The Child That Books Built – Francis Spufford (2002) – A Real Life Review

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Francis Spufford has featured on my “Must Read” list since his debut novel, the historical “Golden Hill” took a Costa Award in 2016.  For some reason I still haven’t got around to it, although I am convinced I’d enjoy it very much indeed.  On the New Non-Fiction shelf at the library I discovered this with its by-line of “What would you find if you went back and re-read your favourite books from childhood?” Still slightly reeling from the sheer joy of Lucy Mangan’s trawl through the books in her past in “Bookworm” I thought this couldn’t be delayed until I got round to Spufford’s novel.  I was intrigued and couldn’t wait to read it.

I wasn’t that far through it when I realised it didn’t feel as up to date as I was expecting a book sat on the New Non-Fiction shelf to be.  After a little research (turning to the front of the book) I discovered that this was first published by Faber back in 2002 with 2018 being the date this paperback edition (made to look like “Golden Hill”) arrived.  So the image I had in my head of both Spufford and Mangan revisiting their childhood concurrently was a bit out of synch as he did this sixteen years ago.  Then I sensed a whiff of a cash-in.  This has obviously been republished because of the success of “Golden Hill” and probably “Bookworm” too.

The back cover is a tad misleading.  It had led me to think we would be in Mangan territory but with a slighter older male perspective.  It is considerably more complex than this.  Spufford is revisiting his childhood to see how his reading choices impacted upon him and how it formed him developmentally.  He is much more interested in the person rather than the books.  They are important for their impression they left giving it a stronger psychological basis and feel which basically I enjoyed much less than Mangan’s “joy of reading” approach.

Spufford did use books to escape (family ill-health mainly) but seems to have read with a fury which at times I felt a little unsettling and that I was being intrusive.  He was, despite being virtually the same age, a very different child from me anyway.  The first book he read alone, aged 6, confined to home because of mumps was “The Hobbit” a book I grappled with probably five years later (which looking back I still feel was too young).  From here we get the stages of his development through Narnia (which he, like most children of our generation was obsessed by, although for me it was largely just “The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe”).  Naturally, we did have many books in common and I was pleased to recall “Marianne Dreams” by Catherine Storr which has largely edged back into the mists of history but had a lasting effect on both of us (ie: it was terrifying!).  Spufford exhausted much of what children’s literature had to offer before finding Sci-Fi which filled that transition period (never really did it for me) to Ian Fleming (whilst at boarding school) and perhaps inevitably on to porn at the end of his teenage years.

His focus is very much on development.  Good old Jean Piaget is referenced often (taking me back to my Theory of Education days) and Spufford opts to see these developments in physical terms (forest, island, town, hole).  I didn’t follow all of his arguments, in fact it did often remind me of what he pinpoints as one of the memorable stages of learning to function as an independent reader when you pick out what you can as you go along to get the general gist.  (Spufford perceptively says we do this in early years and then again when we discover classic novels.  Well, I found myself doing this quite often here!)

Where this is strongest is when he lets the books take centre stage.  There’s a good section on Laura Ingalls Wilder where I felt totally involved, for example.  I would have liked a list of the books he revisited to really get those nostalgic juices flowing.  I think I’m being largely niggly because this book wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be and so there was an underlying disappointment throughout.  At one point I was concerned that it might put me off reading “Golden Hill” but I think, having now finished this, that desire is still intact.

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The Child That Books Built was published by Faber & Faber in 2002.  I read the 2018 paperback version.

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Night School – Richard Wiseman (2014) – A Real Life Review

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Subtitled “The Life Changing Science Of Sleep” (and yes, it is unusual for me to read a book with “science” in the title) Richard Wiseman pulls together all the theories and research on sleep to produce an extremely readable book on a fascinating subject.  I chose to read it after having had a few days of my occasional struggles with sleep and I am already doing better.

