Wednesday, 25 July 2012


What do we think about controlling what our children read?

I know that many people would be grateful if their children just picked up a book. My brood contains both voracious readers and those for whom it's a pleasant enough activity but far from a passion. At least they all read to some degree. But what do they pick?

I was at a tutorial earlier in the year and we were discussing which literary works should make it into the canon of English Literature. My tutor gave the example of Enid Blyton.  She had never read any as a child and dismissed the books in damning terms. I challenged this attitude. Having never read any how could she be in a position to have a view as to their merits? Also, if you judged which books made it into the canon based on the pleasure that they had given millions of children over nearly a hundred years then surely Enid Blyton should be there.

It turned out that my tutor had never read any Blyton not because she had made that decision for herself but because her father had banned it and refused to have it in the house. This made me cross. I spent hours lost in Enid Blyton's imagination without judging the quality of the writing. I suspect I have emerged unscathed.

The idea of controlling a child's reading material has arisen again recently as my 15 year old daughter asked to borrow my copy of "Fifty Shades of Grey." Now my principles were really on the line. In my view the book is not the ideal bedtime reading for a teenager. Whilst I, as a mature and experienced woman, can pick and choose the messages that I wish to take from it, I can hardly expect my child to be as discerning.

"You can read it," I said, "But you must remember that men like that are to be avoided and that you should never allow a man to do anything to you that makes you feel uncomfortable."

Even to me I sounded ludicrous. She stared at me for a moment and then said, "I have no idea what you're talking about. So can I borrow it or not?"!

She read for a morning. Then she forgot about it and moved on to something else before she got anywhere near the Red Room of Pain. Thank goodness I didn't ban it I thought.

The only time I have not allowed a book was when my eldest was about 9 and wanted to read Jacqueline Wilson. I thought then that I should protect her from the stark world that Wilson paints in her novels, being, as it is, so far from the one she was growing up in. With hindsight, I suspect that decision was flawed and I'm not sure I would make the same one again. I have certainly allowed the others to read Wilson's work.

In fact, I have found that my children are self regulating. In much the same way as 'Fifty Shades" lies unfinished, they have also abandoned books that they consider too sad, too scary or which make them feel uncomfortable in some other way. Reading for leisure should be a pleasurable experience and my children have very clear ideas about what kind of story fits the bill. Perhaps they will come back to the ditched ones when they are more emotionally equipped to deal with them?

My opinion seems to have developed into allowing my children to read anything and everything that they choose (although I did hide the Louise Rennisons for a while when nothing else was being opened). After all, surely the more they learn from what they read the better they will be able to deal with life's twists and turns? That said, I am currently reading A Beginner's Guide to Satanism (it's research) under the covers with a torch!

Thursday, 19 July 2012


It's months since I first heard about "Fifty Shades of Grey", the recent publishing phenomenon. As you might expect, anyone who gets a result with self-publication tends to catch my attention. So it was the story of the book's success rather than the story itself that I was interested in. Of course it would be hard to ignore the subject matter entirely. Whilst books about sex aimed at women are nothing new, it's been a while since they have been in the public eye and the soaring sales of hard-wear and sex toys have been headline news.

So the publicity grew and the book went from something you might download surreptitiously onto your kindle to being stockpiled in WHSmith's for Ilkley's gentile ladies to snap up with their newspaper. Lots of people told me that it was rubbish and that they would never read it without ever having opened its cover. That alone was enough to spur me into action and so I acquired a copy and began.

The first five pages are awful. There's no getting away from it. I read them and my heart sank as I thought of the injustice of such massive success with such meagre material. But then we meet Mr Grey and suddenly something changed. Despite the quite dreadful cliches and his preposterous good looks, my interest was piqued. I have looked back over the text to see what it was that made me sit up and take notice but I can't identify it. I was just curious to know about him and her and what would become of them.

And so it went on for 500 pages. Notwithstanding the limitations of the language, the lack of any kind of plot and the narrator's irritating vocal habits I read on. I wanted to read on. I enjoyed it.

