Rest in Peace, Robert Hardy

Robert Hardy was in Harry Potter. That’s what a lot of young people will remember him for.

But I will forever remember Sunday evenings, and Siegfried Farnon.

Sunday evenings were unmissable. I used to spend a lot of time with elderly next door neighbours (I’ve spoken about them before), and when I first knew them, they had only an old radiogram to listen to the Archers on. Then they got themselves a black and white TV, and All Creatures Great and Small became a regular part of the Sunday ritual – round there around 3pm, playing board games, dinner with them, and then watching TV before I headed back home.

The programme had an extra impact on me because it was about that time that I came across the books as well. Our teacher at school, in what would now be year 6, the year before moving to secondary school, would read us bits of All Creatures Great and Small, and I remember getting very upset because a boy in class had his own copy of If Only They Could Talk, the first book in the series, and I desperately wanted to read it. These were among the first books written for adults that I’d come across in my own reading.

I picked them up years later and looked at them, considering whether to share them with my children, and was astounded to see just how grown-up they were – no thought of reading something like that to 10 and 11 year olds these days!

So Siegfried Farnon, and Tristran Farnon and James Herriot, were all part of my childhood. Rest in Peace, Robert Hardy, and thank you for bringing Siegfried to us.

 

I didn’t run the marathon

At some point last year, a load of friends from a Facebook running group were signing up for the Brighton Marathon. I can do this, I thought. I can be part of the crowd. I don’t want to feel left out. I want to run a marathon.

And so I paid a silly amount of money and put my name down for the race.

Then we got to September/October, when I ran a couple of 10k races within a couple of weeks, and my left knee started hurting. It hasn’t really stopped since. I’ve been attending physiotherapy, I’ve just started with an osteopath, I’ve run parkrun twice and ended up hobbling again each time, and with the knowledge that I could barely walk 5k, let alone run 42k, I finally deferred from the marathon.

So yesterday when a load of those friends were running, or attending to cheer the others on – some  nursing their own injuries that forced them to withdraw – I was doing other things around my home town.

I had a dream last night. I was in full military uniform (but that’s another story) on an assault course. We came to one of those obstacles that’s huge and needs a team of people to get you up. I looked at the others who were there with me, and I said I would boost them up. That’s great, they said, and then we’ll help you up.

And then they managed to get up, with my help and with the help of those already at the top, and they went on, leaving me at the bottom. And I just shrugged, because that’s the way it always is.

This disturbs me, more than I’d like to admit. Why does it always feel that my role is to support and help others, not to be helped myself? Is it just the result of being the much younger sibling, always left behind or dragged along reluctantly, trying to keep up? Or is it more than that?

Am I holding myself back, when I let it happen and don’t scream and kick up a fuss?

Am I truly destined to be the one left behind?

Or do I need to learn to say it’s my turn, I need help now. I’ll help you, but I expect help in return as well?

I’ve now got the link to sign up to Brighton again, with a massive 20% off the price as I deferred from this year. I won’t be signing up. I think I bit off more than I can chew, and there’s no point in spending a fortune when I’m not even back running again yet, and don’t know when or even if I’ll be fit enough.

But I think I need to figure out what other obstacles I’m trying to get over, who can help me and whether I need to shout and scream over it.

 

Diving in

I remember little of my time at school, but one incident stands out. We had an outdoor swimming pool at my school. It was always freezing cold, and I would always spend the first five minutes or so lowering myself gently into the water at the shallow end, trying to get used to the temperature. As a result, when the teacher spread the class out, with the confident swimmers at the deep end and the non-swimmers or poor swimmers at the shallow end, I was always in the poorer swimmer group, and I’m sure the teacher thought I couldn’t swim properly.

This particular lesson I remember, I think I’d been swimming at the public swimming pool in the days before – not a common occurrence, but I had enjoyed my time in the warmer pool and practised all the shallow, racing dives I’d seen the confident swimmers learning in class.

Then, on the Friday morning, I realised that my piano lesson coincided with this last swimming lesson of the term. Piano lessons were taken individually, missing lessons, and there were strict rules on which lessons you were supposed to miss. PE lessons were considered fair game.

My twelve-year-old brain couldn’t cope with this. I had so been looking forward to the swimming lesson, with all this extra practice I’d put in! I ended up in a toilet cubicle crying my eyes out.

I have no idea how this happened, but there was a knock on the door from someone I barely knew, saying that she would swap her piano lesson with me so I could still go to swimming lesson. I didn’t even know anyone knew I was there, or why I was upset, but there was this solution presented to me.

