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not in manchester

I’m feeling a bit sorry for myself because I’m not in Manchester this week… During my hour-long commute back from work on the very hot, sticky and generally bad-tempered tube, I unexpectedly found myself feeling strangely nostalgic for the delights of the 142 bus up Oxford Road. At lunchtime, I sighed over my overpriced prawn and crayfish baguette, dreaming of chips and gravy from the chip shop on Liverpool Road. And right now, I’m wishing that I could go along to the launch of the lovely new Corridor 8 launch, taking place at Urbis tonight…

Corridor 8 is a brand new annual title, which aims to be “the new cultural voice of the north” and will be showcasing the very best in the region’s contemporary visual arts, writing, architecture, photography and more. The theme for issue 1 is SuperCity – the idea of an urban ‘corridor’ linking cities and towns across the north from Liverpool to Hull, and reaching overseas to Ireland in the West and Denmark in the East. There will be contributions around the theme from such luminaries such as Will Alsop and Peter Saville, as well as features about artists working across the SuperCity region including Bob Levene, Rachel Goodyear and the Freee Collective. Personally, I’m especially excited about a unique “literary documentary” about the area commissioned from the writer and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair for this first issue – here’s a little taster:

‘Wandering Deansgate was like finding yourself in the middle of some dark fantasy for which you had no instructions. Cliffs of unreason. Deansgate as a river of human traffic, the Irwell its liquid margin.’

Iain Sinclair will be giving a talk at the launch event tonight, but if like me, you can’t make it, you can still share Sinclair’s walk through Manchester – “a meandering poetic journey designed to shed new light on a city once ancient and contemporary” – by listening to a special podcast Listening for the Corncrake on the Urbis website.The podcast has been designed so that you can listen as you go, so you can even perform your own psychogeographic wanderings through the city! Next time I’m in Manchester I’ll definitely be having a go: in the meantime, I’ll be following tonight’s event via the liveblog on twitter, and of course, I’m looking forward to reading the magazine itself very soon! (For more on Iain Sinclair at the Corridor 8 launch check out Richard‘s post about the event here)

Staying with the literary theme, I’m also missing out on the Manchester Book Market this weekend. This excellent event, organised by Literature NorthWest, will take place in St Ann’s Square from Friday to Sunday as part of the Manchester International Festival. The market will bring together the very best of the UK’s leading independent publishers, as well as back-to-back performances from some of the North West’s most exciting spoken word talent. Readers will include Joe Stretch, Elizabeth Baines, Eleanor Rees, Annie Clarkson and Segun Lee French amongst many more.

Other weekend highlights will include Manchester International Festival’s Festival Feast (yum!), a special tour of Procession: An Exhibition on Sunday, and of course De La Soul at The Ritz. Meanwhile I’ll be off for another day of packing myself sardine-style into the tube, and risking my sanity trying to get across Waterloo station at rush hour. Not fair!

Anyway, for now I’m off to console myself with Vietnamese food, and planning some exciting art adventures here in London for the weekend. Manchester peoples, let me know how you enjoy this weekend’s hi-jinks…

forgotten children’s favourites

To mark the 10th anniversary of the children’s laureateship, the current holder of the post, Michael Rosen, and his four predecessors – Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, Quentin Blake and Anne Fine – this week selected their favourite children’s books. They were allowed seven choices each (you can read their lists here) and each chose some of my own favourite children’s reads, ranging from The Box of Delights (Quentin Blake) to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Anne Fine) to The Railway Children (Jacqueline Wilson). I was particularly pleased to see that Michael Morpurgo even opted for a deeply unfashionable Blyton amongst his selection – the particularly fine Five Go to Smuggler’s Top.

However, what I did notice about the laureates’ choices is that with a few notable exceptions, they mainly opted for the “classics” of children’s literature: well-known books that are already established as general favourites. To continue my recent “children’s books” theme, I thought it might be interesting to create my own list of favourites with a difference – a list of “forgotten” children’s books rapidly disappearing into the lands of obscurity, that are maybe not quite so universally well-known. Here are my seven “forgotten favourites:”

1. Mystery at Witchend by Malcolm Saville

Written in the 1940s, this is a good old fashioned adventure in which a group of children (plus loyal dog) thwart a wartime sabotage plot by dastardly German spies. It’s the first in the Lone Pine series, a more sophisticated take on the Famous Five in which the members of the Lone Pine Club, armed with little more than their bicycles, sandwiches and hand-drawn maps, solve mysteries taking in everything from counterfeiting to sheep-rustling in a variety of real locations. Writing into the 1970s, Saville attempted to “sex up” the later books adding criminals with (shock!) guns, and even a touch of romance for his teenage characters who by now had traded in their cotton frocks and shorts for jeans, but the books still manage to retain their carefree innocent feel.

