Thursday, 30 July 2015

Youthful Influences

This could be one of those gushing thank-you speeches accompanied by floods of tears… nah. Influences are rarely deliberate and not always for the best.

But it does no harm to look back and think a bit about the road you have travelled and where it started, what equipment you were given to help you along the way. Not only is it a thank you to those who bestowed the gifts, but it helps you to consider all the roads you might have travelled and all the ones that are still to be explored.

I grew up in a house with books. Not a huge number as we weren’t that well off. But books nonetheless. Reading was encouraged and with siblings seven years my senior I learned at an early age. I borrowed from the school library, I borrowed from the public library, and I read what was in the house – mostly my mother’s Companion Book Club volumes. By the time I was eleven I had an adult library ticket although I was only allowed to borrow non-fiction. Little did they know I was reading Simenon, Fleming, Greene, MacInnes, and others at home. Mix in with that all the normal fiction and non-fiction a boy would be reading along with his weekly Beano, TV21, and Look and Learn and you get a potent brew.

In those days I was fairly solitary with very few close friends. One of these, Gary Smith, introduced me to the books of Arthur Ransome, so he deserves a big thank you as I still read these with great pleasure. The few friends I did have all went to different secondary schools to me. In terms of education, that was two years of utter misery. And away from school it was balanced by the fun of becoming a young flâneur and of haunting museums and old buildings in the city where I lived. Although my walking days are done, museums are still places I enjoy, inspirational havens that are extraordinarily rich in stimuli.

Already there were threads here that wouldn’t become apparent to me until much later in life. Irrespective of my awareness of what was happening, this was preparing the seed bed. I was writing already. Making up stories, doing research for projects, and writing them up were all fun. It seemed as natural a thing to do as playing with my huge boxes full of Tallon Tek (a plastic, snap-together construction set based on Meccano). But it was playing at that stage and nothing more.

It was when we moved to Sussex that the light went on and the seeds began to germinate. I was moved from a school that wished it was Eton and where bullying was rife to a school that was much more relaxed yet had far fewer problems. And I made friends. And there were girls.

The boy given the task of making sure I didn’t get lost until I could find my own way round became well known in later life as Wreckless Eric. My other friends included Tom Morley, Pete Thomas, and other luminaries of the rock world. Surrounded by so much musical talent, I can only put my adherence to a literary path down to the fact I have stubby fingers and two left ears.

The important thing is that I was surrounded by people who were interested in the arts – dance, music, theatre, film, painting, sculpture, and writing. And this was the ‘60s. My immediate circle of friends was embedded in a culture of freedom and exploration, of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. And books.

At school I had a succession of very good English teachers from Bill Euston who introduced me to T H White’s The Once and Future King, a book important to me on so many levels, through to Colin Silk who taught me at A Level and instilled not just a love of a broad range of literary fiction, but the skills to read it in both an analytical and synthetical way. Reading to understand the meaning that could be mined, reading to understand the techniques employed by the writer, reading for pleasure.

With money coming in from weekend work, I could buy records and I could buy books. I could get to London for the theatre. I could go to festivals and concerts. And yes, you really could do all that on what a teenager earned from stacking shelves in a supermarket, sweeping factory floors, working in a market garden. The endless summers of youth seemed like a long party. I could read for days on end, explore the countryside, leave a flower on the river bank where Virginia Woolf stepped into oblivion, or sit under the stars with friends and dream of what we thought would be a better world.

We made our own festivals at school, put on plays, trooped along to Phun City, went up to the Roundhouse and Hyde Park, were in and out of the Dome, tried to sink the Isle of Wight, spaced out to Hawkwind, cheered on the Deviants, and chanted along with Edgar Broughton. Yes. I was a hippy. An anarchist. A protestor. A demolisher. A creator.

When not out of my head on music, I read and read and read, buying books from the Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton and mixing there with all sorts of wonderful people. This is, perhaps, when I began to find my voice. I read New Worlds, Bananas, OZ, IT, and other underground magazines (I still have most of my copies of Nasty Tales). And I swallowed books whole – one a day, sometimes. On top of all that activity I still had the energy to pull all-nighters to finish a book. It didn’t exactly enhance my performance at school, but I seem to have done well enough to go on to become a teacher.

Those magazines opened up a world of writing that I hadn’t yet imagined existed and picked up some of those threads from earlier in my life. Michael Moorcock’s work became a firm favourite and I later discovered that he had written for Look and Learn as a Fleetway staff writer. And of course, if you read New Worlds your mind was being expanded by all sorts of wonderful writers – Ballard, Aldiss, Sladek, Zoline, Harrison, Spinrad, le Guin, Russ, and so on. All of these are writers who are invariably pushed into the science fiction ghetto in an attempt to neutralise them, yet they were writing the most powerful literature of its time, using sf to enable them to explore issues that were not getting an airing elsewhere as well as exploring different methods to get their message across. I was also reading those writers when they discussed their influences and explored those as well, stepping from world to world of an ever increasing literary multiverse.

And of course, I wrote and wrote and wrote.

And wrote.

And then I wrote a lot more.

[A condensed version of this will turn up elsewhere.]

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