So I gratefully accepted, and at swimming lesson time I got straight into the deep end, without any of my usual prevarication, and showed off all lesson, with my racing dives and lengths. My teacher was suitably surprised and impressed and I’ve been forever grateful to whoever not only noticed that I was upset, but managed to come up with a solution.

 

Tied to the world

When I was growing up, I had a strange mindset – I felt as though I was trailing an invisible line behind me, and I had to take care not to get that line snagged. I knew that if the line snagged on too many things I’d be irrevocably tied to the world.

So I would take great care not to wrap that line around things if I could avoid it; retracing my steps out of a place, rather than going out of a different door, not twisting around or I’d get tangled. I couldn’t see the line, of course, but I could feel it, and felt uncomfortable if I ended up getting it caught on things.

Even these days, when I’m under stress I’ll take care not to twist round too much, and I’ll try to retrace my steps whenever possible. For example, if I walk from the cooker to the fridge, and then to the sink, I’ll turn back round the other way rather than complete the turn that comes naturally with the triangle of movement.

But I had a thought the other day – what if it’s true? What if, as children, we know things that as adults we forget? That part of that forgetting is snagging our invisible line on things and losing our memories that way? What if I’d been even more careful as a child? Would that connection still be strong?

When I was three or four years old, I could write. I remember distinctly being in church one day with my mother, and playing with my letter writing set – notepaper and envelopes, all designed for a child. I wrote my letters and sealed them up in the envelopes, and I knew I could write. Then I got to school, and suddenly I had to learn it all. Most frustrating.

Memory is an odd thing. If you go through an event, but remember nothing of it afterwards, does it matter? What if there’s something that all of us forget as we grow into this world, and will only be revealed again at the end of our lives? Will our lives actually matter then?

My novels, and the philosophical ideas behind them, are starting to create logjams, and I really need to get going on them.

 

A confusing teacher

Back when I was in primary school, we didn’t have such things as substitute teachers or cover teachers – if our classroom teacher was ill or absent, we’d be parcelled off in twos or threes to sit at the back of another classroom. Usually we’d have set work to do, and would be expected to sit there getting on with it while the teacher taught his/her class, but sometimes, especially if the classroom we went in was the same yeargroup, we’d be invited to join in with their work.

These days were often a fascinating glimpse into another life; spending all your school time with one teacher, in one group of students, can be a little claustrophobic, and it was always fun to see how the rest of the school lived.

One of these sessions, though, left me thoroughly confused and a little disheartened, to the extent that I still remember the day even though it was over forty years ago.

I think I must have been in second year at junior school, which these days translates to year 4, and I and a couple of others were sent to a fourth year classroom (top of the school; these days year 6). As I worked on my own tasks, we were nonetheless invited by the teacher (a man, although his name is long shrouded in the mists of time) to join in if we wanted. I declined, as I remember.

There were two tasks I remember from that day. The first was the instruction to the class to carry out a writing exercise. The instructions, as I remember them, was “I want description of being at the seaside. And it needs to be at least 20 pages long. Seagulls crying, waves on the shore, that sort of thing.” Twenty pages? I’d never written that much in my life. And twenty pages of description? Is such a thing even possible? Even today, I wonder. Surely that was far out of reach for ten-year-olds.

The other was discussion of what the word “estate” meant. The class were coming up with all sorts of suggestions as to the meaning, but each time he would say, “No, that’s not it. No, you’re not quite right. No, that’s wrong.” I never did find out what it meant according to him.

From those two exercises I took away the feeling of being faced with an exercise that I just consider far too hard, being given without any acknowledgement that it was tough, and the feeling of not knowing what something means and being constantly wrong without ever knowing the right answer.

I’ve no idea whether these were serious exercises, or whether his class usually did this sort of thing, or whether he was winding up the visitors, but to this day I think of that lesson with frustration.

 

Seldom or rarely

As a child, I was a voracious reader. Although I could not read before starting school, it didn’t take long before I was devouring book after book. I remember my first Famous Five book – it was book eight of the series, where the children are kept prisoner within the gardens of a large house. Dick escapes by hiding in the boot of a car and sneaking out, then climbing out of the boot of the car and running, stiffly and painfully, to the nearest police station, while being chased by the bad guy.

I remember one afternoon when I read two Secret Seven books in the one reading session.

I remember one of the Famous Five books, where it said that George seldom watched television.

That particular experience stands out for me, because I had to ask what “seldom” meant. I was told it meant “rarely”. That confused me, because I found it hard to understand the point of having two words that meant exactly the same thing.

