By: Ian Cassidy
As a child I never read a kid’s book, I just didn’t get on with them. Narnia, Wind in the Willows, Winnie, Alice and William, I read them all later, as an adult, I think they’re more fun when you’ve reached a certain age, children take them too seriously. Mallory Towers and the Famous Five, never appealed, just too middle class and that from someone who couldn’t have been more middle class. I’ve read quite a few children’s books recently as well, Colfer, Pullman, even JK’s ubiquitous, over hyped, overlong oeuvre. As a child I read proper books before I really should have done. We lived in a house of no censorship, as far as Dad was concerned we could read anything, so long as we read it carefully and thought about it. I’d read “The Catcher in the Rye” by the time I was twelve and the “Well of Loneliness” before I was fourteen.
He encouraged us to read just about anything and I’m glad he did. His attitude was that there was no such thing as a bad book, there was bad writing but so long as you recognised it that was okay. So I read every thing I could get my hands on. I was reading certain books not because I wanted to but because I felt I had to. You have to read Dickens and Austen, you have to read Ulysses, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Remembrance of Things Past. You have to read Thomas Hardy and I started to do so out of a sense of obligation but I soon came to enjoy them. I loved Tess and Far From the Madding Crowd and I love it when that happens, when the obligation turns into a pleasure. DH Lawrence was duty as well and the only one that I came to enjoy was Sons and Lovers. I struggled and strained though Women in Love and I thought The Plumed Serpent was absolute crap and I wasn’t keen on Lady Chatterley, John Thomas and Lady Jane was better. Same with The Rainbow, although Imogen Stubbs was beautiful as Ursula in the TV adaptation.
If it makes me happy when a duty read turns into enjoyment, it’s just as disappointing when one doesn’t. The Alexandria quartet was like that, I started it out of duty and it turned out to be just as crap as I always thought it was going to be. That didn’t lessen the disappointment. Romola was the same, it looked like it would be a struggle, six hundred closely printed pages and very little happening. I set about it out of duty, it was the only Eliot I hadn’t read and it lived up to my worst expectations. It turned out to be absolutely awful. But not Mill on the Floss, that was one I really enjoyed, I loved Maggie Tulliver partly because she reminded me of Henrietta from school, my second schoolgirl crush, with her unruly hair and unruly attitude.
The Catcher in the Rye was a book that really influenced me as a kid but when I re-read it disappointed me, really disappointed me. Slow and whiny and I have to say it, badly written. I felt the same about On The Road when I re-read that, so I started revisiting all the other books that influenced me when I was a kid and unlike ‘Catcher’ most of them seem to have stood the test of time. There’s “Brideshead Revisited” which I read at the time of the TV series, so my memories of it will always be coloured by Sebastian’s teddy, Jeremy Irons and Lawrence Olivier, but its still a great book. Every time I read it I remember watching the TV adaptation for the first time in 1981. I can’t forget Diana Quick, plover’s eggs, Cordelia and Anthony Blanche, everything about it was just magical. I was fourteen and wanted to be precocious as Cordelia and as beautiful and elegant as Diana Quick. I was even captivated by the depiction of Oxford, very English and very male but I was determined to get there. If only Catz hadn’t been such a let down.
“Lord of the Flies” is a little boring when you try to read it again and I only remember it because we had to read it out in class and poor old Alan Richardson had to read out the “oh bollocks to the rules” bit while we all guffawed on the classroom floor.
“Papillon” was crap then and its crap now, I’m sure he made it all up, but it was the first proper adult airport book I read, full of violence and death and (surprisingly for a book set in a men’s gaol), sex. It’s still rubbish but represents a right of passage.
Then there’s perhaps the most important book I read as a teenager. “Tropic of Ruislip” by Leslie Thomas, a book about wife swapping in the suburbs, complete rubbish but in places, laugh aloud funny, especially when she keeps on referring to her husband as ‘bollock-chops.’
I started reading mid afternoon and carried on, six o’clock passed, then seven and finally at eight my Dad stormed into my room where was I sprawled on the bed blissfully reading page 200 or so. He blustered away about how unnatural it was for a fit, healthy, passably pretty sixteen-year-old to spend Saturday night reading a book. I thought it was perfectly natural and perfectly preferable to the usual Saturday night fayre of same-old, same-old youth club disco, furtive fags, warm Diamond White and trying and failing to look blasé when a boy came within smiling distance.
Dad carried on his rant but I didn’t give in, I didn’t go out, I stayed put and finished it. I think it was probably the first book I read from cover to cover in one day and whilst there’s little memorable or meretricious about the book itself – in fact I’d be hard pushed to tell you what it’s about – the book is significant for me because it taught me that reading is as fun and worthwhile as any other activity.
