Jan Mark: The One That Got Away.
Thirty Stories from Thirty Years
Roffo Court Press 2020
How have I not come across the fabulous Jan Mark before? I look over some of the titles of her children’s books, all written and published over some three decades from 1974, and find that not one rings a bell. Maybe they weren’t what I was avidly consuming then, or what our children brought back from the library, but I now find she represents a significant lacuna in my reading experience.
Collected here are some thirty short stories arranged by alphabetical order of titles; they represent a selection of varied narratives, from school stories to family vignettes via ghost tales and humorous anecdotes, speculative short fiction and flashbacks to life in the mid-20th-century, and everything else in between.
I can’t possibly comment on them all so I’ll point out the real highlights for me, the ones that lingered even more than others as I read through the collection over a month, though to be honest that could still be a lot more than the representative sample I was intending.
I’ll start with the last and one of the shortest items in the book, ‘William’s Version’. This is a perfectly formed dialogue between a child and his grandmother, with William wanting the story of ‘The Three Little Pigs’ told to him exactly as he wants it told, with no variations, digressions or bowdlerising. Mark exactly captures the voice of the determined, wilful child and the disconcerted granny who is putty in his hands, and is even able to add touches that suggest hints of the Red Riding Hood wolf. I loved this story best of all, a situation the unwary babysitter — grandparent or not — may well find familiar.
On a different level are the more macabre tales: ‘Nule’ almost has you believing that part of a house’s fixtures might just possibly come to life; in ‘Old Money’ a pre-decimal coin seems to cause a malevolence to arise in its possessor; and ‘Who’s a Pretty Boy Then?’ is an absolutely chilling little piece about an aviary positioned in what seems to be the worst possible spot.
The author really captures family life and the school years with a realism and a truthfulness, particularly when presenting the perspective of the child, and it’s all presented with an absolute authenticity. She is quoted as declaring “I write about children, but I don’t mind who reads the books,” and this encapsulates the essence of her skill as a narrator: a child will recognise their own fears and fierce determination reflected back, while an adult will either relive the emotions and reactions from their own childhoods or come to better understand what concerns overwhelm, and obsessions dominate, the child’s waking and even sleeping life.
Thus ‘Chutzpah’ portrays a girl who’s the modern equivalent of an artful dodger, playing the system and pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes in ways we can admire while not really condemning. ‘The Go-Between’ is about making friends at one remove — almost like modern social media — but with your new friend not being what you expected in real life (despite the twist this turned out to be quite heart-warming). Meanwhile, ‘Charming!’, ‘How Anthony Made a Friend’ and ‘Eye-Opener’ featured strong-minded individuals, the kind whom you try not to cross; in contrast, ‘Nothing to be Afraid Of’ was a little morality tale on the power of the imagination to affect a young mind’s anxieties.
Jan Mark not only extracted and bottled the true essence of the child’s imagination in ways that I’ve seldom seen so powerfully and truthfully done elsewhere, she was a genius at getting into the mindset of boys as well as girls. I can’t remember any female writer capturing, let alone attempting, what life in an all-boys school might be like as she so successfully did in ‘Time and the Hour’.
And now I seem to be on my way to cataloguing all the titles in the collection, something I was resolved not to do. So I will end by mentioning the title story, ‘The One That Got Away’: here is how a class in a primary school is given that familiar but dreaded task — to bring in ‘something interesting’ to talk about. As much as many other pieces in this selection this is a perfect example of a child managing to take control of a situation normally out of their control; and if there’s anything about the tricky process of growing up that youngsters most want to attain it’s this — having a degree of control in an otherwise incomprehensible world beyond your power to affect.
Even Jan Mark’s weaker tales (‘Old Money’ is one for me) are top notch in my estimation. This is a collection I never knew I wanted to read until I did; and I do now feel that we would all be the better for having read it. Here are ordinary people made extraordinary by the exercise of the imagination, something more of us should want to share in and attain.
TOTGA is published by Roffo Court Press, available for £10.00 plus £3.00 UK postage (other destinations in application) from email@example.com or via janmark.net and twitter @jonappletonsbooks
Some Twitterati have been having a conversation through the first month of 2020 using the hashtag #JanMARKuary
More details can be found here: https://janmark.net/new-book-the-one-that-got-away-thirty-stories-from-thirty-years/