Reading Like a Writer Aged 4 – 18

I was so small I couldn’t even see over the theatre seat in front of me, I had to kneel on my seat sitting on my feet and ankles until they went numb. I was four, eating an ‘everlasting toffee strip’ for the first time, but my life was already changed, and I couldn’t even read yet. The single biggest influence on the first 18 years of my literature life was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The original Disney film was still doing the cinema circuit in 1961 when I first saw it. Even then, after walking home in a trance with my Grandma, good and evil were clear in my mind. Who didn’t fall in love with ‘Snow’ the first time you saw her, and hiss at Queen Grimhilde when she spoke to the magic mirror? ‘Who is the fairest one of all?’ still makes me smile now, but I’m not sure if I understood the vanity of it then, or in retrospect. Either way I did see the need for an ageing Queen to be constantly told she was still pretty, despite, as an audience we knew that Snow White was much prettier, a much nicer person and possibly the first woman I fell in love with.

Until I was seven years old I thought that all the sweets at the corner shop were free. I would go in two or three times each week from the age of four, the shop keeper would get out the ‘Penny’ tray, I would choose a couple of things and go on my merry way, no money exchanged hands. What I didn’t know was that my Dad would leave a shilling behind the counter for me every week, even after he and my mum divorced. Such was my naïve view on life that I didn’t have any learned values about money, I didn’t know until later my Mother was an ‘Orange’ woman and my Dad was a Roman Catholic, nor did I understand the complications that brought domestically and socially. I understood nothing about family values. We were a traditional extended family living in a house next to my mother’s sister with my Grandma, who was very protective towards me. My Dad worked away a lot. I was four years of age when I saw Snow White and in hindsight there is no wonder that the following scene has stayed with me for over fifty years. It was the first moving picture that I’d seen, we didn’t own a TV until 1969. I was shocked that there was evil in the world, especially an evil woman as I only knew caring women, and that someone was rich enough to have a magical talking mirror. However the most influential element of the movie was that I had never heard language like that before, words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. The first line of this scene was shear poetry to me which I repeated to myself all the way home. I don’t know how far this is from the original Grimm story or how much of a spin Disney put on it, but it truly influenced my life, my reading, and consequently, in the early teenage years, my poetry writing.

Queen: Slave in the magic mirror, come from the farthest space, through wind and darkness I summon thee. Speak! Let me see thy face.

Magic Mirror: What wouldst thou know, my Queen?

Queen: Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?

Magic Mirror: Famed is thy beauty, Majesty. But hold, a lovely maid I see. Rags cannot hide her gentle grace. Alas, she is more fair than thee.

Queen: Alas for her! Reveal her name.

Magic Mirror: Lips red as the rose. Hair black as ebony. Skin white as snow.

Queen: Snow White!

 

This magical language led me to more sophisticated works like Robin Hood, Ivan Hoe(1820) and even the Man in the Iron Mask (1847) when I could eventually read, which was then instrumental in my interest in the Romantic poets, Shelley, Byron and Wordsworth etc. and I’ll discuss those later.

Two years before the animation was released, Walt Disney said

The first duty of the cartoon is not to picture or duplicate real action or things as they actually happen — but to give a caricature of life and action — to picture on the screen things that have run thru the imagination of the audience to bring to life dream-fantasies and imaginative fancies that we have all thought of during our lives or have had pictured to us in various forms during our lives […] I definitely feel that we cannot do the fantastic things, based on the real, unless we first know the real. This point should be brought out very clearly to all new men, and even the older men’

Particularly in the last sentences, he clearly understands that he can’t produce good cartoons without a sound knowledge of what makes them; a thorough understanding of reality, and a good knowledge of what the audience actually wants to see. I believe that whilst it wasn’t subject matter in 1935 he is instinctively ‘reading like a writer’.