It also represents independence to me, it represents standing up to my Dad and ignoring boring, cliched, social conventions. It also represents independence from the ‘some books are essential reading “thought police.”’ Reading a book that makes you laugh but possesses no other literary attribute taught me to read books because I wanted to read them not because I felt I should read them. It taught me that I didn’t have to struggle with ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’ or huff and puff through ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ and that in all good conscience I could leave ‘Ulysses’ where it belongs, on the library shelf.
Dad’s attitude to television and film was pretty laissez faire also.
It was the mid eighties before technology became so affordable as to be ubiquitous and so before televisions proliferated into every room of the house you had to sit and watch television with your parents, which was often embarrassing and frequently excruciating. Stanley Baxter’s Christmas Show was always bad, he’d put a frock on and say something smutty about masturbation and my brother and I would cringe.
Then my Dad bought a VCR and family viewing went from bad to worse. He bought home “Quadrophenia”, which we watched as a family and the alley scene was excruciating but I think the worst time I ever spent in our living room was watching the rape scene from “Scum”. We all sat around, the four of us plus my friend, Andrea and Paul’s horribly scratchy mate, Tom, when suddenly one of the cons got brutally sodomised in the greenhouse. Fortunately I’d got a book to hide behind but Paul and Tom had no cover at all for their anguished squirms. They were red faced and their jaws were on the floor. Andrea had turned a similar colour and also she suddenly became strangely interested in the reinforced toe of her grey school tights. We wriggled and my mom announced: “Should they be watching this?” My dad just grunted and I buried my nose further into ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and suppressed an embarrassed giggle. Paul and Tim were purple by now and Andrea was looking anywhere but at me. It seemed to go on forever, another inmate dropped his trousers and stood up to the plate, as it were and then another. My Mom’s scowl was getting worse but by now Dad was finding it funny and we were literally dying, right there, on the spot. Running naked across New Street Station would have been less painful. The last one finished, mercifully quick, although it seemed to take days and then the tension lifted a little. My mother was still scowling and dad was still smiling, he’d enjoyed our embarrassment and we began the furtive looks, Andrea’s eyes were as wide as saucers and you could tell Paul and Tim couldn’t wait to get outside and talk about what we’d just seen. They ran from the room making the strangest noise, a whispered mixture of giggle and squeak with the occasional groan. I wiped the breathy moisture off the page of my book before closing it but I resisted the urge to flee from the room. Andrea did the same, we had to sit through the rest of the film to prove that we were grown up and unembarrassed by it all.
A couple of days later, we’d still got the video, dad never returned films on time, he owned the shop and so he took it as a kind of Droit de Siegneur to help himself every time he collected the rent, I came upon my brother watching it again, the very same scene:
“Not again? It’s right what they say about public school boys?”
He just grunted.
“I shudder to think what goes on in those dormitories.”
He deigned to look up: “I‘m a day-boy remember. Never go near the dorms.”
“Well in the showers then, I bet you’re always messing with each other.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Well anyway, turn it off, I don’t want to watch it again.”
“I was here first and anyway you should study this, it’s going to happen to you.”
“Oh charming, predicting your sister will be raped.”
“I didn’t mean that, I meant what they’re doing to him, that will happen to you and you’ll probably enjoy it.”
“You pig, filthy pig.”
“I bet you take it up there, I bet you’re a right little slut, the bookish ones always are. Have you worn out the handle on your hairbrush yet.”
I told him to piss off.
“Or are you still into rug munching, you’re all a bunch of dykes at that school, it’s well known.”
“Childish school-boy fantasies.”
“Bet you’d take it up the arse for one of your lesbo friends.”
“Juvenile.” I stuck my nose in the air and pretended to rise above it but I was seething and actually quite shocked, I knew he could be a horrible little shit, what teenage boy can’t, but I never expected to discuss anal sex with my brother. I threw a cushion at him, I couldn’t do anything else, it was two or three years since I’d been physically capable of beating him up. I pulled my knees up to my chin and discreetly wiped away a tear. I couldn’t let him see that he’d upset me.
I read Rumpole but every budding lawyer has to do that and I read Flashman, only one mind and it set in mind of writing about a female Flash Harry or Flash Harriet but it didn’t really work. A woman taking advantage of men worked okay, I’ve known a few who were brilliant at that. It was the historical bit, women just weren’t involved in a fat lot. I had Harriet working with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea but how can you have a cowardly, conniving nurse, it just didn’t work, how could you make it convincing that she was work shy and lazy in the face of all that suffering, it just didn’t ring true. The closest I came to anything workable was Harriet as a reluctant Suffragette, dragged along to the House of Commons on Census night, and present at the death of Emily Davison. That actually worked quite well, Harriet was more interested in parading around Epsom in all her finery and flirting with the racegoers, whilst her colleagues were planning a serious political protest. When I got to Harriet being banged up under the Cat and Mouse Acts, I hit on quite a few problems, how do you keep the characteristic Flashman levity when you’re describing your heroine being force-fed by two butch warders. It’s still a work in progress, I may return to it one day.