it, but I read and re-read 101 so many times I could recite entire patches of it from memory.

My bedroom bookshelves were always full (alongside my toy cupboard which often looked as if it had been arranged using a pitchfork... seriously) but then I was taught by a guy who understood the power of the written word in a way that lit up my ten year-old brain - and the luminosity persists to this day.

The teacher in question was someone I have been unable to trace, despite the power of the interweb thingy - Brian Malliard - and if anyone knows what became of him, I would be more grateful to hear than you can possibly imagine.

Mr Malliard - probably not in effort to keep me quiet for a while - saw that I was hungry for more fiction and suggested a couple of titles that made a few people blanch in terror. He reasoned - with me first, because I was one of the blanchers - that, despite the size in one case and the possible horror in the other, the two titles would introduce me to a much wider vocabulary and more adult themes. Given that the two books in question were The Lord of the Rings and The Day of the Triffids, I'm pretty sure he was totally correct in both regards.

Tolkein's 'masterpiece' was a pain - that wasn't a tiny book for ten year old hands and needed to be accompanied by a dictionary - but a revelation. It was many years later before I began to wonder about the sexuality of one or two of the hobbits, and the general lack of females outside the elf population. But it did introduce me to one 'grown-up' reaction - that of disappointment at the ending. The mini-me back then was convinced that the final book was a 'cop out' with a hurried ending and one that made little sense in the grand Tolkein-esque scheme of things. If those eagle-things were happy to go rescue the ring-bearer from the depths of Mordor, then why the Middle-Earth didn't they just carry the ring-bearer there in the first place, taking one twentieth of the time? I was inspired, though, to read The Harvard Lampoon's Bored of the Rings, keeping a little more quiet among the adults about that one. Especially as Bilbo Baggins was replaced by Dildo Bugger....

But then there was John Wyndham's classic. As 'science-fiction' as it used to get back then where robots weren't involved, Triffids introduced me to a myriad of grown-up themes ranging from disability, through genetic modification (those plants were not space aliens whatever American film-makers like to think), to kidnap and polygamy. Almost as important to the young me was the fact that the ending - I won't give too much away, read it - was entirely fitting with the rest of the story, and not a little disturbing.

It also gave me my first graffiti favourite - 'Say it with flowers - Give her a Triffid'.

The two authors were both Johns, which I naturally thoroughly approved of, but that one was in his dotage while the other had died the previous year was a shock to my young system. The Rings trilogy was a timeless piece for little me, and Triffids had seemed so up-to-date (even though written nearly a decade before I was born) - so surely these had been written by young men who would go on to write so much more? And that, of course, was another lesson for me.

Brian Malliard also introduced me to other genres and I recall bemused looks from some parents when I recited one of Lewis Carroll's poetic works at a school function. More than one adult apparently thought I had got it all wrong when I talked of a 'frumious Bandersnatch' and the 'Tumtum tree' - I remember it to this day (Jabberwocky, before you look it up)... I'd heard all about Alice, of course (although it was many years before Smokie lived next door to her, and many more before I stood a chance of answering Kevin Bloody Wilson's question about her), but the revelation that Carroll had buried the poem in one of the Alice books almost a century earlier than when I took to the stage was like discovering a golden nugget at the bottom of my satchel.

I was by then officially hooked on books.

My tastes were already somewhat flexible and I was always trying new things - and not just because teenage male hormones were persuading me to seek out the ripped bodices in the 'romantic fiction' genre - but my earliest 'adult' tastes were for the more horrific kind of fiction. And I always kept a weather eye on an author's age and fitness levels.

I had accepted Agatha Christie novels on the grounds that, although she was ancient at the time, she had written a few thousand books so there was always a new one to be found somewhere, but then a new author appeared who ticked all the right boxes (and one I hadn't even realised existed).

The Rats was published when I was approaching my fourteenth birthday by an old, but relatively young, author (James Herbert was not long into his thirties...) and it was out-and-out terrifying science fiction-based horror fiction. Add to the blood some serious bodice-ripping and I was a happy young bunny. A rather goose-bumpy one, but happy. And then the new box was ticked - I knew some of the places that were written about. I had actually walked those streets and lanes.

The next year saw, mistily, The Fog, which was more of the same but even nastier (and included a tunnel we often drove through), and by the time the more ghost-oriented The Survivor appeared shortly before my sixteenth, I was in danger of becoming a 'number one fan'.