From the ages of about five to thirteen, I attended Sunday school every week from eleven am until one pm; this included the Methodist church service for the adults. This sounds normal apart from the fact that all my friends went to mass twice a day at seven am and six pm. Yes I was the only ‘proddy dog’ in the village. Over that time, I was totally unaware of the religious aspects of my weekly indoctrination, instead my mind was filled with all the romantic and magical notions that Jesus could turn water to wine, feed five thousand people with five loaves and three fishes, heal the blind and make the paralysed walk again. Thinking about it later, all the romantic and magical stories that we learned about, and all the songs and psalms that we learned off by heart, were generally about good versus evil, dressed up in stories that we could understand; such as David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, Cain and Abel, and of course Jesus the uber good guy. We also read about Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver that earns him the title of ultimate bad guy. In Sunday school the language was simple and made easy for us to absorb the bible, and actually it didn’t feel like biblical stories, quite opposite to the mass services that my friends attended every week. We didn’t read from the bible often, most of the stories were extracted into colourful pamphlets that looked like the Jane and John stories that we read at school. Most of these stories were about the good guy coming out on top, and even when the uber good guy was caught and killed by the bad guys, he came back to life again. I realised later what a clever piece of marketing it was but reinforced my growing belief of romanticism and that good will always prevail. .

I started reading Biggles (W E Johns) when I was about nine years of age, and just likeSnow White and The Bible, I quickly worked out the good guys and the bad guys, ‘Tally ho’ always seemed more appealing and romantic than ‘Swinehund’, very idealistic and not normal everyday language. It was all so naive then, the stories, my expectations, a torch under the bed sheets. This romantic naivety reflected in most of the things I wrote, prose and poetry from the age of ten when I wrote my first poem. It’s also been intrinsic on my view to life too; demonstrate conduct becoming of a gentleman, open doors for everyone, not just women, good will always struggle with evil and win, the underdog will always be beaten into a corner, but somehow find the strength and overcome. I was actually in those planes with Biggles and Algernon, I knew how to fly a Sopwith Camel and a Spitfire, I knew how to hide in the sun and use it to my advantage, and I realised how important friendship was, particularly in war.

When I was ten and eleven, I sailed the seas throughout the Napoleonic wars with Captain Horatio Hornblower on HMS Lydia, journeying through The Happy Return (C S Forester), A Ship of the Line (C S Forester) and Flying Colours (C S Forester), but ultimately got lost in the 1951 Gregory Peck film Horatio Hornblower (Warner Bros.1951) that combined all 3 novels. The romantic language was again the major factor that influenced me, but like Biggles and probably more so, it was the graciousness and the impeccable manners of the protagonists. They respected woman and took the bad guy at their word ‘as a gentleman’

In contrast, I was always intrigued at the cardboard cut-out anti-hero Captain Horatio Pugwash, and his crew; Master Mates, Seaman Staines and Tom the cabin boy, and it was probably this, that challenged my sense of being English and certainly gave me a more developed and a slightly dark sense of humour. In today’s terms I would compare Pugwash to The Simpsons despite Homer being American and much more sophisticated as it’s still being written over sixty years later.

I left home when I was eighteen and went to live in Wales. Before I left home I bought a few books from the local charity shop for the long bus journey down to Pwllheli. Amongst the books was Mervyn Peak’s Gormenghast. Wow, forget Biggles, this book took my reading and understanding and enjoyment of writing to a new level. In my opinion and putting it into perspective for today’s reader, it makes Harry Potter look like Caption Pugwash to Peake’s Captain Hornblower; such was the power of the fantasy world that Peake created around Gormangaghst Castle. This book was the second book in the trilogy and covers Titus’s formative years from the age of seven to seventeen. As the 77th earl and lord of Gormenghast, he dreads the life of pre-ordained ritual that stretches before him. I associated, with this as a theme, my mother was re-married and whilst my step father was and still is, a wonderful man, I knew there was a world outside my parents’ home. I’d read books all my life about adventures and adventurers, so their expectations for me of a life in a factory or warehouse were different to where I saw my future. Titus’s desire for freedom is awakened by the sight of his foster sister, known as “The Thing”, a feral child who lives in the woods of Gormenghast. Her life of wild freedom makes him realise that an existence is possible other than the rigid formalities and ritual of the castle. Again, these were familiar echoes. I had spent the last ten years sharing the freedom of the open seas and skies with my heroes. I knew the ‘ritual’ was not for me and left home in 1976.

