Monday 16 August 2021

Books that shaped me as a writer


It would be nigh on impossible or would take weeks and a lot of deep thinking and memory trawling to list all the books that have shaped me or had a direct or indirect influence on my writing. I have, however, been reflecting recently on books I read as a child and a young adult and I will try and cover at least some of them here. 

Let’s get this straight. I come from a working-class family. We lived in a two-up-two down council house on an estate in a rural Norfolk town which was known for being a ‘London Overspill’ town. We were London overspill. Neither of my parents had degrees. My mum left secondary modern at 15 with no qualifications. My dad fared a little better and went to technical college where he trained as an engineering draftsman. My parents were young when they had me – 21 and 20 respectively. One thing my parents did have though was a love for books and music. My mum was a member of various book clubs and throughout my early childhood we had a fortnightly family pilgrimage to the local library – a tradition I kept up through my teens and well into adulthood. I firmly believe that libraries are essential, a necessity. Without the library I would have been lost. I read everything I could get my hands on – well except romance, I was never a fan of Mills and Boon. 

Let’s start at the beginning. The first books I remember were Doctor Seuss and the other books in the American ‘I can read it myself’ series. I have no idea where those books came from – perhaps my mum got them from a book club. I learnt to read with them before I went to school and I can see now that the surrealness and sense of loneliness and unfairness of some of the characters in the stories experience has certainly pervaded my own writing, and, perhaps, my view of the world. The Cat in the Hat books are the obvious ones but the books I remember most were: One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish; Green Eggs and Ham; Are You My Mother?; The King, the Mice and the Cheese; and The Diggingest Dog. I will never forget the thing in a giant bottle in the park in the dark or the little bird standing on top of a giant digger asking ‘Are you my mother?’. I am sure learning to read with these books instilled a love of reading that I would have never have got from Peter and Jane. 

There may have been other books from this time but if so, I have no memory of them. The next book I really remember with any clarity is The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton. I was a massive Blyton fan as a child often asking for her books for Christmas and birthday presents and also buying them in the second-hand bookshop on our rare visits to the nearest city. My love affair with her began with The Enchanted Wood. I must have been five or six and it is the first time I can remember a book making me want to write something myself. That book was a revelation to me as a child. I loved all the fantasy elements but also that it was rooted in the kind of everyday world I could relate to. I lived in a poor family. We had moved from the city and lived opposite a wood. I longed to find my own Faraway Tree and escape from my mundane existence to other exciting lands – I think it was my first sense that you could use imagination and reading/writing as an escape route from the everyday dysfunction of your family. Other Blyton books I loved were The Naughtiest Girl in the School series – what child from a noisy argumentative family doesn’t fantasise about escape to a boarding school; the Adventure series (Castle of Adventure, Sea of Adventure etc) – I wanted to be Barney, the boy who had no family and hitchhiked around the country with his pet monkey; and the Famous Five books. I did read the Secret Seven series but found them a bit tame and too Just Williamish. 

Fantasy and fairytale played a big part in my childhood reading habits. My mum had an old battered copy of Perrault’s Fairy Tales (illustrated by Edmond Du Lac) that I was obsessed with. I used to nag my mum to read me ‘Bluebeard’ over and over, thrilling at the point when it is unclear whether the brothers will be in time to save poor nosey Fatima. I used to regularly get massive books of fairy tales from the library – The Red Fairy Book, The Yellow Fairy Book, The Green Fairy book and so on. My mum read to me a lot – my sister and brother weren’t really interested. She read me The Hobbit, which I loved and she read me The Lord of the Rings – twice. It was enthralling and terrifying. She also read me some more adult books – The Thirty-Nine Steps, Jamaica Inn, the Boney books by Arthur Upfield, Day of the Triffids, Oliver Twist. I kept this tradition with my own son – though I have to confess I only read him Lord of the Rings once! 

We had the odd teacher at school who read to us too. One year I had a particularly literary teacher who read us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Borrowers, as well as some books that TV series had been based on - Heartsease by Peter Dickinson (The Changes) and The Diddikoi by Rumer Godden (Kizzy). Some of my relatives bought me books as presents too – James and the Giant Peach, Edward Lear’s The Quangle Wangle Quee, Irish Fairytales and - quite randomly a book about Muhammad and one about Alfred the Great. My sister had a ton of Ladybird books too. The school also had a book club and occasionally I was allowed to buy a book from there – the most memorable of these was Stig of the Dump. 

As a teen I was still reading avidly. I read most of the adult books in the house – John Wyndham, Dennis Wheatley, H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I had also graduated to the adult library and was thrilled by the likes of Sax Rohmer and the Doctor Syn books by Russell Thorndike. The high school library was a little tamer in comparison but I borrowed religiously none the less – though the only book I remember borrowing from there is a book called Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer – about a troubled teen. I also bought books from the secondhand book stall on the market – typically I wanted to read books my parents wouldn’t approve of and I read most of a (terrible but thrilling) series of novels about Hell’s Angels published by New English Library. They published a series about skinheads too but I was anti-racist and left wing even as a teen so I avoided them. 

By my teen’s I had developed a love affair with poetry and was writing some terrible poetry in the back of my English book. I had three poetry collections as a child (and still have all of them): Hilda Boswell’s Treasury of Poetry, The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse and my favourite Louis Untermeyer’s Golden Treasury of Poetry, which I read over and over – my favourite poem being the haunting ‘Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyes. My mum also had The Oxford Book of Poetry which I dipped into regularly – my preference being for the narrative poems of Tennyson like ‘The Lady of Shallot’. She also had a book of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics and drawings and a collection of John Betjeman’s poems. School did me no favours where poetry was concerned – the only poems I remember studying were John Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’ and a poem about ducks that I was made to learn as a punishment. 

I left home at sixteen and went to live in a commune but I continued my love affair with the library, finally graduating onto modern short stories and American novels – Jane Anne Phillips, Louise Erdrich and Ellen Gilchrist were great favourites in my early 20s and it was at this time that I started seriously writing short stories. At the commune there was a massive library with a really eclectic collection of books. I read about Manson’s family, The Grateful Dead, and Drop City – a commune in America in the sixties. I also read Dickens, Hardy, Lawrence, Laurie Lee, Carlos Casteneda, Joan Collins, Colleen McCullough, William Burroughs, Angie Bowie, Angela Carter and Richard Brautigan. 

I am not sure that there is a point to this other than it being a loose collection of my reading up until my early twenties – and I am already aware that there are things I missed out. Peter Puffer’s Fun Book for instance (do look it up – it was definitely illustrated by someone who has done drugs) or a book that I took out repeatedly from the library as a child that I can’t remember the name of – about two children who find a disused station. I was also obsessed with Roald Dahl’s The Magic Finger – where a hunting family wake up to find they have duck wings and the ducks have arms and start shooting them. A novel called Princess Anne that I bought at the guide jumble sale and from which I learned what lumbago was. I also bought a copy of Gulliver’s Travels at the same jumble sale and I did try and read it umpteen times as a child and a teen but never got very far. 

I suppose my conclusion is that I was drawn to books where there was another world waiting beyond this one or where things were not as they seemed. Magical realism I suppose. I was also drawn to bleak stories and gritty realism. My favourite Hardy novels is Tess which has to be one of the most depressing novels ever written – and yet there is something utterly compelling about it. Perhaps that Hardy wrote non judgementally about the real lives of the working classes and his descriptions of a British countryside we will never see again are sublime. I think that all these passions and preoccupations are reflected in my own writing. I love the surreal. People transformed into animals or inanimate objects, metaphors, fairytale-ish scenarios, the lure and threat of the woods.