So me being me, I decided to work out what I and perhaps the millions of others that have read and enjoyed the book took from it. I could then set that against the objections that I've heard about it to see which rang the most true for me.

The most common attitude that I've come across is the book being dismissed as rubbish. I can't accept that. It is impossible to achieve those incredible sales figures with a product that stinks. I can immediately disregard all those who say that they won't read it for whatever reason. That is up to them of course but what can they possibly add to the debate? Those who read it and dismissed it seem to fall into three camps - those that genuinely were not interested in the story, those that objected to the story and those who may be indulging in a soup├žon of intellectual snobbery. The former is fine. The latter is a sad reflection of our society but isn't something I can do anything about. The middle group deserve more consideration.

From what I gather, the main concern seems to be the idea of a young, idealistic and innocent girl being abused by a dominant and manipulative sadist. That concept, I can see, contains plenty to object to. However, that is not how I read the story. Rather than an abusive man preying on a young innocent, I saw an intelligent and sassy young woman in control (in the main) of her own destiny. Call me a traitor to my sex (and you wouldn't be the first) but as far I could see this was a two way street.

It's the sex that seems to have caused the biggest stir and puts people off. I may be a prude but I don't remember reading anything as explicit before. But it's like everything - once the initial surprise has worn off it's just sex and it quickly stopped being significant.

What appealed to me and I suspect is behind the success of books two and three is plain old romance. I would love to be swept off my feet by a handsome stranger who makes me feel like I am the most important thing in the world in a way that no one else has ever come close to doing. If I can't live like that myself, and let's face it who can, then I'm happy to read about it or watch it. It's a straight forward feel good factor. Of course, I don't really want a jealous lover who wants to control my every move and refuses to share me but it might be nice to think that I could provoke that kind of reaction in someone.  The world is full of women reading love stories and indulging in day dreams and if you've never done it then you probably hated this book. If you want to tie yourself up in knots objecting to the concepts then that's up to you but I'm a simple soul and frankly I have bigger things to fret about.

So. As a piece of literature? It's not going to win the Man Booker. As a piece of entertainment? It worked a treat. I was entertained. There is a place in this world for all manner of things. Not everything will suit everyone but then isn't that part of the joy of being alive?

Monday, 16 July 2012


Show minus six months - the Upstagers' panto, a nine show run involving all six of us, finishes and the Clarks are buzzing. The next one is for seniors only so I heave a small sigh of relief. We have six months off. (As it turned out, one of mine ended up in it but such is life with the Upstagers.) Next it's Les Miserables. Potential parts for everyone? I buy the DVD.

Show minus five months - all change! Upstagers have been offered the opportunity to stage one of the very first productions of the schools' edition of Miss Saigon. Huge excitement. I know nothing about the show except that it's a bit like Madame Butterfly. The audition date goes in the diary and various other things have to come out.

Show minus four months - auditions. The buzz starts early. BBM messages flash around my kitchen table. "There's no dancing! It's all singing!" What to do? We have exams. We are busy. It will be the fifth show of the year. I listen to their deliberations and a part of me thinks - phew! They decide not to audition, worried by the unfamiliar territory. I nearly scratch show week from my diary but something makes me leave it in.

Show minus three months - after a couple of conversations we're back in. No there's not much dancing but there are a few big ensemble pieces which will be fun. I gird my loins. Rehearsals begin and my weekends disappear. I cancel plans, decline invitations and try to manage busy diaries, apologising to those existing commitments that get let down. We juggle GCSEs, my uni exam, music exams, ballet exams, gym competitions and school. Life is hectic.

Show minus one month. A trip to Primark to source bits of costume. We buy tickets - the matinee as the evening show is a bit late for the Little Ones. (Little did I know...)  Rehearsals heat up. Diary clashes become worse and worse. Commitments were made after they had decided not to audition. I try to keep my cool. I wonder why on earth I get caught up in all these shows.

Show minus two weeks. A family meal in Pizza Express  A phone call. "How tall is your little boy? Can you bring him to rehearsals at 7 on Tuesday?" He goes to bed at 7. "Yes."