Which brings me neatly to...

My appetite for the written word, blood-stained or otherwise, could not be sustained by just one man, though, and I cast my teenage net far and wide. Through good fortune, another young-ish author came onto my radar with a ghostly-freaky tale set a long, long way from the streets of my old hometown - but which somehow resonated within the teen-me. Carrie hit my mind like a speeding Plymouth car and I didn't even care that Sissy Spacek was far too pretty in her later portrayal of her - I had found a new author who wrote just for my tastes.

Teenage years were mostly taken care of, but the appetite for new and different fiction seemed insatiable. The late, lamented Douglas Adams saw some variety enter my tastes when he married science fiction with humour before I was old enough to vote (yes, there were typewriters back in those days) (not computers, I'll grant you). The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy had me giggling in a very uncool way for a teenage male, but hey ho, the word is king.

Adams was immediately succeeded by an American that time, and my favourite genre swung to pure fantasy with Stephen Donaldson's thought-provoking Thomas Covenant tales. I began to read anything and everything.

My twenties appeared and I discovered the 'hoax to end all hoaxes' when I picked up a copy of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 and 3/4. There was no way such a frighteningly accurate portrayal of a teenage male could ever have been written by a thirty-something woman! Okay, I said I loved books, not that I was sensible - what an author she was. Sue Townsend, another writer so sadly missed.

And talking of which.... I had yet to marry for the first time (yes, that long ago) when a book appeared that really blew my mind. The Wasp Factory, just one (the first) of Iain Banks' brilliant works, hit the shelves and ricocheted straight into my cerebellum. It was character-led... something? The genre has been cited as many things over the years but in my mind it is, and will always be, 'human fiction'. Screwed up humans, for sure. Frightening, for sure. But always and forever brilliant.

And so time rolls with new authors appearing like the most dazzling rays of sun - some so intense and bright as to be inspirationally brilliant.

It seems hard to believe, but I was still in my twenties when Sir Terry Pratchett was brought to my attention - a place he remains to this day, and I was days short of my thirtieth when he teamed up with Neil Gaiman to produce the funniest book I have ever read (if you've never had the pleasure of Good Omens then try out the BBC Radio 4 adaptation:

Pratchett and Gaiman remain, individually as well as together, firm favourites of mine - the former's Discworld being the setting for a fabulous (in all senses of the word) collection of reflective stories, and the latter being possibly the best story-teller I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I introduced both of their works to my eldest grandson (would you believe the little sod is now six foot plus and sixteen?), and Miles loves them. Long may his bookshelves (or more likely these days, his e-Reader of choice) bow under the weight of their copious examples of sheer brilliance.

I could list a hundred other authors who consistently captivate me in genres far and wide, but space (and time) provide limitations that are probably for the best in any case. I can't, however, finish without mentioning the 'new' brilliance of Ben Aaronovitch (check out his website -, and the mind-screwingly brilliant Jasper Fforde ( who even has Sir Terry 'worried'.

Then there's Robert Rankin, Paul Magrs, Chris Brookmyre, Dean Koontz, both David Mitchells, Mark Watson, Christopher Moore, Joe Hill (Stephen King junior), Christopher Fowler, Guy Bellamy, Alison Bruce, Mike Shevdon, Magnus Mills, Charlie Higson, John O'Farrell...

The list goes on and on - and so do I, by the look of it. Thank heavens for Kindles...

Enough now, and Happy New Year (and new books by the score).


  1. Thanks for such an interesting read, John. Many of us of the same vintage as you probably had the same interests. I certainly did and Pratchett - discovered in my late thirties, I think - remains.
    Just a little footnote, you are not the only person to remember The Starlight Barking. Very metaphysical, that book.. ;) With CGI that would make a great film- swooshing and Sirius would present no problems. The Colonel/General would be less of a buffoon than he was in the cartoon version, hopefully, and Tommy might feature too..

  2. I meant the cartoon version of 101 Dalmatians of course. Peril of late night posting. I gave my precious copy of The Starlight Barking to my grandchildren to read when they were 10 & 9 and they loved it, even though the subtleties of the jokes about the 1960s Labour Gov't were lost on them. (Babs the Poodle being Minister for Transport, George the blundering Boxer being Foreign Secretary).