From reader to author

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The Chronicles of Narmo
by Caitlin Moran.
Corgi Books 2013 (1992).

The French title of this novella — Comment je suis devenue célèbre en restant chez moi! — misses the punning of the original English by omitting the anagram of the author’s surname and the clear reference to The Chronicles of Narnia. And yet it accurately describes how the fledgling journalist drew almost exclusively on her home circumstances while still in her early to mid-teens to win prizes and awards (such as The Observer’s young reporter competition) as well as penning this comedic family portrait, published when she was still 16.

She slims down the chaos of being the eldest of homeschooled siblings by reducing the number from an actual eight to a fictional five — Morag, Lily, Aggy, Josh and Poppy — but, one suspects, only marginally exaggerating incidents with witty hyperbole.

Twelve chapters purport to chronicle life in the Wolverhampton family from one Christmas to the next but the conceit is followed very loosely, with random incidents reported and threads reappearing now and again. I have to be honest here and say it became a bit tedious towards the end but as a tour de force by a young author the whole is extraordinary.

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The author’s introduction (presumably added in 2013 when this edition was issued) underlines how important libraries were to all the children in shaping their liberal education away from schooling of any kind, either formal or informal. She references classics by Johanna Spyri, Hans Christian Anderson and Sarah Chauncey Woolsey alongside the likes of Tolkien and Lewis, Edith Nesbit and Louisa May Alcott, Spike Milligan and Terry Pratchett. It’s very easy to spot the influences of some of these authors in the descriptions of the Narmo household while marvelling at how their essences been almost seamlessly integrated into the text.

I say almost seamlessly integrated because, especially in the second half, the narrative feels to me a bit laboured, especially with the humour which, of course, will elicit different responses from individual readers. Incidents such as a holiday in Scotland or a jumble sale felt drawn out almost to breaking point and the comedic possibilities laid on too thickly with a trowel.

Where it works best for me is in the insights into the psyches of family members: the vague responsibility felt by Morag as the eldest (clearly a self-portrait), the cunning connivances of two-year-old Poppy to get what she wants, the familiar bickering that passes between parents Bill and Carol, and the family’s casual acceptance of what is clearly an unusual state of affairs as entirely normal. Though outsiders can be depicted as caricatures (I’m thinking of when there are visits from the grandmother and from the education inspectors) there’s an amiable familial relationship amongst the tight-knit core group that feels authentic for being being founded on reality.

Finally, I took great joy from the flashes of language that indicated mature writing arriving at an early age. Here, for instance is a thumbnail sketch of Carol in Chapter Two:

In the early days of Flower Power, just after people started respecting plants and just before they started smoking them, Carol had cherished visions of being Earth Mother extraordinaire; nurture of children, worshipper of cats, wearer of the widest bell-bottoms in all of Southern England. But with the advent of Bill, and the passing of flares, these dreams had been mislaid.

Or when Morag pictures her life as a writer she declares to Josh (10): ‘I shall live in London and write my masterpiece, unhindered by male intervention. All you men do is lose socks and drink all the milk.’ Her sister Lily, at fourteen, “is a year younger than Morag: blonde, pretty, smug.” Josh, meanwhile, “had tried reading, but the words had not been in a friendly mood” — I’m sure we’ve all been there.

Or, in a Byronic turn of phrase, Christmas at the Narmos is characterised as “mad, bad, and dangerous to eat in any great quantity.” Unsurprisingly the seasonal feast of the 15-year-old writer — whether the fictional or the actual being a moot point– ends with a bang when a home-made Christmas cracker explodes and sets fire to the Christmas tree.

I leave the last word with the older Caitlin Moran giving us this picture of her nerdy young self: “Every day, I put my hat on, and walked to the local library, and came back an hour later with a rucksack full of books.” At 13 the bespectacled teenager decided to switch from being reader to author, her first step on becoming famous while staying at home.


746books.com and bookishbeck.wordpress.com

Read for Novellas in November #NovNov

17 thoughts on “From reader to author

  1. Homeschooling was fun.

    It was also difficult, academically rewarding, and, as the best gift, a lot of time with my kids. As I was stuck at home sick anyway, it seemed to me the best way to get good use out of all my STEM training – pass it on.

    The library loved our well-behaved brood – our youngest was the only child allowed to play with the big stuffed tiger because she was so gentle with it. And we loved ALL THOSE BOOKS.

