When I Was Three, I Ate Mud

There’s a meme doing the rounds on social media that goes something like this: the average three-year-old can switch on an i-pad and stream videos; when I was three, I ate mud.

Makes me chuckle every time. Not that I can recall eating mud as a toddler, but I might have. I can certainly recall, at about that age, munching on dog biscuits. Never did me any harm. Rowf-rowf. Whatever ways I found to entertain myself when three, I was soon to discover a new form of delight that has never left me since. I refer not to eating chocolate, but to reading.

In earlier posts, I’ve touched upon some of the books I loved as a child. There are so many, I thought they deserved a post of their own. These are the books I grew up reading. There were plenty more, but these are the ones I still recall clearly all these years later and which must, therefore, have made a profound impression on me back then.

Let’s begin, as it began then, with Enid. A few years ago, I wrote an article for Mass Movement magazine, which I called Enid Bloody Blyton. In the article I called her books for younger children ‘insufferably quaint’ and wondered what she had been stirring into her tea while she wrote them. Although it might sound like I was having a dig at her, in fact it was quite the opposite—I felt then as I do now: I owe her a great deal of gratitude for opening my eyes to the unboundless possibilities of the imagination and to the delights that can be found within the pages of a book. That sense of wonder has never left me and is as strong now as it was forty-five and more years ago.

As soon as I learned to read—I’m guessing at the age of four or five—I began to devour her books. The Enchanted Wood, The Magic Faraway Tree, The Folk of the Faraway Tree and Adventures of the Wishing Chair. Read them over and over until they began to fall apart. Bought new copies for my first-born and read them to her.

I graduated to her books for older children. She wrote tons of books aimed at children between the ages of six and ten, but there were two particular series that I adored: The Famous Five books and the Adventure stories.

Five on a Treasure Island is the first of twenty-one books recounting the adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy. In case you didn’t know, George was a tom-boy whose full name was Georgina and Timmy was her dog. (One of the books involved George being captured by the baddies who made her write a note to the others whom they also wanted to capture. George alerted them to their peril by signing the note ‘Georgina’, something she’d ordinarily never do. That so struck the six-year-old me as a clever ruse, I remember it still.) At the start of each school holidays I’d nag my parents to take me to W.H. Smith, where I would spend my pocket money on the next book in the series. Some of those books cost as little as £0.30. Inflation, inflation. I’d take the book home and finish it that day. I collected the entire series and, again, read them time after time.

The Island of Adventure is the first of eight books in my other favourite Blyton series. (Yes, I can have two favourites—it’s my website.) These stories were about four children—Jack, Lucy-Ann, Philip and Dinah, the obligatory pet sidekick coming in the form of Jack’s parrot, Kiki. I had all eight books and, you’ve guessed it, read each of them umpteen times.

Looking back with the cynicism of adulthood, the plots of these books were outlandish, involving unlikely spy rings and treasure maps and, memorably, anti-gravitational wings being secretly manufactured in the depths of a hollow Welsh mountain—you know, I’ve lived in Wales for most of my life and haven’t once heard anyone add the words ‘look you’ to the end of a sentence like the Welsh characters did in The Mountain of Adventure. But never mind the ludicrousness of the storylines or the stereotypical supporting characters, I was seven and lapped it all up.

Not, I should add, that I was a boy for spending all my time indoors reading. I played outside with my friends at every opportunity. We played football, went hunting for slow-worms, scrumped apples, built dams. But this is the UK; we can have weeks of continuous rain, even in summer, so there were ample opportunities for reading. And even during sunny weather, there was always bed time. I was the sort of kid who was more than happy to go to bed half an hour earlier in order to read.

That’s enough about Enid. There are too many others to mention. Books like The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, wonderful stories about car-driving toads and talking rabbits. The works of Roald Dahl—amongst my favourites were Danny, the Champion of the World and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The heartwrenching time-travel tale Tom’s Midnight Garden and a story about two boys, a yacht and the rescue of stranded soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, The Dolphin Crossing.

