John Bauer: sparks my imagination every time

#bookadayuk is one of the better Twitter hashtag events. A different book with a different theme, chosen by readers each day throughout June. Such a lovely, simple idea from new HarperCollinsUK imprint The Borough Press.

Here’s the full list, just in case you haven’t seen it. I didn’t spot it until today: 3 June and have been kicking myself for missing the first two days. Despite thinking off myself as a free-thinking, anarchic type, I have such an inbuilt nervous regard of rule and regulations that I just can’t bring myself to put my Day 1, 1st June, on Twitter today. So hurrah for Weekly Blog Club and the chance to play catch-up.

There are some categories that have got me thinking already. In fact, I will have to treat this like an advent calendar and not peek ahead to later days, or I can easily spend the whole day thinking of books. But I think I’m allowed to list a few here to inspire any one who’s yet to join in:

12th: Pretend to have read it: there’s a few that can go into this category. It’s possible there might even be one or two from university days, when I was terrified at the jump from finding myself Good at English to not having read ANY of the shelves and libraries full of texts that the omniscient people in my Modern Literature seminar had got through.

19th: Still can’t stop talking about it: I suppose I’ll have to make a vow that not every single book will be Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. If I’d had his blue-covered Turtle Diaries to hand, that would have been my choice for today: One with a blue cover.

27th: Want to be one of the characters. Wow: where to start with that? Perhaps I’m wrong and I should spend much of today considering it. These are serious choices. Anyway: time to catch up with Days One and Two. These are somewhat similar.

1st: Favourite book from childhood. It’s ‘book’, not ‘novel’, so that makes a difference and it’s book singular. Yes, I am taking this very seriously. I said I am a respecter of rules. Favourite novel would probably be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I won’t go into detail now because I’m writing a blog post to celebrate its 50th anniversary for Words and Pictures, the online magazine of the British Isles region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

‘Books’ would probably have been the Jill pony series by Ruby Ferguson. There are no words to describe how I loved them. I longed with all my heart to be Jill, while trapped in a pony-free home without enough money for riding lessons and over-protective parents who wouldn’t have let me within a mile of a scary horse anyway.

I didn’t have many books when I was a kid and once I got to school, I read my way throughout the bookshelves fast. So teachers used to take me to the town library. Skirting past the staircase (because upstairs, in the museum,  the nightmare-inducing skeleton used to grin at you)  I picked the same book, time and time again: Myths of the Norsemen, by Roger  Lancelyn Green. The link goes to a blog post that details all the chapters.

Everything in it spoke to me. I knew the Greek myths too well and was bored by them. Anyway, what tedious Greek god could compare with Loki the trickster, beautiful Baldur and his heart-breaking brother Hodur? I tried to work out how to pronounce Yggdrasill, the World Tree, and upgraded my pony fetish to an eight-legged horse. There was always something new to find out and wonder over and imagine. It set my reading tastes for good. Beside my bed, there’s Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Joanne Harris’s Gospel of Loki, both for re-reading. Reading her library tale in the link, we could be the same person: her being a wildly-successful author aside …

Fast forward some 40 years to June 2: Best bargain. John Bauer‘s Sagovarld – Swedish Faerie and Folk Tales, picked up for a few crowns in a Stockholm secondhand shop. So much has changed. I’ve found a huge birth family in Sweden: seven brothers and sisters, just like a fairy tale. I’ve walked thought the forests and swum in the lakes I used to dream about.

This could also go in for June 8th: Own more than one copy. My original, battered Swedish version is somewhere in a book pile. The picture is of a second copy closer to hand: a present from Swedish family. I’ve got copies in English too. Yes, I like John Bauer. Another book of Norse legends, bought for my daughter, has a blue cover, taking me back full circle to today’s choice.

#bookadayuk – the best kind of distraction.

*amended 10 June as the hashtag was changed by the organiser







Russell Hoban: with love and thanks

Ben_Osborn_Russell_Hoban_Feb_4_2014Russell Hoban  – it amazes me how some people still say ‘Who?’ Where to start with him?  I was lucky. When I was 18, my English teacher literally threw her copy of The Mouse and His Child at me as I was leaving for university and told me I must, had toNEEDED TO read it.

The RSC put on a new adaption of The Mouse and His Child in 2012, described in the Independent as ‘a thought-provoking delight.’ The Guardian called the book ‘both comforting and devastating’. I think all of those words can be applied to much of Russ’s work and perhaps to the man himself: the impact he seems to have on reading him and those, including me, who had the unforgettable privilege of meeting him.

