During the last few days, enough books have arrived to fill the next issue! I have to apologise to my publisher friends, especially Matador, Coronet, Casemate etc., because I have to have a cut-off point so that I can prepare the pages and get the magazine ready to publish on the first of the month. There are important books waiting for inclusion but they arrived just too late, I'm afraid, and will be held over for the March issue. In particular, there are some stunning crime fiction books, lots more superb titles from Pen and Sword, Abrams and Chronicle, and loads more publishers who kindly keep Books Monthly going! Rest assured, nothing you've sent will be omitted... The March issue already promises to be the biggest and best ever! See you soon!
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How books changed my life... continued: nostalgia...
A couple of weeks ago I was watching Stephen McGann's docuentary about Call The Midwife, the new series of which has now started on BBC1. He made the point that he didn't consider the programme's appeal to be mainly about nostalgia, because people shouldn't be nostalgic about some of the terrible things that went on in the 1950s and early 1960s slums. Personally, I love anything on TV that is set in that period - Call The Midwife has just reached the early 1960s, of course, and Endeavour, my real, number one favourite, is now set in the late 1960s. I don't recall marking the beginning of a new decade in either case, the 1950s or the 1960s. In 1950 I was four years old, but not until September, and probably my main focus was on playing with model trains and cars, and looking forward to starting school in the Easter term of 1951. Years were pretty meaningless at that time for me. Sweet rationing ended in 1953, when I was seven years old, but the fact passed me by. I don't recall anyone cheering and telling me I could now go into Mr Ellis's shop and buy sweets that hadn't been available until then. Of course, rationing didn't mean sweets weren't available, it simply meant there was a limit to how many you could buy. The 1950s saw me start school at Shurdington Primary School, which we travelled to in a double decker bus, climbing the main road at a terrifying speed, with me clinging desperately to my older sister Jean. It was a one-teacher (and an assistant) teaches everyone, probably in the region of thirty pupils with an age range of four and half (me) to eleven. After six months at Shurdington, our brand new village school, Brockworth New County Primary School opened, and many of us transferred to it. Jean was now ten years old and one of the oldest pupils. It would not be long before she would transfer to Churchdown Secondary Modern School, where she learnt basic secretarial skills (shorthand and typing) and went straight into the world of work as a top-flight secretary, whilst her best friend, Pauline, joined the nursing profession.
The teachers at Brockworth Primary, Miss Paige, Mr Rossiter et al, were brilliant. Every afternoon ended with a half-hour in which one of these inspirational and inspiring teachers would read stories to us: Milly Molly Mandy, Kipling's The Jungle Book, etc., etc. During the day we learnt to read, write and do adding, subtracting, dividing, working on projects such as writing a non-fiction book - I chose to write about ocean going passenger liners and wrote off to Cunard, P&O and the like for brochures and information. There were indoor and outdoor PE lessons, and country dancing and music. Playtimes involved ball games, skipping, and teachers frightening the lives out of us by involving us in "What's The Time, Mr Wolf!" and other similar games. Dinner was OK-ish, but I did lead a protest about the lumpy custard and was severely castigated by the headmaster, Mr Gillow. I got my own back on him and his bully of a son, by becoming the only boy in my year to pass the 11+ (at the age of ten) and making the transition to the Crypt Grammar School in Tuffley in September 1957 (still aged ten). Robert Gillow failed the 11+ and went to a secondary modern school. On that first day in September 1957 I turned up at the Crypt wearing a school cap and short trousers, and swiftly realised that I was the only one wearing a cap, and the only one not wearing long trousers. Having just spent a lot of money on the uniform, which included white trousers and jumper for cricket, and a rugby shirt, My Mum was reluctant to believe I was the only boy in shorts, but on the first Saturday after starting at the Crypt, we went to the Bon Marché store in Kings Square Gloucester and I was duly kitted out with long trousers.
