It’s probably a characteristic of types like me (and you, if you are reading this) that we prevaricate, procrastinate and generally prevent ourselves from doing things in case we truly fail. And the significant one is right.
I am afraid of failure and my fear has been growing year upon year. My launching myself in different directions is not the work of an unfettered adventurer, but is more the hastily constructed escape plans of one who sees his short-fallings as publically damnable and a possible source of ridicule. Now that I am in a corner, one that cannot be sidestepped, I don’t know what to do. My options have run out. I do not even have the simple choice of fight or flight.
Hoisted by my own petard.
I am looking across my teacher’s desk at a book I read to some students yesterday. It was world book day and one of the more vigorous and self-servingly strident female teachers, had organised for the department a chance to dress up as fictional characters to capture the imagination of those kids who wouldn’t read. I drew a big C on a piece of A4 and came as myself; The Old Man and the C. And, yes, I had to explain it. One guy thought that I had come as a character called ‘Cunt’ and I could see his point. Others dressed as you would expect, projections of themselves. There was: Titania (queen of the fucking fairies); an unusually orange Fagin which did cause me to have some confusion, my newly found buddy dressed as Arthur Dent whom none of the kids had ever heard of; then there was Daisy from The Great Gatsby. The latter was the young woman who sought to rule the department. It did strike me that all of us secretly consider ourselves to be something other than what we really are. There were lots of kids dressed up as themselves and there were decorated classroom doors, but no visiting writers. That bit seemed to have escaped any notice.
Oh, I am looking at the book again, Skellig.
I read Skelliga long time ago and it struck me as a wonderful work of literature. It was the type of book I wanted to write. Simple yet complex, a children’s book yet one that could reward an adult reading. It must have left a deep impression on me because it not only seemed to shape some of my ideas towards my own book but also foreshadowed the purchase of our current and most important home. So, as I looked across my desk and saw this book, by the wonderful David Almond, things began to click.
Skellig is one of those premier children’s books that I think of as a threshold text. It is about a young boy who moves, with his family, to a new house in a different part of his town. The house that they move into is almost derelict and belonged to a hermit who died alone and unloved. The family includes the boy, his mother, father and little baby sister (who is very ill). In the ancient garage, a place that should have been demolished, lives an old man, barely alive and dubiously human.
It could be described as a coming into awareness novel, a book about angels, a work about hope or a modern fairy tale. It is all of these and something more. I decided that it was time that I read this to my class of Year 7s. The class is a nurture group with a mixture of literacy and emotional issues. One lad, my favourite, keeps making loud squawking sounds and never fails to inform me and the rest of his group about how bored he can sometimes get during my lesson. I thought I would risk it, having heard a respected, and big selling, kids’ writer say that reading to children and young adults is just as enriching as them having to read. I read Skellig and my class listened with intent.
It’s odd that an activity such as this so rarely goes on these days.
It’s wrong that teachers have been dissuaded from fostering the love of the written word with their passion for the spoken word. Books, books, books; I love them. I love reading them. I love falling into the pages of somebody else’s world and forgetting about my own. I love the feel of books and I love the smell of them. I love to be around them and to open old ones to allow a name of the original keeper to reveal itself or a note to fall out. I have an ancient collection of the complete works of Shakespeare which is nice in itself. However, what makes it special is the fact that the binding has been made out of some older tome. I have only revealed a little of it for fear of overly damaging either of the texts, but my glimpse at the hidden text revealed a sort of ledger written in a fine hand; just one of the treasures of books.
Anyway, I began reading Skellig to my Year 7s and I heartened by their response. Like my complete works of Shakey, Skellig has lots of hidden extras that reward the reading and the re-reading. On a wet afternoon on the far-flung coast of East Yorkshire, it is a pearl of a read. Reading for enjoyment. Reading because it is there. Yet there was something else that I came across as I was reading that book; a retrospective déjà-vu. I hadn’t realised just how much of our lives had been written in the books belonging to others.
Like the young boy’s family, we too moved into a house that had grown ancient around its hermit-like owner. He may not have died there, but we are pretty sure that something else has. And it was there that I finished my first book in which another family had moved into a run-down property only for the world to turn against them. Reading and writing and huge coincidences or just plain copying, take your pick.
I can see my dead father’s head shaking in disbelief; he was never taken by flights of fancy.