2. The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown

First published in 1941,The Swish of the Curtain is a sort of original Fame! – the story of a group of children who, bored during a long summer holiday, discover an abandoned chapel in their home town and decide to transform it into a theatre. As the Blue Door Theatre company, they quickly develop serious theatrical ambitions, in spite of the opposition of their parents. Written by Brown when she herself was just fourteen, the novel is peculiarly timeless: in spite of the archaic picture it presents of a genteel suburbia complete with a kindly Bishop (the children’s ally) and a cringe-inducing Women’s Institute headed up by the dreaded Mrs Potter-Smith (their arch-nemesis) it feels very contemporary in tone, perhaps simply because of its robust sense of humour.

3. Greenwitch by Susan Cooper

In spite of the recent movie version, Susan Cooper’s Arthurian-inspired fantasy series, the Dark is Rising sequence seems to be distinctly out of fashion at the moment, perhaps because of its slightly 1970s homespun Woodcraft Folk-ish feel. The best known of the series is the second – the brilliant, and extremely scary The Dark is Rising – but my personal favourite is the third book, which focuses more on Cooper’s main female character, Jane. Set in Cornwall, it’s a classic seaside children’s adventure story but given a darker fantasy twist, haunted by the powerful mythical figure of the Greenwitch herself. The final section inevitably leads to what Nancy Mitford refers to as “Brimming”.

4. We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome

Surprisingly, Ransome’s famous Swallows and Amazons didn’t make it into any of the laureate’s selections, even though it’s an undoubted children’s classic. For my money though, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea is even better: the story of what happens when the Walker children’s holiday plans go wrong, and they find themselves unexpectedly fighting a storm in the treacherous waters of the North Sea, drifting away from the safety of the English coast into the shipping lanes – and into a real adventure. Marking a definite change of pace from the rather annoying whimsy of Peter Duck or the slightly too try-hard comedy “hi-jinks” of The Picts and the Martyrs, this a compelling heart-in-your-mouth story of adventure on the high seas.

5. Fifteen by Beverley Cleary

Beverley Cleary is now best known as the creator of naughty Ramona and her long-suffering older sister Beezus, but she also wrote Fifteen, a 1950s take on the “young adult novel.” It evokes an innocent, All-American world of high school dating, which already seems distinctly archaic: a lost realm of milkshakes, pin-curls and good manners. Gossip Girl it certainly isn’t, yet naive small-town heroine Jane faces all the familiar dilemmas of adolescence (how to decide what to wear to the dance; how to work out if Stan really likes her; how to deal with sophisticated, cashmere sweater- wearing Marcy), even managing to take in the unfamiliar exoticism of yes, a Chinese restaurant with characteristically gutsy good humour.

6. Clover by Susan Coolidge

I have to make a confession now: I still find all those old-fashioned “girls’ books” – Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and the like – weirdly compelling reading. However my real favourites are the little-known “wild cards” of this genre: L.M. Montgomery’s Emily books, Louisa M. Alcott’s hilariously moralistic An Old Fashioned Girl, and especially one of the lesser-known sequels to What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge’s Clover. Leaving behind rather tiresome Katy (who, let’s be honest, since that whole thing with the swing has really become a bit of an annoying goody-two-shoes) this story focuses on younger sister Clover as she embarks on some much more exciting adventures Out West.

7. The Circus is Coming by Noel Streatfeild

Noel Streatfeild is perhaps most famous for the children’s classic Ballet Shoes, which won a place on Jacqueline Wilson’s shortlist. However, she also wrote many other novels, many of which are based around the theatre. The Circus is Coming marks a bit of a departure from the theme, being set in the world of (you guessed it) the circus. A bit less overtly girly than many of Streatfeild’s books, it tells of the adventures of prim and proper brother and sister Peter and Santa, who unexpectedly find themselves living with their estranged Uncle Gus, a circus acrobat, and become increasingly drawn into the world of the circus itself. (For any other serious Streatfeild fans out there, can I also alert you to her little-known autobiographial novel A Vicarage Family? Read it with a box of tissues close by, however. You too will be “Brimming”: I guarantee it.)

the arrival

I was recently given a copy of The Arrival by Shaun Tan. I’ve never come across Tan’s work before, but after reading this thoughtful, beautifully-illustrated book – which is poised somewhere between a graphic novel and a children’s picture book – I’m an instant fan.

The Arrival is a universal story of migration and displacement, told through a series of wordless images. A man leaves his wife and child behind in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country of unknown customs and behaviours, mysterious objects, peculiar animals and indecipherable languages. Luckily many of the strangers he meets in this new metropolis have shared his experience, and transcending barriers of language and difference, are keen to help him on his way.