I enjoyed the Twain adventures starring the eponymous heroes Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge about a boy’s adventures in preparatory school in the 1950s and 60s. I also dipped into the Just William books, but didn’t take to them as well.

Run For Your Life by David Line is a paperback I have no recollection of how I acquired, but is a book of which I have the fondest memories. It’s about an unlikely friendship between two boys. When they witness a murder, they are forced to flee across the wintry Norfolk countryside with the murderers hard at their heels. No matter how many times I read it—needless to say, rereadings occurred frequently—the tale never failed to grip. I just checked on Amazon and it appears possible to pick up second-hand copies. Whilst there, I checked out the reviews: the reviewers mostly seem to be of the same mind as me—a fantastic read for boys of around the age of ten. I wish I knew what has happened to my well-thumbed copy because writing this is making me want to read it again. Nothing like a bit of nostalgia.

When I was nine, one afternoon in school our teacher gathered the class around, took out a book and began to read it to us. It was about four children who are sent away to the countryside as evacuees in World War II to stay with an eccentric uncle in a rambling old mansion. I was instantly captivated. The book was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and so began my lifelong love affair with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I couldn’t wait for the teacher to finish the story in class; I had to get my hands on my own copy. When I discovered there were another six books in the series, I probably went into raptures. I’ll never forget the teacher who introduced me to them: thank you, Mrs Davies.

Quick aside: I often stayed with my grandparents as a boy. Their spare room contained an old wooden wardrobe. Yep, I used to step into it, remembering to leave the door ajar behind me since sensible children never shut themselves inside wardrobes. (Crikey, it must be fifteen or more years since I last read The Lion… to my younger daughter, yet that line popped into my head as though I’d read it yesterday.) I’d push through the clothes hanging there—never fur coats; my grandparents weren’t rich—and tap forlornly at the wooden back, hoping it would give way beneath my fingers and become a chilly passageway leading to fir trees and snow and fauns and white witches who handed out Turkish Delight. It happened every time in my imagination.

When I was three, I ate mud. Maybe, but when I was five and upwards, I devoured books. I only hope that despite all the modern distractions that I didn’t have, there are children today deriving as much joy from books as I did as a child.

Reach for the Stars

It is so long since I read my first science fiction novel that I can no longer recall the title or author. It was something to do with space travel to a distant planet, possibly Mars, and that’s about all I can remember. However, I do recall the way the book made me feel: it fired my ten-year-old imagination, struck me with awe not so much by the suggestion of man reaching for the stars, but of the boundless possibilities for inventing stories about such exploits. Whatever that long-forgotten book was, it made me fully realise that even if there are limits on what we as a species can achieve, there is no limit on what we can imagine and convey through fiction. I’d like to say that this was the moment of epiphany, when I realised that I had to become a writer as nothing else would ever feel as fulfilling, but I’d be lying; that wouldn’t come until years later.

Here’s a mention of some of my favourite science fiction novels; at least, of the ones I can remember.

There’s a crossover between science fiction and fantasy—sometimes the line between them is a blurred one indeed—but I’m confining myself to stories where the fantastical element is based on some form, no matter how far-fetched, of technology, as opposed to magic, or mythical creatures like elves and centaurs, or imaginary worlds reached through magical portals. Of course, aliens and imaginary worlds reached through faster-than-light space travel qualify, which just goes to show how artificial these distinctions can be.

Oh: as usual this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list— there are too many books I’ve read, let alone the thousands I haven’t, to even attempt such an ambitious undertaking. And these are my views, based on my tastes, with which you are free to agree or disagree as you wish. Just don’t take it personally if I happen to like a book you hated, or vice versa.

Oh, part 2: I’m excluding apocalyptic and dystopian novels because they’ll get their own piece at a later date, along with fantasy and a few other genres.

Oh, part 3: I don’t want to say too much about any of the books I mention in case I inadvertently spoil it for those who haven’t yet, but intend to, read them. So, of necessity I talk only superficially about the works.