A few months before I actually left home, I had a short but strange affair with a woman who was in her late thirty’s. I was earning some pocket money cleaning windows and she became one of my customers. I was into several genres of music that were around in the early 1970’s not considered main stream including; soul, heavy rock and reggae. Even then, my friends thought I was a bit weird because the only thing that they listened to was ‘Slade’. It was late February/early March, so after I had finished cleaning her windows one day she asked me if I wanted a hot drink. I accepted but she insisted I drank it indoors rather than in the garden as most customers would do. She was married with no children, her house was immaculate and I realized later she had a state of the art record player, amongst other things. As I stood in the kitchen feeling awkward, I could hear the most intense orchestral music coming from the other room, a striking beat, something I’d never heard before. I’d heard orchestral music previously, of course, as many films used it as soundtracks, but this was different, this was special. She took me into the music room with my tea and biscuits and I entered a different world. She had candles burning, and it wasn’t even my birthday, the record player had separate speakers, but more importantly that afternoon, I experienced something that would change my views on love and life forever. Marie was very experienced and provided me with my very first exposure to Beethoven, more precisely his 5th symphony. This one album changed my musical direction completely.

I cleaned her windows every week for the next four weeks, sometimes two or three times each week. I went to see her to say good-bye before I left home at the end of March. When I left her, she gave me the vinyl album, which I still have in my record collection today

It was probably the film Kes (1969) that temporarily burst my romantic bubble, I was 12. There is still however something romantic about a young city boy finding and training a wild bird, but it was a very gritty view on a life that I didn’t know existed. For me the language was a vernacular I’d not experienced before, not just the expletives but the Yorkshire accent. For example the movies I’d previously been to see at the cinema were, Zulu (1964) starring Michael Caine, several James Bond with Sean Connery, lots of John Wayne movies, including The Searchers (1956), The Quite Man (1952), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon(1949), and The Horse Soldiers (1959) all very much my hero’s, and good guys fighting the bad guys, the good guys always winning. I had never heard as much as a ‘bloody; or ‘dam’ in any of these movies so the language in Kes was a shock. No one in my school used swear words, not even the bully who picked on me whenever possible, and my family certainly didn’t. Yet it seemed right and wrong at the same time. Kes was completely different from all these other movies because it didn’t seem like a movie, the actors didn’t seem to be acting, it felt like real life, like a man was in the room just filming things as they happened. Billy was still a hero but a different type of hero, he didn’t overcome the bad guys in the end, but was still an inspirational character, rising above the dross, even if it was just temporary. Again, like Titus, I associated with Billy, despite three years age difference, he was quite a small boy and his expectations weren’t much beyond a job going down the pits. He was bullied at home, I was picked on at school, his escape was a wild bird, and mine was books and films.

Finally to the Romantics. Romanticism was the largest artistic movement of the late 1700s, and many of its values and beliefs can still be seen in the poetry of the ‘70’s that I read, including some of the Liverpool poets like Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, with whom I corresponded with for a while. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact start of the Romantic Movement, but it did create a surge of interest in folklore in the eighteenth century with the work of the brothers Grimm, which might have inspired Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’. When I was sixteen I grew my hair long, wrote poems about witches, wizards, and warlocks, and regurgitated much of P B Shelley in a very poor homage. I carried his Complete Works under my arm everywhere I went in a tortured and melancholy cloud of petunia oil. Romantic poets cultivated individualism, idealism, physical and emotional passion, and an interest in the mystic and supernatural. I drifted from the group of friends I’d had for a long time and gravitated towards an older group, who smoked weed and talked about politics and changing the world. Romantics set themselves in opposition to the order and rationality of classical and neoclassical artistic precepts to embrace freedom and revolution in their art and politics. I became a young socialist, for 6 months. I don’t like tobacco so, weed lost its draw as did the socialist party, and I read even more of the British poets such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Gordon Lord Byron, and John Keats. Much of it went over my head but I couldn’t get enough, it did however spark a new interest for me in Greek and Roman mythology.

In conclusion, I have focused on the writers, books, films and music that have influenced how and what I wrote up to the age of 18. I’ve read the book by Francine Prose Reading like a Writer, who writes predominately about ‘the tools and tricks of the masters, and why their work has endured’ (inner sleeve dust cover) I also read the Stephen King’s book On Writing and he takes a slightly different angle on the subject. However, it seems to me that there is a deeper underlying question that could be asked, ‘Can creative thought be taught?’ There is no doubt that the techniques of the craft can be learned, through books like Prose and King, and most definitely by reading other writers work, listening to other writers talk about their work and what influenced them, or by analyzing film scripts, or just by watching films. But without being able to think creatively, to be able to generate that germ of an original idea, will our work just be another, albeit technically good, ‘also ran’ as the rejection slip hits the door mat every time.

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