The same year I started university, my best friend would not shut up about a new book she had read. She raved about its genius and made it sound awful. It was set in and around our home town of Folkestone, Kent, in a post-apocalyptic world and was narrated by a 12-year-old boy writing in a made-up language that was hard to get used to but ok if you read it aloud for a bit. Yeah, right.

The early 80s weren’t the right time for me to find this appealing. A nuclear meltdown seemed a real possibility then and was referenced all around, from Raymond Briggs’s heart-breaking graphic novel When the Wind Blows to the ITV bombshell (sorry) of Threads.

After university at Canterbury, I worked on the Folkestone Herald as a reporter. With Dungeness Nuclear Power  Station at hand, it wasn’t hugely reassuring to watch  local fire fighters rehearse their unstoppable defence of our safety by putting a rope around a notional radiation-blasted area.

I interviewed the inventor of the CND symbol, local resident Gerald Holtam, and was saddened and scared by his quiet melancholy about the state into which civilised people had got themselves.

And seeing that another Hoban book, Turtle Diary, had been turned into a romcom didn’t inspire me to read more. Idiot.

So I didn’t turn to Riddley Walker until nearly 20 years later. Now it’s my go-to book when I’m at a loss (along with Nancy Mitford. An obvious combination.) Yes, it demands concentration, probably complete attention. Good writing should and does. The rewards are endless. I read masses of children’s books now, not least as I’m trying to write them. It’s hard to think of another 12-year-old boy who is as real, powerful and engaging as Riddley.

In 2010, the Guardian chose Riddley Walker for its Book Club and writer John Mullan interviewed Russ. What better present for my best friend than a ticket? We sat with our mouths open throughout and then queued to get our books signed. Russ patiently listened to our various rambling theories about locations, made us laugh, posed for pictures (before selfies, hurrah) and chatted some more.

Not long after, Will Self interviewed Russ at the British Library. You wait years for one Russ Hoban to show up … Do read the article: a brief and affectionate capture of a hero to Mr Self and many more of us. Here’s Will Self,  reading Riddley Walker in his best ‘future Kent’ accent. We had more books signed; the security guards had turned off the lights and his taxi was waiting at gone 9pm but Russ, in his late 80s, stayed chatting and joking and signed my book by torchlight. What a gentleman.

Links for those events are on SA4QE: an inspired annual 4 February event that marks the date of Russ’s birth by encouraging people to note their favourite quotes from his books on yellow paper and leave them for people to find. You can see Tuesday’s quotes on @russellhobandotorg and at the official Russell Hoban website. I’m sure Russ would have loved the use to which Ben Osborn put his Pret wrapper, pictured above.

The fan sites and the event are a labour of love. Russ inspired it in so many of us. Please, please read him if you haven’t. Look – here’s where to start.

Russell Hoban: February 4, 1925 – December 13, 2011. Fine writer, fine man. Wel Im telling Truth here aint I. That’s the woal idear of this writing which I begun wylst thinking on what the idear of us myt be.

Warnings: Why I love the Warren

The Warren, Folkestone
I’m signed off work and feel too rough to be more than brief, which is probably a Good Thing as I could write all day about the place that I most love. And then write some more. I first saw the Warren when my parents brought me, six weeks old, from a London children’s home, to their house around the corner. They still live there and I go back often.

It’s a vast, ancient, unique place: impossible to catch in photographs. It can be terrifying: people die in chalk falls or are washed away by stormy tides from the sea edge and foolhardy divers misjudge the depths to hit the rocks below. It is more often the most beautiful place on earth; wide blue skies, fresh salt air, thousands of chalk grassland, woodland and seaside wild flowers in spring and not a soul in sight or any sound apart from the crash of the waves or the yawping of gulls.

I’ve gone there for ever to pick blackberries and, more recently, sloes for homemade gin. On a clear day you can see buildings on the cliffs of France, just twenty miles away. High above you on the edge of the chalk and clay English cliffs, a Roman villa is sliding, inch by inch, into the sea. Martello Towers keep us safe from Napoleonic invasion and a young Second World War pilot looks for ever out on to the horizon.

There are fossils by the bucketload and rockpools full of crabs, anemones and mussels. Grasses rustle with newts and the occasional adder. Somewhere there is a buried rabbit, a toy lost by my brother more than 40 years ago. He comes here too, sometimes, to sleep, on the not infrequent times that he falls between the gaps in the welfare state.

It is a never-ending delight that my favourite novel, Riddley Walker by the sainted Russell Hoban, is set here and in the countryside around. The Warren becomes The Warnings as Riddley seeks to find out about his world. A book of strange and unsettling beauty, just like the Warren.

Every so often there are attempts to carve out safer steps, put up handrails and tame the place. Even when I’m too old to climb down safely over the rocks and would be glad of a more accessible path, I selfishly hope that never happens.