To the first book, then, a perfect illustration of the marriage between science fiction and fantasy: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. How can this be science fiction, do I hear you ask? It’s about gods of eastern mythology, like Buddha, Vishnu and Krishna. And so it is, yet their powers (or ‘Attributes’) in Zelazny’s wonderful imaginings are technology based. I read this recently and wondered why I hadn’t read it years earlier. It’s the sort of book that’s so breathtakingly good, most writers will read it in awe and wish they’d written it.

Despite some rather antiquated (that’s putting it mildly) outlooks on women and their place in society, I’ve enjoyed most of the Robert Heinlein books I’ve read. (There’s a notable exception: Farnham’s Freehold; as well as his usual misogynistic touches, there are some aspects about race that make uncomfortable reading to a contemporary audience.) Here are some of the better ones: Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Door into Summer, Tunnel in the Sky.

In a previous post, I mentioned Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, probably my favourite book of his I’ve read, but another I enjoyed was The Man in the High Castle. It’s a dystopian tale presenting an alternative reality in which Germany and Japan have won the Second World War, and are competing as the world’s superpowers. I didn’t find it the easiest book to get into, but am glad that I persevered.

I haven’t read a great deal by Arthur C. Clarke (too many books, blah blah blah), but one I thoroughly enjoyed is Childhood’s End. It slightly depressed me, with its gloomy outlook for the future of the human race (I don’t always like to be reminded of man’s fallibility when reading for pleasure), but is a greatly entertaining read that also makes you ponder, and despair, a little.

Apologies to any hard science fiction fans looking in, but that branch of the genre doesn’t overly interest me. (‘Yeah, anyone who’s read your books can tell that, you techno-doofus,’ I hear someone say.) Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed works of hard science fiction, but pages of detailed exposition on how a plasma blaster or anti-gravitational device works tend to make my eyes glaze over. I’m less put off by detailed world building, however, politics and all. I’m thinking of two tremendous series I’ve dipped in and out of over the years: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Iain M. Bank’s Culture series. If you’re a fan of science fiction which involves power-struggles and cultural clashes and political machinations on an intergalactic scale yet have never read either series, you’re in for a treat. (I suppose I could include the Dune series, but didn’t enjoy that as much after the first book.)

The next book was written by an author who some readers boycott due to his controversial views. This isn’t the place to go into those views; suffice to say I strongly disagree with them, too, but that didn’t stop me greatly enjoying his novel Ender’s Game. The whole book was good, but the ending, which I completely didn’t see coming, was a real Wow! moment.

I couldn’t write a piece about science fiction without mentioning The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It became a ‘trilogy’ of five books, but it’s the first one that I am fondest of and re-read from time to time. It’s wacky, irreverent and pure genius.

Finally, a quick shout out to some fine indie authors I have met online who write science fiction: T. Jackson King, Linell Jeppsen, John Patin and Michael Brookes. (The trouble with doing this is that I’m bound to forget to mention someone. If that’s you, I apologise from the bottom of my absent-minded soul. Feel free to send me a rude e-mail.)

The Avid Reader’s Curse

Despite having more than half a million published words of fiction to my name, I still consider myself to be more a reader than a writer. Since I learned to read beyond ‘see the dog run’ at the age of four or five, I’ve read pretty much constantly. If I had to give up all sources of entertainment except one, books are what I’d keep. I’d miss watching films and sport, and listening to music, but I’d miss books more. Yeah, you get the point.

Like other avid readers, I probably have a more extensive vocabulary than someone who doesn’t read for pleasure. But that can bring its own problems and thus the title of this piece. (‘Curse’ is probably putting it too strongly but, you know, snappy titles.) There are words I have encountered in reading whose meaning I know, either from context or from looking them up, but that I have absolutely no clue how to pronounce.

I couldn’t have been more than six when I first encountered this problem. In school, writing a story, I wanted to say that the protagonist was so tired he collapsed from ‘exhaustion’. I knew the word, but not how to spell it. Even less, as it turned out, how to pronounce it. Try as I might, I could not make the teacher understand what word I wanted him to spell for me and in the end I gave up in embarrassment.