I guess that was my first real experience of the wonderful, complex, confusing world of the English language.

Another reading first was Saint Overboard, a book by Leslie Charteris. I must have been around 9 or 10 years old. My father was always reading Saint books. I imagined they must be some sort of religious books. Then one day I was waiting for the bathroom and sat on the stairs. Next to me was a copy of Saint Overboard, my father’s latest read. I idly picked it up and read the first couple of pages.

I became utterly and completely hooked.

I’ve looked back at those pages since, and I’m not sure what drew me to them, unless it was just the sheer magic of discovering that a book written for adults could be just as easy and entertaining to read as books written for children.

Regardless of why I found the book so magical, I kept reading that one, read the others in my father’s possession, and for the next few years would hunt down any more in the series that I could find. When visiting secondary schools, when it was time to choose where to spend the next seven years of my life, I was happy with the school chosen because I found in their library a couple of Saint books I hadn’t yet read.

I still have a big box of Saint books upstairs, and Simon Templar is still my favourite fictional character. I never really got on with the TV series, and the movie that they attempted to make recently was an absolute farce, having nothing in relation to the book character other than the name.

Books are magic, and kids who don’t read for pleasure are missing out on so much. I’m glad to say that all our children (who are no longer children!) have grown up enjoying reading.

I don’t read quite as much these days; or at least, having achieved my childhood dream of being paid to read, I’m a lot more fussy over what I read for pleasure. It’s far rarer now for me to become so involved in a book that I’m swept along, forgetting everything but the words on the page. As a writer, I’m constantly analysing the books I do read, trying to figure out the spell that keeps me reading and involved.

But every so often a gem comes along. And I’m grateful.

 

Rhyming with Rupert

When I was in what would now be called year 3, the first year of junior school, I was around seven years old. Our teacher loved Rupert Bear, and one activity we would enjoy was to read the Rupert the Bear annuals together as a class. The teacher would read the rhyming couplets, all but the last word, and we would have to guess the last word.

“The wood is risky, Rupert knows,/And so another way he …”

“…goes.”

“Just look what I have,” Rupert cries,/And Mr Bear turns in…”

“…surprise.”

I always used to enjoy these, and it was surprisingly easy to guess the right word. Usually it seemed that looking at the pictures and listening to the rhyme made it obvious what the word must be.

Then as my understanding grew, I realised that while the second word in the rhyme was obvious, it was only because of the choice made for the first line; that it was the writer’s skill in choosing both words together. This was well after the time I used the word “Caravans” in my own poetry, then desperately rhymed it with “Lumberans” – the name of an act in the circus! (“They lumber and lumber round the ring, and they’re as funny as anything”).

The type of plot I like best in a story is one where the outcome is tied in neatly with the rest of it. There’s a fantasy book that I read years ago, where a group went on a journey and had various adventures, and the lessons they learned helped them in their final task – in fact, that’s similar to what I’m doing in my novel, or at least what I’m trying to work out.

Sometimes it can happen naturally. In one of my Bones fanfiction stories, “The boy at the building site” (written eight years ago!), the opening scene has Bones fighting with an unknown assailant, who turns out to be her work and romantic partner, Booth, but I realised as I finished the scene that this would be how she faces off the bad guy at the end, because it just felt right.

Now I’m faced with trying to do this deliberately. To design my storyline so carefully that the end becomes a fulfilment of the rest of it. So that the pieces of the puzzle all come together and the journey becomes obvious. I’m really beginning to understand that the more effort that goes into the writing, the easier the end result flows. That is something is easy to read it’s because the writer has really taken care and thought things out.

Kind of like the more training and preparation you do, the easier the marathon will be.

 

 

My sister’s bookshelf

Have you ever been stuck somewhere away from home, with no access to your normal stash of books? That happened to me sometimes while growing up. I had my own bookshelves, full of Enid Blyton books and a whole load of other, similar books, but on a few occasions I found myself staying at my sister’s house and looking for something to read.

My sister is several years older than me, and her taste in books was far more sophisticated than mine, but still I would read anything at a pinch, and I found myself reading a few of her books that left a lasting impression on me.

The most fun was the novelisation of the series Alias Smith and Jones. My mother’s love of John Wayne has left me with a deep ingrained hatred of westerns, but the fun of the Alias Smith and Jones book was enough to keep me reading, until the book became a firm favourite and I would imagine myself adventuring with them.

