“A near-divine miracle”

Lucy Mangan: Bookworm.
A memoir of childhood reading
Vintage 2018

“[Y]ou simply never know what a child is going to find in a book (or a graphic novel, or a comic, or whatever) — what tiny throwaway line might be the spark that lights the fuse that sets off an explosion in understanding whose force echoes down years.”
— Chapter 8

Lucy Mangan knows what it is that makes someone a bookworm because she is one herself. And as a retired teacher (and former schoolboy, now recidivist bookworm) I can vouch for the fact that throwaway lines, whether written or spoken, are often the unexpected catalysts in later life determining personal philosophies or prejudices, likes or hates, potential triggers for creativity or lasting pessimism.

Bookworm is for all those who from an early age discovered that books are one’s entry to lives beyond our immediate experience. It’s also for those who have forgotten what it was that they read at that age, or have foolishly put it behind them as inconsequential: because this is not merely a nostalgia-fest, it’s an examination of how one person went on a voyage of discovery to visit people and places and different times, to see how others have lived and may still live their lives; and through her voyage one may see what nuggets of truth she has brought back that may enrich our own lives.

Above all it’s a plea not to deny children the pain and pleasure that access to all literature affords them:

[C]hildren should be allowed to read anything at any time. They will take out of it whatever they are ready for. And just occasionally, it will ready them for something else.

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Putting the kind in mankind

https://aboutartanddesign.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/graysonperry_2243662k.jpg
Grayson Perry and a tapestry he designed, The Upper Class at Bay

Grayson Perry: The Descent of Man
Penguin 2016

It takes a bit of nerve to use the same title for your book as Charles Darwin did for his 1871 study, but in a way Grayson Perry seems to be saying that modern men are fully capable of evolving, and for the better. It should be possible for them to transition from their traditional dinosaur-like sense of what it is to be a man towards something more fitting for the future, more so now that we are in the era of #MeToo and with urgent demands for well overdue gender parity.

Who is Grayson Perry? This is his official bio from the paperback:

Grayson Perry is a man. He is also an award-winning artist, a Bafta-winning TV presenter, a Reith Lecturer and a bestselling author with traditional masculine traits like a desire to always be right and to overtake all other cyclists when going up big hills.

He is also adept at self-deprecation and incisive insights, as well as being a flamboyant cross-dresser (it’s hard to miss him in this role for many of his public appearances). A three-episode TV documentary, All Man, went on to explore aspects of masculinity touched on here, but in the meantime this autobiographical memoir explores Perry’s boyhood experiences — he was born in 1960 — and his changing perceptions of what it means to be a male in a modern world. What he reflects on may be rooted in an English perspective, but much of his ruminations has ramifications in the rest of the western world, and of course elsewhere.

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A kind of joy

Icebreaker Akademik Sergey Vavilov (photo: http://www.cruisemapper.com/ships/Akademik-Sergey-Vavilov-icebreaker-1761)

Jenny Diski: Skating to Antarctica
Granta Books 1998 (1997)

The notion of skating al fresco always brings to my mind the worry of thin ice, and in some ways the feel of this memoir is of ice at times so thin that it might be possible to fall through. Skating to Antarctica therefore has a fragility to it, but it’s a fragility told by a writer who’s managed to weather many storms and isn’t going to give up just yet.

Superficially the memoir’s about the author taking a cruise in a converted icebreaker to the southern continent; but under the guise of a travelogue this account focuses on a journey of a different kind. Jenny Diski, as is well known by now,* had a difficult childhood in a dysfunctional and abusive family, becoming estranged from her parents to the extent of not even knowing whether her mother was alive or dead. It’s the questions over her mother’s life and death that forms a counterpoint to the physical trip and makes this piece of creative non-fiction so readable.

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Sugaring the pill

Dahl, Llandaff
Roald with his sisters Else and Alfhild, at Llandaff

Roald Dahl Boy: Tales of Childhood Puffin Books 1986 (1984)

Boy is less an autobiography than a patchy memoir of Roald Dahl’s youth, up to the point in his early twenties when a world war rudely interrupted everybody’s planned trajectories. But that’s not to say his life had been uneventful before then — this account is full of memories of home, family, school, acquaintances and holidays, many of which were to supply material for his published fiction. As he says of the incidents he recounts, some are funny, some painful, some unpleasant, but “all are true”.

Many are very vivid, perhaps too vivid, especially the things he witnessed or experienced at his schools. Though I am of a generation three decades adrift from Roald Dahl my experience of a boys school was uncomfortably close to what he describes, first at Llandaff Cathedral School near Cardiff, then at St Peter’s boarding school in Weston-Super-Mare, and finally at Repton, the Derbyshire public school. What comes through is Continue reading “Sugaring the pill”

Absolute hell

Roald Dahl in 1982By Hans van Dijk / Anefo - Derived from Nationaal Archief, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36726305
Roald Dahl in 1982 by Hans van Dijk / Anefo, derived from Nationaal Archief, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36726305

If Roald Dahl was still alive he’d be approaching his 100th birthday in September 2016. As it is he died in 1990, but not before leaving an extraordinary legacy of books for adults and, of course, children. In 1984 he published a memoir of his early years, Boy: Tales of a Childhood, and towards the end of this he compares the life of the writer that he became with one of his first jobs, working for Shell. “I began to realize how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours and a fixed salary and very little original thinking to do,” he writes, one suspects with his tongue firmly lodged in his cheek. “The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman.”

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