Tan’s exquisitely detailed illustrations in sepia tones evoke old family photographs and histories, creating a powerful nostalgic quality: this could easily be a story from some forgotten lost time gone before. However this hopeful, wistful tale is also peculiarly contemporary on its take on the universality of migrant experience, and the importance of communities and belonging. As Tan himself suggests in this interesting commentary on how the book came to be written, ‘we might do well to think of ourselves as possible strangers in our own strange land.’

a somewhat polemical princess

I was surprised to discover this week, via the Guardian Books Blog, that Hodder plan to publish a sequel Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 children’s classic A Little Princess, this September.

A Little Princess is one of my all-time favourite children’s books, with a fabulous riches-to-rags-and-back-to-riches narrative arc. Sara Crewe, “the odd little girl with the big solemn eyes” is the wealthy but unspoilt heroine with a lively imagination, who travels from her home in India to London to attend Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies where her good manners and intelligence lead her to quickly become the “show pupil”. But when her beloved father’s sudden death leaves Sara unexpectedly penniless, the unpleasant Miss Minchin (surely one of the best ever children’s book baddies) forces her into drudgery, revealing a much nastier side of Victorian London life. However, with the help of a little courage and fortitude – not to mention a few loyal friends – just when things are at their very worst, magical things begin to happen. A Little Princess has a fantastic ending, and regardless of whether you’ve warmed to Sara, or found the whole thing a bit on the twee side, it is impossible to read it without melting into a happy, warm and sentimental Victorian mush.

The planned sequel will be entitled Wishing for Tomorrow (which I am afraid really is twee) and has been written by Hilary McKay, the author of a number of bestselling children’s books including Saffy’s Angel. The new story will not follow Sara herself, but some of the other characters we meet at Miss Minchin’s establishment, in particular Sara’s friend Ermengarde – the “monumental dunce of the school”, “a fat child who did not look as if she were in the least clever.”

Now I have to admit, A Little Princess is certainly a book that leaves the reader wanting more – but the prospect of Wishing Tomorrow fills me with dread. Partly that’s because of McKay’s decision to reject the style of the original, which she felt would not appeal to contemporary readers, to “make the children more childish” and to include “a few more jokes.” All of this seems to me to be based on a total misunderstanding of what makes the original book so charming and distinctive: after all, Sara is a brilliant heroine precisely because she isn’t childish or cutesy, but solemn, thoughtful and a little bit quirky – a young person to be reckoned with. And A Little Princess is far from being without humour, but it is a humour which is always subtle and rather arch – I can’t imagine why anyone would think chucking in a few “jokes” to liven things up would be a fitting tribute. Mostly, I think I just generally resent the notion that the book’s style needs “improving” for today’s audience – as if it isn’t bad enough that we’re already subjected to dire re-visionings of beloved childhood books in the form of Hollywood movies (see Northern Lights; The Secret of Moonacre; and also the grim new film of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, featuring Ian McShane – yes, that’s Lovejoy – as Merriman Lyon) we now find writers, who might be expected to know better, imaginatively “polishing up” our favourite childhood fictions into glossy, bland 21st century shadows of their former selves.

What is more, much as I love A Little Princess, I can’t help feeling that there’s something a little bit disappointing about the very notion that writing a sequel to a book published over 100 years ago is the best one of our leading children’s writers can come up with. I can absolutely see the appeal of the project, but wouldn’t it be better if we could see contemporary children’s writers creating fictional worlds as exciting, compelling and delightful as Burnett’s, but for our own times? Alternatively, rather than just continuing the story, wouldn’t it be more interesting to do something a little more challenging and different with A Little Princess as source material – perhaps as Eva Ibbotson does in the excellent Journey to the River Sea which is undoubtedly in part a tribute to Burnett.

However, ultimately the fundamental problem I have with Wishing for Tomorrow is simply this: I am really not a fan of sequels. On the whole, they are just a Bad Idea. As I am sure anyone who has read Emma Tennant’s Pemberley (or any of the other dire Pride & Prejudice sequels – though strangely, the new “zombie” version looks quite appealing) will attest, there are times when (unless you are Jean Rhys) it’s best to leave well alone. Admittedly, Susan Hill’s Mrs de Winter, which follows on from Rebecca was slightly less painful, but I’d much rather have just left the story where it was – with a question mark. More often than not, a little bit of mystery is so much more appealing than tidy resolution.

I’m aware all this is not particularly fair or objective: after all, the poor woman hasn’t even published her book yet, and I’ve already decided it isn’t worth reading. For all I know, it might be brilliant. But right now, I have to say that I definitely won’t be rushing down the shops to get my hands on McKay’s Little Princess continuation when it comes out in September. Instead I might just happily re-read my old Puffin copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s original, complete with evocative and nostalgic illustrations by Margery Gill:

Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father …

a kind of intimacy (or how jenn ashworth tried to make me late for work. twice.)