The biggest book I’d ever read – and it kept that accolade for years – was Watership Down. Even today, everything I think I know about wild rabbits comes from that book, and I frequently remind myself that chances are the “facts” I remember were made up for the purposes of the book. But still, through it I was introduced to the world of fantasy and talking animals in an adult book for the first time, and Watership Down became a firm favourite, being read over and over again.

The book that terrified me the most was Day of the Triffids. From the opening passage, where the narrator awakens in a hospital with bandages over his eyes, and the world around him is quiet and unresponsive, I was gripped by this tale, and I distinctly remember having nightmares over it. Again, this book has become a favourite, and has been read time and again.

Three books that I might never have chosen to read, had I my usual favourites around, but each in their way had a big impact on me, broadening my horizons and stimulating my imagination.

 

The Motorbike

photo of the story in my rough bookWhen I was at school, we were encouraged to use rough books – any piece of work would be planned out in this first, before being written up neatly in the correct subject book. Any notes were taken in this book. And it usually became an expression of its owner, whether through carefully designed covers – at one point I used to divide my cover into squares, allowing me to create a different image/pattern in each square – or through sketches and stories written in spare moments, not always following the normal page order.

I recently found a rough book that I used in what was then fifth form – nowadays it would be called year 11; the year students turn 16, the year of external exams. I reproduce a story from it here, word for word. It might show you where my mind was in those days.

Mike gazed into the water, wondering what would happen to him. He thought about Sophie, then hurriedly blinked back the tears that came to his eyes. Big boys don’t cry, he thought.

Children shouted as they ran about on the grass, and his mind wandered back to that day when Sophie…

This was no good. He must forget about her. It would do no good, all this remembering. But as long as he could hear a motorbike roaring– He slowly straightened, and wandered over to where a crowd of boys gathered round a motorbike. He recognised the owner as Paul, and seeing how proud Paul was of his new bike was like looking in a mirror and seeing himself a few months ago, so proud and important, and he saw Sophie’s face; he remembered how reluctant she had been to ride on the bike, and how he’d persuaded her.

As if in a dream he saw Paul slip his arm round his girlfriend’s waist and lead his friends towards the cafe, leaving the bike behind. As he stared at it suddenly fury welled up inside him and jumping on the bike he kicked the stand away. As the engine roared into life he heard shouts behind him, but suddenly he didn’t care. There was a wall in front of him and no room to turn, but he didn’t care about that either. All he could see was Sophie’s face, Sophie laughing, Sophie having a good time, then suddenly he saw her lying on the ground, with the motorbike on top of her. The picture melted and he came to his senses — too late.

With all this focus on loose worksheets and fun activities in the classroom, I mourn the loss of the rough book. I think it’s time I got back to using a creative notebook.

 

 

Betrayed

Please note: this is rather different from my usual type of post…

In the news today is the story that Rolf Harris has been convicted on charges of sexual assault on young girls, with more cases possibly in the pipeline.

My reaction to that is to feel totally betrayed. I believed in the man. I loved his music, and his art, and thought he was an all-round good guy. All the way through I was thinking that it was a mistake; that the accusers were making things up, that they had misunderstood, exaggerated, were trying to cause trouble.

I mention my reaction because it’s exactly the reason why this sort of thing can happen; it’s so easy to make excuses, to turn a blind eye, to not believe it, to trust someone.

When someone you know is accused of something, it can be hard to accept. But it’s important that we do accept it. Sure, there are the odd cases where someone makes an accusation out of malice, but there are so many times when kids speak up and aren’t believed, because of all the reasons I’ve given, and that’s why it can continue. Because not believing the accusation means that we can carry on the way we are, without causing trouble, losing a friend/family, or experiencing major upheaval.

This is the reason, too, why I’m opposed to things like Sarah’s Law, the law allowing people to find out if people close to their children are on the sex offenders’ register. Because it lulls us into a false sense of security: they’re not on the list so they must be safe.

In reality, those known sex offenders are not the worst threat. An abuser is far more likely to be a family member or family friend, someone who is trusted and loved.

Not all people are abusers; of course not. But very few of those who are abusers are actually caught. Far more manage to continue their habits because of who they are.

This is why we need to empower children to know they’re allowed to say no where their bodies are concerned – yes, even to great aunt Aggie who insists on a kiss every time you see her – and allow cases like those we’ve seen lately to be discussed openly. Because only when the stigma is removed, awareness raised and when children expect to be believed is there any hope of stopping things. Children have very little power. Let’s at least grant them the right to be listened to, and believed, and protected. Otherwise they may struggle with these issues for the rest of their lives.