Life in 1950s rural Gloucestershire at the foot of the Cotswolds was as idyllic and wonderful for a lad just starting grammar school as you could possibly imagine! I was brought up reading school stories - they were everywhere, in every comic and annual I read, and I deliberately chose school stories for some of the books I bought for myself. I may have mentioned in earlier pieces the fact that Boots the Chemist had a lending library, and eventually, the books that were loaned, ended up being sold off. It was there, in the upstairs room at the front of Boots in Eastgate, Gloucester, that I started my collection of Billy Bunter novels. Second-hand, maybe, but it was a brilliant way to build up a collection. Sometimes only a brand new copy would do - for example, Young Renny, by Mazo de la Roche, was first published in 1935, long before I was born - well, eleven years before... but the Pan Giant version, which depicted Renny Whiteoak and a gorgeous black-haired gypsy woman, was published in the 1950s. Pan Giants were the epitome of great cover illustrations, no other publisher came near, and I had to have a brand new copy of the Pan Giant of Young Renny. But Billy Bunter had come to me by way of the enormous collection of weekly comics passed down to me by my Uncle Les, he with the seven children. Billy Bunter's exploits were recorded at that time in Knockout comic, as I recall, but I very soon learned that his adventures were part of a bigger school story legend, that of the Famous Five: Harry Wharton, Bob Cherry, Frank Nugent, Hurree Ramset Jam Singh and Johnny Bull. It was not Enid Blyton's Famous Five, but Frank Richards's, and it predated Enid Blyton by a few years, of course. So taken was I with the original Famous Five, that after a couple of terms at the Crypt Grammar School, I was a part of a small group of five, Paul Gough, Gaffer George, James Harding, Dave and me, and I tentatively suggested that we call ourselves the Famous Five. This was met with blank stares on two parts, and dismissal by the other two on the grounds that Enid Blyton was for young kids. The others hadn't read any Billy Bunter stories! It was soon forgotten, as many such things were in those heady days, but I derived from this a certain satisfaction that I was an expert in school stories, and it was their loss.
I retained my love of school stories right through my childhood and still have it. I particularly like girls' school stories, always have, and make no apology for it. The characters are brilliant, the stories are thrilling and entertaining, enough said. So, nostalgia, for me, is almost a religion. I don't wallow in the misfortunes of poverty-stricken East End of London, or the misery of 1950s Liverpool or Newcastle, though I would happily read about those awful times if something was presented to me, as it often is. For me, the 1950s were a decade of joy, of play, of music, of country dancing with Brenda Offer as my partner in my last year of primary school, of discovering the joys of school stories and the mysterious allure of boarding schools; of never having to worry about where my next meal was coming from, or if the gas or the electric ran out because we didn't have the necessary coins to feed the meter; (that may have happened, but I don't recall it). Of long walks in the countryside before the new houses went up behind ours; up Coopers Hill where the cheese-rolling took place; excursions into the city for the weekly shop in the new Coop supermarket, and a quick jaunt to Mr Lees's post office to see if he had a copy of The Wind Cannot Read or Above Us The Waves on the revolving rack inside the door, because the night before we had been to the local flea pit to see the film; of sitting through not one but two big films, plus a half hour of cartoons and adverts as well... of listening to the radio, of endless hours of reading, of doing just enough homework to get by and still finishing in the top three in the class every term... joyous days and nights with just the one cloud on the horizon... I don't know why the 1960s should have been the worst decade ever in terms of child sexual abuse, but it happened to me too. Moving on...
I didn't know about the horrors of the poverty of the working classes. We weren't middle class by any means - Dad worked for a living, and even though he had a decent job, we were by definition working class. It wasn't until later in life when politics started to impinge on my consciousness that I started to understand why my best friend James sometimes sat down to a plate of boiled potatoes and peas when I was having sausages, or a Sunday roast; why my Mum sometimes handed over a shopping bag containing my old school clothes, which I'd grown out of, because James's Mum had three younger children to feed and clothe, and they were "poor" - unlike us. We weren't rich, but we certainly weren's poor. We never had a television until 1963, when we moved to Stevenage New Town; but we had a car - a 1936 four-seater Morris Tourer (the term "Tourer" meant a kind of vinyl roof, if such a thing existed in the early 1960s - a roof that didn't keep out the horizontal rain and snow). And a spare battery strapped to the running board because the dynamo didn't charge properly. So, Nostalgia remains my favourite historical subject - Endeavour and Call The Midwife are my absolute favourite programmes, and if I had to choose one, it would be Endeavour, which is in every way perfect. There are references to things I remember and cherish in both series, and although the latter depicts a world far from the one in which I grew up, it nevertheless informs and educates me, and confirms my belief that only one political party ever cared about the worse off in our society. I count myself a Christian - I was brought up to believe, and I believe that the better off in society should look after the not-so-well-off. There isn't a single Christian in the conservative party, otherwise we would not be looking at a child poverty rate of over 20%, would we? Nostalgia may sometimes examine painful and uncomfortable truths about those times, but their dramatisation entertains and educates us in a way that no textbook ever could.
The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its sixteenth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.