Why Childish Pleasures Are Best Left Alone

frank cottrell boyce Going to lectures by childrens’ authors is not something I normally do, but I have a good friend with an eagle eye for these events, who is writing children’s fiction herself, and then the speaker was Frank Cottrell Boyce (henceforth FCB) whose books Millions and Framed were favourites of my son. The lecture is an annual event held in memory of Phillipa Pearce, who wrote Tom’s Midnight Garden. At the book buying/signing shindig afterwards, I felt pretty sure I had never read that book and so – naturally in the interests of supporting the event – bought a copy. Though Mr Litlove wasn’t impressed: ‘It’s got ‘worthy’ written all over it,’ he said.

The lecture was, by contrast, all about the intense pleasure of reading and FCB made some rather good points. As well as being a prolific screenwriter and children’s book author, he is also involved in an organisation (and dammit I missed the name and can’t track it down in my internet searches) that promotes reading aloud to people in dire situations – children with extreme special needs, prisons, drug rehab centres, that sort of thing. FCB believes that being read to is a magical situation, that listening to a story, you are both highly alert and yet entirely without anxiety. If you know nothing is being asked of you other than your attention, you fall into a state of keen and agile acceptance that can have powerful consequences. Several of the anecdotes he told us concerned reports back from readers who witnessed attention deficit kids sitting still for fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes when engrossed in a story, and of prisoners experiencing an entirely different way of thinking.

tom's midnight gardenHe was also talking about another power of storytelling – that of unpredictability. He read us several excerpts from novels by Phillipa Pearce using them to demonstrate how intriguing unpredictability could be, how audacious on the part of the author, to whisk the reader off in a direction s/he never saw coming. This idea of unpredictability fed into another line he braided into the talk – that of memory. He recalled in particular the moment on Christmas day many years ago when his grandmother woke up in the middle of the Morecombe and Wise special and started telling him about his grandfather, a man who had died before FCB was born. This was, he said, quite unprecedented. His grandmother didn’t like television, she didn’t like radio and she didn’t like conversation. He had spent far too much time with her as a child in a room full of clocks whose every tick marked the plucking of a hair of time, in what he termed a depilation of death.

His grandfather had been born with a caul over his head, which was supposed to indicate good luck, and indeed, he’d been an extraordinarily lucky man. He’d spent his life as a merchant seaman and had survived the battle of Jutland and the Second World War. The one night he’d got drunk and missed his boat, it had hit an offshore mine and gone down with all 700 hands lost. And then, it seemed that his luck ran out on the day that he died. He’d been a stoker, feeding the furnaces, and in the late 50s, when his boat was in Cardigan Bay, it happened to hit a mine leftover from the war. The mine exploded against the boiler room and his grandfather was the only man to lose his life. He shouldn’t even have been there but he was covering the shift for a friend.

millionsWhat on earth provoked this memory from his grandmother, he wondered? It was a story of unpredictability that seemed itself to have sprung from nowhere. We were all entranced as he told it, feeling for ourselves that suspension of the world that happens when we listen closely. And this was what his talk was like – a series of dramatic scenes that were vivid and fascinating but there seemed to be no coherent argument, just a hopscotch between the ideas of listening to a story, memory and unpredictability.

But then he drew them all together in an intriguing image. He told us about the formation of coal, how algae soaked up billions of summers on an empty planet, sinking down into the earth until the heat of the sunshine was compressed and compacted into rock solid matter. And then a hole was opened up and the coal extracted, where it burnt with the energy retained from those billions of unseen sunny days. And he said that stories worked this way in the mind. That they took their energy and brilliance down into the mind and lay there for a long time, decades, perhaps, until suddenly, a shaft opened up and that story came back, its splintered images emerging unpredictably but just when you needed them.

FCB said he worried that the way stories are taught in schools, particularly with young children, destroyed their power. He said he often went to read in schools and he’d be introduced by the teacher and the kids would be really happy at the prospect of listening to a story. ‘And we’re going to listen out for when Mr FCB uses his ‘wow’ words,’ the teacher would go on to say, ‘and afterwards you’re going to write them down and make some sentences from them…’ At which point, FCB argued, the power of the storytelling was lost. If you turn listening to a story into a transaction, you rob it of its value. All the energy of the story is dissipated. Not least because the pleasure was spoiled, and pleasure he argued, is a profound form of attention, one with alchemical properties.

I thought that was extremely interesting. The talk also reminded me how much I missed reading to a child. I loved bedtime reading. It felt like a rare time in the day when my son and I were both doing exactly what we wanted to be doing. During questions, FCB was asked about his favourite books as a child and he said he couldn’t distinguish now between the ones he liked and the ones he’d enjoyed reading to his own kids. But he did single out the Moomins, particularly Moominland Midwinter, when Moomintroll wakes up while all his family are hibernating. It was, he said, like someone had asked Kierkegaard round on a play date. A line I have savoured ever since. If Tom’s Midnight Garden turns out to be too worthy, I might remind myself what the Moomins were all about instead.

moominland midwinter 2

18 thoughts on “Why Childish Pleasures Are Best Left Alone

  1. Oh, I love the melancholy of the Moomins, especially the Midwinter book! And I too miss bedtime reading – I keep begging my children to do it, but they prefer to read alone now (plus, each one likes different books).