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    1. Ironically, in contrast to the homeschooling you delivered, Caitlin Moran and her siblings received zilch formal education, being left almost entirely to their own devices. Their parents, true to their hippie credentials, were arty types (the father for instance was a rock musician into psychedelia) and must’ve only conveyed the their offspring a love of literature. Otherwise their upbringing sounds to have been every bit as disorganised as this fiction implies and replicated in two TV series entitled Raised by Wolves. STEM subjects? They wouldn’t have meant much to the Morans, I suspect! But, yes, libraries, the temple at which all true worshippers pray…

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      1. Ah, yes. My unused PhD in Plasma Physics – I worked about 13 years at two major labs before coming down with ME/CFS when the kids were little (and the youngest wasn’t with us yet).

        At least I could still teach as far as college calculus – but we also got gobs of reading and history and everything else. They were little sponges. And no more than normally poking of their siblings. Fond memories of turning the living room furniture into forts.

        I have a husband who wasn’t all that thrilled with the idea, so annual progress tests and tangible measures of learning were my insurance. He did scouts and skiing and as much science fair and everything else as he could manage – but was our full-time working person. Disability income isn’t all that generous, but kept us middle class.

        Better than spending my time on getting the kids onto school buses and coping with whatever the teachers assigned – I spent my limited energy directly on mine and let the rest of the world deal with the other problems.

        I often wished I had homeschooled by choice and with my full energy – that would have been something! Reading filled a LOT of hours, and computers were being available when our oldest was around 7, so they are all computer-native.

        Every homeschool family is different – but so are most families. You do what you can and what you have to. Ours would have gone into school had I not been able to cope – as they did the year my husband had a heart attack and quadruple bypass. Thank goodness he’s still here, but I didn’t know how much he would need me. Ah, the stories I could tell!

        My extended family in Mexico also thought I was nuts, so I was on display all those years – but I didn’t have to meet the school bus. It WAS easier. I think. And better. I think. They seem quite pleased with the results.

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        1. As you say, the stories we could tell about bringing up families! Your experience, partly forced on you by health issues, would nevertheless have been a rich one and, I hope, one that your children will always be grateful for.

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        1. No problem, Alicia, it was really interesting—and I can’t complain, I myself tend to overshare when some innocuous comment or review sets me off reminiscing or on a tirade! 🙂

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          1. I call them triggers.

            I’ll stop whatever show we’re streaming, and tell the husband and anecdote, a joke, a piece of something interesting – and he knows it’s because it will disappear into the mists of memory if I don’t tell it when it’s triggered. You’re right, it’s kind of fun.

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            1. I have difficulties with sequencing (which may be similar) — and not getting it down immediately means it’s no longer fresh and then I lose the thread.

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            2. I hate to lose those threads – and the homsechooling years in particular were very much enjoyed (and include our only trip to England). Many warm memories, many group efforts (our homeschool group was particularly successful at competing with local schools), and being supported by a community that homeschooled for many different reasons. If I couldn’t do my job as a physicist, at least I could provide a rich environment in many ways for the next generation.

              I often wonder if I would have done that by choice.

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  2. The description of Carol alone is almost enough to tempt me! I enjoyed your balanced review, Chris and have never read any of her books despite having read several articles by Caitlin Moran. Her support of libraries is heartening, I liked that.

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    1. I found this volume in the children’s section of the local bookshop so I’m almost sure it would appeal to your professional self, Anne! This is my first Moran book though, like you, I’ve read the odd article she’s written. The main criticism of this I’ve seen is that it was the first of what appears to be a well-ploughed field, what with her autobiographical titles and the two Raised by Wolves Channel 4 series. Still, I wonder where she’d be now if there hadn’t been a local branch from which to get her daily fix of literature?

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  3. I have read one of hers but not her menopause one, which everyone keeps shoving at me! She does plough the same furrow but at least she’s talking about unconventional childhoods and women’s independence and pleasure …

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    1. It gives me great pleasure when I read of approaches to education which don’t involve constant testing, league tables, targets, or lesson observations, Liz, yet result in individuals displaying compassion, creativity, innovation, gratitude and citizenship—much of it being due to the influence of positive role models who lead the way by example.

      So, unconventional childhoods that nevertheless encourage freethinking and belief in self-worth are to be valued, especially if they result in inspiring individuals like Moran. In my view at least! 🙂

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  4. Pingback: It’s Novellas in November time – Link to Your Posts Here! #NovNov

  5. Pingback: Friday Five: When I Wake Up Edition – Peat Long's Blog

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