 Basically, we’re not getting enough of it.  Sleep, that is.  Most of us fall short of the 8 hours required to fully recharge ourselves for the next day and the quality of this sleep has deteriorated rapidly over the last half century due to our lifestyles, stress and our obsession with the blue light of smart-phones, computers and tablets.  As a result we are becoming sleep deprived affecting our abilities to function as individuals and at work, causing many road traffic accidents and putting ourselves at risk of obesity, diabetes and cancer all of which Wiseman is prepared to attribute to the wrong type of sleep.

 We still feel guilty about sleep, as if it is a weakness.  Margaret Thatcher, when Prime Minister, was said to thrive on 3 or 4 hours per night and this was held up as an admirable quality.  Running the country is surely more important than sleep.  She might actually have done a better job if she’d put in those extra hours. (There’s also significant research to suggest that those who claim to be thriving on a modicum of sleep actually do a lot more of it than they realise).

 Wiseman also fascinated me by exploring another social no-no, the afternoon nap.  Take one of these and you’ll likely end up feeling guilty.  Wrong!  We’re often being told of the virtues of the Mediterranean diet as an explanation for lower instances of heart trouble and stroke in regions which follow this- but what do these nations also support?  The siesta.  Is this why coronary disease is much lower because of the blood-pressure lowering benefits of a nap? There’s a precise science to getting this right and Wiseman points out how long it should be and when and how to get the most out of it.  He’s convinced me, I’m off to buy an eye-shield.

 What sleep is for and what it does, how to do it when you are struggling and how to enrich your learning potential whilst asleep; the role of dreams and how to use them for your benefit and avoiding and curing other sleep related problems are all dealt with this in this book in a highly accessible way with the author as friendly tutor guiding us, rather than blinding us, with science.  I’m really glad I liked the author’s style as I have another of his books “Quirkology” – a book I bought then wondered why I had done so as it is also not the sort of thing I would normally read and which has been sitting on my shelves for some time.

 He also debunks the many myths that have built up with relish.  The connection between eating cheese at night leading to bad dreams, for example, was actually a fictional creation by Charles Dickens as Scrooge ate cheese before his ghostly visitations.  Experimentation has proved this has no basis in fact.  Yet how many of us still avoid cheese at night because of this?

 If, like most of us you don’t give that much thought to the third of the day when you should be in bed and are not using it to maximise your potential for the other two thirds of the day then this book is a real eye-opener, or yes, go on, I’ll say it, a real eye-closer!

 fourstars

Night School was published by Macmillan in 2014

Good As You – Paul Flynn (2017) – A Real Life Review

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Subtitled “From Prejudice To Pride: 30 Years Of Gay Britain” Paul Flynn’s non-fiction publication seems a timely work.  Gay Pride has been particularly visible this year in our streets and through the media celebration of fifty years of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.  The grainy black and white footage of men dancing together at a house party has been used many times in various television documentaries produced recently.  Such is the paucity of images from this era.

Flynn uses a different starting point to show how far we have come in this cultural history of Gay Britain.  As a twelve year old boy growing up in Wythenshawe his life experienced a seismic shift around a TV on a Thursday night watching the perennial British game-changer “Top Of The Pops”.  In our multi-platform digital age it’s hard to recall just how influential to young Britain this show was.  Two acts with  openly band members appeared in 1984- The Communards and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, whose song “Relax” (banned by the BBC) seemed to suggest aspects of life certainly never portrayed on a chart-topping single before.

These highly significant acts challenged the stereotypical depiction of gay men for a generation brought up on John Inman, Danny La Rue and Larry Grayson.  As much as Quentin Crisp’s life portrayed in “The Naked Civil Servant” (1975) had been lauded as ground-breaking television (and it was) it distressed many unsure of their sexuality and probably banged as many closet doors shut tight at it opened. 

These men had their own part to play towards acceptance but we needed to open the closet door a little wider to let other representations and role-models out.