  2. I loved TMG – I read it as an adult in my early blog days when I was going for a job as a children’s librarian at my daughter’s school. It was lovely. ‘Wow’ words indeed! Sad that children can’t just enjoy a good story well told.

  3. Such food for thought here. Tom’s Midnight Garden was a truly magical read for me when young and I wouldn’t/couldn’t want to spoil that memory, that great experience because it has stayed with me. It was probably the first time slip novel I’d ever read and I found that a wonder, one I could easily suspend disbelief for. Not like a fairy story though and not ‘worthy’ at all. As it was first published in 1958 I couldn’t have been small when I read it, the paperback Puffin was out soon after, by 1959? Around that time I bought each new Puffin as it arrived with my saved sixpences. I’m sure I owned it (and Minnow on the Say) rather than borrowing it from the library so I’d have been a teenager of 13 or 14, a very innocent one indeed! But it suited my dreamyness, the skating of of the young couple for instance. Earlier on my reading was the Edwardian books of my father’s time, British classics such as Dickens’ Great Expectations, lots of Kipling, RL Stevenson, Baroness Orczy, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Jack London and the Americans: Tom Sawyer, What Katy Did, the Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca of Sunnybrook and the Pollyanna books – all hard backs perhaps already on our shelves but mostly from the library. The choices for children weren’t wide: the Chalet school tales were all over the place as was Enid Blyton, both I found thin and unsatisfying but with Puffins arrived more HC Andersen, CS Lewis, Ransome, William Mayne, Mary Norton, BB, CS Lewis, Astrid Lindgren and Charlotte’s Webb author ???? All affordable. I think I found more when I was training to be a teacher.

  4. Don’t get me on my soapbox about reading in schools these days. I would get sacked on my first day if I was a primary teacher now, simply because I would insist on both silent reading time and twenty minutes of a serialised book every day. And Tricia is correct, the organisation you’re looking for is ‘The Reader Organisation’ run out of Liverpool.

  5. Yes, as well, to ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ although to this day I prefer ‘The Minnow on the Say’. I’m so glad you enjoyed the talk by FCB, I hope you’re attending it means you’re feeling better.

  6. As a child I loved to read but have no real recollections of having been read to–somehow I managed to slip through the cracks and love books anyway–though maybe I was read to but have just forgotten about it? I have a very spotty past reading history, too, of children’s ‘classics’. I don’t think I read any of the books you mention here, though I am very curious about the Moomins books. My niece, who is 15 now reads aloud (most of the time)when she reads. She was taught that way and I am not entirely sure why, but maybe this has something to do with it? I thought maybe it is because she learned Spanish before English but is now bilingual. When she learned to read in English she was already speaking Spanish (though also understood English–maybe from being around me and TV…). Anyway, sounds like a very intriguing event!

  7. I love reading aloud to someone. It’s the only equivalent that exists in this world for watching someone you love watch a movie you love. It’s just SO SATISFYING. I have circumvented the whole problem by reading to my little sister from early childhood; now we are both adults, and I still read to her. It’s so fun to have her laugh at the laugh lines and wail at the suspenseful bits — can’t wait for her and my brother-in-law to have kids so I can do the same for my nieces and nephews.

  8. Tom’s Midnight Garden was one of the CBG books and you can read a number of comments (including mine) here if you wish:

    http://www.cornflowerbooks.co.uk/2014/01/cornflower-book-group-toms-midnight-garden.html

    As for the Moomins, do not assume that they are children’s books (or that they are “just” aimed at children). Some explore much bleaker themes than others; however they are fantastic (in both senses) and I am envious that you have them still to enjoy. I used to read them at night as a young adult to a lovely young woman in Switzerland – but that’s another story🙂

  9. Glad you enjoyed the lecture and I completely agree about the enjoyment of the story being primary. My daughter LOVES being read to and while I often enjoy it, I have to admit that equally often my reading to her feels like a chore. Very glad to have to two additions to the TBR list (TMG and the Moomins).🙂

  10. TMG is the first book I remember becoming completely enthralled by. It was read to us as a class, when I must have been about 8 years old, by our teacher. I was entranced. I have returned to it since and was not disappointed – what a treat you have to come! I too love the Moomin quote, a very good thing to be reminded of.

  11. There’s a lot of fetishisation of words and technique in school education and comparatively little thought given to the whole work. Especially in creative writing. I had to teach my daughter how to write a story, the help they got in class was next to useless.

    It reminds me of some lesser quality story mags out there, which are basically full of descriptions of some dull people doing some dull things, surrounded by lots of adjectives.

  12. This is so interesting to me for several reasons: I have been reading more children’s literature than anything for a couple of months, including the Moomintrolls for the first time, and I love to read aloud. I used to be able to read to my children more than a lot of parents, because we homeschooled. At this stage in life, my husband and I like to read aloud to each other, but I feel that in my future there lies an opportunity to read to other people, too. I will look into these programs you mention. Thank you!

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