Show minus one week. A rare trip to the doctor's with my daughter. "It's vertigo. Try not to move your head too quickly." Perfect. 

Show minus three days. My husband leaves the house early to build the set and returns much later raving about the number of lights and the sound effects. I'm starting to feel excited.

Show minus two days - I wander around Sainsbury's looking for wholesome yet fast food that can be produced at the drop of a hat. I buy plasters to stop tap shoes tapping. I make sure that our supplies of grips and hairspray are topped up. My children look tired already.

Show minus one day - I catch the last ten minutes of the performance as I wait to pick them up. I weep.

Showtime - I chaperone. No child may be left unaccompanied. I scamper around backstage trying to keep track of my charges. I make lots of shushing noises and tell teenagers to pipe down whilst directing all complaints at my own children because it's easier than shouting at someone else's. Opening night is a huge success. Everything runs like clockwork. The audience cheer. Ticket sales soar.

The run continues. I dress in black - so not my colour - I wait for cues, I follow children, I hang up clothes, I sort out disputes, I take children to the loo but most of all I enjoy the buzz. The show is going well. The theatre is packed and everyone is working hard together. The atmosphere is intoxicating.

And that's why we do it. I moan and I complain and I chunter about my lost weekends and my tired children but then when the run starts it is all forgotten. Every time they are involved in a show they grow a little in confidence. The learn how to work with others and what it is to be part of a team. They see the seniors and they are inspired to try harder. They are so proud of their involvement in the production and so am I  but I'm not just proud of my own children. Somehow I am proud of every one of those young people who give their hearts and souls to every single moment of the performance. I am always an emotional wreck by the end. The songs go around my head in a never-ending cycle and I burst into tears when I remember particular moments. The children look on, bemused.

But most of all I am so very grateful that we get the chance to be a part of something so special and I know that the precious memories of these happy days will never leave us.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012


My course is over for the summer and so, instead of spending my time reading other people's books, it's time to turn my attention to my own. I began book two in flurry of enthusiasm about this time last year and rattled off the first thirty thousand words or so pretty much without drawing breath. Then along came the holidays and the children and the course and work and suddenly my time was diminished and my muse took a cheeky sabbatical.

But my dream remains very much intact and so I decided to lock myself away in my metaphorical garret (the playroom) and continue. When I reread what I'd written I wasn't too disheartened. I was still interested in my story which was a good start and found the things that I had hidden in the plot to be rediscovered later. However, it quickly became apparent why I had put it to one side last September. I was stuck!

From my huge novel writing experience, I have learned that it is not enough to have a story that you wish to tell. In some ways that is the easy bit. I dream up an idea and some characters and it all seems hunky dory. But then comes the realisation that you can't just take them from A to B. That does not a novel make. You need the twisty turn bits, the parts that the reader is intrigued by and which stop him or her from guessing the outcome unsatisfactorily early. You need sub plots.

So then I struck upon a fabulous idea. I was about to go to France for a long weekend with a friend whose opinion I trusted so I sent her the draft. She read it as we reclined in the Mediterranean sunshine. From behind my kindle I searched her face for clues as she turned the pages. Was it ok so far? Was she engaged or just going through the motions to please her deluded mate? After what seemed like an age she sat back and closed her iPad. "So?" she said with a smile. "What happens next?"

And thus began a highly entertaining couple of days. We picked at my characters, testing their motivation  and the strength of their relationships. We challenged my themes, hunting for the inconsistent and the glib. And then we played 'what if?' coming up with numerous plot turns with varying degrees of ludicrousness. I baulked at ideas that might involve major plot shifts - we can save that for the rewrites - and some ideas didn't match with things that are in my head but not yet on paper. But by the time we'd finished I had some decent kernels to work with to get me to my denouement. And, more to the point, we had a laugh.

I have promised her that when my novel published, I will put her and our trip in my Acknowledgments so the world can know of our time in France. I also warned her that we may have to have a repeat trip should my muse desert me again!  In reality this book will no doubt end up in a virtual drawer like its predecessor but I'll never succeed if I don't keep trying and I'm nothing if not determined!