From this time forward the whole of British society begins to inch towards a time where equality and gay marriage becomes both possible and stops mattering to objectors so much that they think the world will implode if it happens.  It’s certainly been a one step forward one step back approach and Flynn records with this with clarity and conviction.  There’s the characters of Colin and Barry in “Eastenders” which for a time became “Eastbenders” after a hateful diatribe from the Sun newspaper after Colin gave Barry a peck on the forehead.  Michael Cashman, who played Colin, now sits in the House of Lords, an out gay pillar of establishment with a superb record on gay rights whilst the straight actor who played Barry found himself afterwards being turned down by children’s television because he had played a gay character on TV.  That move from unacceptability to acceptance and recognition is tracked in this book.  Following this ludicrous objection it seems extraordinary that within a short space of time we had “Queer As Folk”, Brian Dowling winning “Big Brother” and Will Young victorious in “Pop Idol.

goodasyou7The kiss that supposedly distressed a nation

There is an examination of the music industry where Stephen Gateley was forced to open the closet door by a tabloid threatening to out him amidst a climate where the whole collapse of Boyzone’s career was anticipated should this information ever come out.  This was evidence that the Britain the media portrayed was different to how things were as his honesty was applauded and his popularity soared.  From here this nervous industry is followed to Olly Alexander from chart-topping Years and Years where his sexuality is just a given and who made a recent personal and brave documentary about the mental health issues of teens coming out.

Along the way there are chapters on the AIDS crisis and the British government response which undoubtedly saved many lives and terrified us all, regardless of sexuality or risk; the development of Manchester into a gay-friendly city; the importance of the pink pound leading to publications such as “Attitude” and the part sport has to play from the shameful treatment of Justin Fashanu, forced to put his head unwillingly above the parapet leading to a hounding which led to his suicide to Tom Daley, whose public coming out and marriage to a man, where the age difference might once have been deemed “predatory” being totally accepted because we all now understand that this national treasure is happy and living his life as he should.  Professional football still has a long way to go with these issues.

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Dustin & Tom – “as good as you”

This is an informative, nostalgic read.  It is very much a personal response from Flynn who went from his Wythenshawe front room to a journalism career, to London, to ending up as a guest at Elton and David’s wedding.  He certainly has the experiences, the authority and involvement in what he records to offer his take on developments.  There were many things I had  forgotten, many things I didn’t know and many things I did not realise the significance of at the time, as to how they fit into this British journey “from prejudice to pride”.  It is a great read for the general reader, for anyone interested in social history and is a highly illuminating book on popular culture.  I really enjoyed it. Once again I find myself hovering towards the five star buttons but on reflection this is a book which feels very much of its time (2017) so might not have the lasting value my all-time classic rating of 5 stars would suggest.  But it’s certainly a very close call.

 fourstars

Good As You was published by Ebury Press, part of the Penguin Random House group in 2017.

 

 

100 Essential Books – The Silent Twins – Marjorie Wallace (1986)

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I cannot place my favourite books in any chronological order but these will remain on my bookshelves until all the others have gone. I’ll start my run-down with this superb, chilling non-fiction work by Marjorie Wallace (Countess Skarbeck), an investigative journalist and broadcaster who founded the mental health charity SANE in the same year this book was published. This is her account of two girls she came to know, Jennifer and June Gibbons, black identical twins who grew up in the alien environment of Haverfordwest, Wales in the 1970’s. The girls refuse to speak to more or less anyone apart from each other. Schools cannot cope with them and special schooling which starts by keeping them together and then forces them apart does them no favours. Leaving school they become prolific writers whilst shut up in their bedroom. June had a novel “The Pepsi-Cola Addict self-published. (There was a copy a little while ago available on Amazon for £15,000!). A meeting with some American boys whose father works at the nearby airbase leads to drink, drugs, sex, petty crime and eventual incarceration. Their inability to fit into the legal system results in them being sent to Broadmoor. Wallace, who met the girls there has used their diaries to produce an outstanding, dispassionate view of two tragic yet extraordinary teenage lives – the ultimate outsiders. The aftermath of this book is no less tragic, on their day of their release from Broadmoor Jennifer is mysteriously taken ill and dies. I must admit I have always been a little obsessed by these girls and I’m not the only one – they have even had an opera made out of their life story but this is the essential text. One of the most extraordinary pieces of non-fiction writing ever, superbly researched and executed. This is truly “stranger than fiction.”

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