When I was around ten or eleven, I read a series of Westerns, passed down to me from my grandfather, in which one character frequently called another a ‘sonova bitch’. I had absolutely no idea what the term meant, mainly because I was pronouncing ‘sonova’ incorrectly in my head as ‘sonne-over’. In the end, I settled for it meaning a not-very-nice person from an even-less-nice place called Sonova, which the author had forgotten to capitalise. It took a good while for the penny to eventually drop, bless me.

Years later, when I had started working for a living, I encountered for the first time in writing the name Siobhan. In my head, and to my great discomfort on meeting the lady of that name, I pronounced it as something sounding very similar to autobahn. Thankfully, she found it amusing and corrected me with a twinkle in her eye, though I suspect she secretly wondered how I had spent all those years in college.

Then there were the Harry Potter books, which my elder daughter read as they were published and which I read after her. I’d never come across the name Hermione before. In my head, for the first three or four books, she was ‘Herm-ee-own’, that sounding marginally better to me than the alternative ‘Herm-ee-won’—my brain insisted on adding ‘Kenobe’ to that version. It wasn’t until I overheard my daughter telling her younger sister about the books that I heard the correctly pronounced name of Hermione for the first time. How they mocked when I confessed my ignorance, while I laughed outwardly and cried a little inside.

There are many place names in the States which I read about long before I heard them spoken. There are two that immediately spring to mind: Arkansas and Yosemite. I don’t remember hearing the state being spoken about much before Clinton’s rise to prominence and, yep, I used to pronounce it in my head as ‘Ar-kansas’, not the correct ‘Ar-ken-saw’. As for Yosemite, I failed to realise the link with the name of the cartoon character Yosemite Sam. So I pronounced it ‘Yosser-might’, which makes it seem more like a cousin of that vile-sounding Australian spread vegemite than a national park.

Here are some more, though this list is by no means exhaustive; I tend to come across new ones every few months or so:

Hyperbole—I mention this one because I’ve often heard others mispronouncing it, usually to make it sound like a super-duper version of the USA’s Superbowl.

Paradigm—never sure about this one: is it ‘para-dim’ or ‘para-dime’? It’s the sort of word where knowing the correct pronunciation won’t help me because it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever use it in conversation and so the next time I see it in print I’ll have forgotten the correct pronunciation and will make it sound in my head like whichever version first pops into it.

Preface—this comes at the beginning of a book so it made perfect sense, to me, to pronounce this ‘pree-face’. It came as a surprise to learn that it’s properly pronounced with a short first e, like in ‘pretzel’.

Segue—yep, this was pronounced like ‘vague’ in my book (that’s the autobiographical Sam Kates book of being an ignoramus). I knew there was also a word out there to do with transitions in music which sounded as if it was spelt something like ‘segway’, but the connection between the two, i.e. that they are the same word, didn’t occur until recently.

Victuals—an oft-read word, especially when younger when I used to read books about explorers and expeditions, and one I pronounced phonetically, enunciating the c and the ua combination as you would in the word ‘actual’. Who’d have thought (not me, certainly) that it’s pronounced like its archaic spelling ‘vittles’, to rhyme with ‘skittles’?

There is an upside to this problem: many of these words are rarely, if ever, going to be dropped into casual conversation—not unless you’re an expeditionary or a musician or you’re trying to sound pompous—and, really, nobody cares how we pronounce these things in the private space of our own head. Just as well, eh, or every time we came to have to pronounce one out loud, we’d all be in an ague.

The Horror, the Horror…

I started out reading books written by Enid Blyton. The Famous Five books (‘lashings of ginger beer’—did they really say that? I do recall one saying of Ann’s: ‘Food always tastes better when eaten outdoors’; no doubt the wasps would agree) and the series beginning with The Island of Adventure I lapped up, rereading them over and over as my age approached double figures. Then I discovered C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and fantasy was back on the reading menu; my enjoyment of that genre had begun with Enid and her Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair adventures. I read westerns (the Sudden series by Oliver Strange) and thrillers (if you have a son or nephew around the age of nine, try to get hold of a copy of Run For Your Life by David Line and I’d dare him not to enjoy it) and science fiction. I enjoyed some of the classics (Coral Island, The Three Musketeers, The Wind in the Willows, to name but a few) and gave up on others.