On Tuesday, I went over to the Deaf Institute for March’s No Point reading night, which was also the launch for Jenn Ashworth’s novel, A Kind of Intimacy. I was flagging slightly after a long and weary day, and had to go home to my bed before the end, but I did get to hear Jenn’s excellent reading, and even more importantly, to buy a copy of the book which Jenn signed with her special fountain pen in her special rose-scented book-signing ink.

I started reading A Kind of Intimacy on the bus home, and continued reading it on Wednesday morning when I woke up. An hour later, I realised it was half past eight, I was still in bed, and I was now in serious danger of being very late to work. I went to the theatre on Wednesday (Macbeth at The Royal Exchange, well worth going to see if you get the chance) but when I got home, I found myself reading again. And Thursday morning was pretty much an exact repeat of Wednesday, except this time I did manage to avoid the temptation to read in bed, but ended up picking up the book half way through putting my make-up on, and thus was late leaving the house for the second day in a row – also with slightly weird mascara.

Now, I’ll admit I am very easily distracted when it comes to books – but even for me, that’s impressive stuff. The thing is that A Kind of Intimacy is just very, very difficult to put down. Stevie Davies, writing in today’s Guardian, describes it as “compulsively readable” and I would certainly concur with that.

A Kind of Intimacy is the story of overweight Annie – lonely but determinedly optimistic – who moves to a new home, seeking to leave her troubled past behind her and build a new life for herself. In an attempt to ingratiate herself with the local community, she arms herself with a selection of hilariously-titled self-help manuals and romance novels borrowed from the local library in order to gain new social “skills” that she diligently misapplies to every social situation she finds herself in – from a truly horrific house warming party to cringe-inducing dinners with the neighbours. At first it’s difficult not to feel pity for Annie’s clumsy and ill-fated attempts to build relationships with those around her, but increasingly it becomes clear that in gaining our sympathy, Annie has been duping us just as adeptly as she dupes and deludes herself. Far from the wholesome, decorous image she seeks to project, she reveals herself to be scheming, malicious and disturbed: instead of befriending her neighbours she spies on them, works up a series of imagined grudges and then enacts a series of bizarre and increasingly grisly acts of revenge.

As events unfold, it soon becomes clear that Annie is an out and out monster with gruesome secrets to hide; yet she remains far from a cartoon stereotype. Her chatty, mundane, cliche-ridden narrative voice is weirdly compelling: every now and then, you almost can’t help sniggering along with one of her malicious observations, thinking that perhaps yes, next-door neighbour Lucy really is a little bit smug and annoying. Of course, as Annie’s behaviour spirals out of control, she becomes far from sympathetic, but she is a tragic as well as a monstrous and grotesque figure, both in her fantasy of achieving “a certain kind of intimacy” with kindly neighbour Neil, and through the history which is gradually revealed to us – a murky past characterised by violence, secrets, self-delusions and bizarrely comic sexual mishaps, from which ultimately, she cannot escape.

As the narrative moves resolutely towards its gruesome climax, the comedy becomes blacker, yet somehow Ashworth’s writing always feels surprisingly light and sprightly. Jenny Diski has described the book as “an intense and intriguing novel that never quite lets the reader get comfortable” and on the whole I’d agree with that, but what really strikes me is the bouncy good humour of this book. With its hints to violence, sexual abuse and infanticide, the novel could risk being just too dark and too disturbed, but in fact, reading it is an enormously enjoyable experience – both in its outrageous comedy moments, and as a result of the very evident pleasure that Ashworth takes in unravelling her monstrous creation in all her surreal glory before our eyes.

Altogether, A Kind of Intimacy is a beguiling debut, skilfully mixing up the recognisably ordinary, mundane aspects of suburban life with the dark, abnormal and downright bizarre. What is more, unlike so many first novelists, Ashworth manages to avoid pretension, self-conscious literary language or purple prose: I love her carefully-poised descriptions and observations. Max Dunbar provides a perfect summing up of the novel, describing it as “tightly plotted, exquisitely paced, every word on trial for its life… a story of provincial unhappiness, bad company in small rooms, the awful consequences of not being loved.”

I can’t wait to read whatever Jenn has got up her sleeve next. Only this time, I think I’d really better save reading it for the weekend.

(Just in case you’re interested, in spite of Jenn’s best efforts, by some minor miracle, I wasn‘t actually late to work on either Wednesday or Thursday, but managed to squeak in the door with about a minute to spare. A point to ponder: perhaps the Magic Bus truly does have magical powers after all?)