But it wasn’t until I approached the formative years of my teens that I began what I consider to be my first love affair with one genre. Too long ago to recall whether it was a particular book which began it, though I suspect it might have been Dracula, but I began to devour horror books at such a rate I look back and wonder where I found time for schoolwork, not to mention playing football and rugby and making awkward, tongue-tied overtures to the fairer sex.

My friends and I would swap books by Guy N. Smith and James Herbert about man-eating rats or giant crabs that scuttled from the sea to attack scantily clad women on the beach. There was a sexual element in these books that was part of the attraction—we were at the age of sexual awakening and easily titillated—but it was the horror aspects that kept me hunting out more. Oh yes, it was. I still recall the immense thrill of reading The Fog by James Herbert for the first time. As far as I can remember, though the plot seems irrelevant now and, to some extent, was back then, it was about the escape of a nerve gas that had been buried deep below ground; everyone it encountered was driven instantly insane and began acting like psychopathic lunatics, the sort who would end up strait-jacketed and muzzled à la Hannibal Lecter. To a teenager hungry for gore and terror, it was like attending for the first time an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Then, with the discovery of a writer from America by the name of Stephen King, I hit the paylode. I’ve read almost everything he’s published in the way of horror, science fiction and fantasy. Of his out-and-out horror novels, my favourites have to be Salem’s Lot and IT, both of which I mentioned in a recent piece I did about adaptations of his work and won’t rehash again here. Suffice it to say, both novels had a profound effect on me when I first read them and I’ve returned to them many times since; it’s like renewing acquaintance with an old but disturbed friend.

I’ve never confined myself to reading in one genre, though that period between roughly the ages of thirteen and fifteen was probably the closest I’ve come. Ever since, I’ve regularly returned to the genre and perhaps it’s unsurprising that a couple of my earliest published short stories (Celesta, Room Eight) and my first novel (The Village of Lost Souls) were horror. Not every horror novel I’ve read since those teenage days has been to my taste, but I’ve come across many goodies and I shall mention a few.

House of Leaves by Mark. Z. Danielewski. In many ways I found this a difficult book to get through with its pages of annotations written at weird angles (it’s not easy constantly turning a book that size upside down and on its side when you’re reading in bed) and its strange side plots, but it contains enough moments of genuine scalp-prickling scariness to have made the effort worthwhile.

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. I read this in my twenties before I’d seen the film. Even before reaching the well-known shocking moments, it frightened me with its creeping sense of menace as scientific tests are carried out on the unfortunate Regan MacNeil and various strange things about her behaviour are revealed, such as her ability to speak perfect English backwards. The film, when I saw it, probably didn’t scare me as much as it would have had I not read the book, but I don’t regret reading it for a moment.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. Set in the snow and ice deep within the Arctic Circle, this held moments of such breath-catching terror that I was reluctant to turn out the light to try to sleep. I’ve been to the Arctic Circle, though nowhere near as far into it as this book is set, so could appreciate even more the sense of desolation and isolation the protagonist was experiencing. It all added up to a fantastic horror read.

That’s an off-the-top-of-my-head selection. There have been many other good ones and I’ve many yet to read, such as the complete set of Lovecraft sitting patiently on my Kindle. The paperback I’m currently reading (The Last Days of Jack Sparks) is shaping up nicely, too.

It would be remiss not to mention a few indie authors whose works of horror I’ve enjoyed, so shout out to Will Macmillan Jones, David Haynes, Kath Middleton and Edwin Stark. Keep ’em coming, guys.

(The links should take you to the books’ paperback versions on Amazon. If you prefer reading electronically, it should be a simple matter to find your way to the Kindle version from there, or it will provide you with the detail you need to search out kobo or itunes or whatever version floats your boat.)