Reviews and Commentaries

Room To Read and Write

Gillian's Reading Memories

As a child growing up in the 1950s my favourite colour was red – wasn’t everybody’s? - and my lucky number was 7. Seven, not because of Enid Blyton’s ‘Secret Seven’, although I devoured the books, nor because of  T.E. Lawrence’s ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom or Agatha Christie’s ‘Seven Dials Mystery’ or ‘The Seven Songs of Merlin’ – none of which I’d then heard of - nor because, as J.K.Rowling was later to affirm via her hero Harry Potter, that seven was said to be THE most powerful magical number – and interestingly there are 7 books in the Harry Potter series – but because 7 was the amazing age one had to be to join the public library!

What was he doing, the great God Pan?
An avid reader even then, I was fortunate to be brought up in a household in which my two cousins read stories to me and always bought me ‘classic’ children’s story books for birthdays and Christmas, including different collections of fairy tales. These so inspired me that I still collect to this day books of fairy tales and legends illustrated by such incredible artists as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and the Robinson Brothers. Books were also used in a practical way in our household as the afore-mentioned older cousins also made me walk up and down the kitchen balancing a heavy book on my head – to aid my deportment!

Entering the library at last, in June 1955, was to my sugar-rationed generation like being given carte blanche  to chose anything from the best sweet shop in the world and I can still remember the first 2 books I borrowed – ‘An A –Z of Animals’ and one of the books in the Tarzan series.

The gateway to a new world
Later, working as a librarian, I well remember the sudden proliferation of books for under 5s – and our delight at the advent of ‘the picture book’ which used illustration as a major component to complement the  text – in particular the trail-blazing pop-up book ‘The Haunted House’ by Jan Pienkowski.  Hence some of the books I have chosen today reflect both my interest in book illustration and the necessity of a story to transport the reader to another world - one in which anything is possible.

There are some wonderful illustrators of children’s books working in this field today – Anthony Browne, Babette Cole, Tony Ross, Quentin Blake to name but a few – but my favourites will always be the Ahlbergs, Janet the illustrator and her husband Allan, the wordsmith. Their 1978 classic, ‘Each, Peach, Pear, Plum’ which won the coveted Kate Greenaway Medal for children’s book illustration in that year, is a book which cleverly incorporates nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters in cumulative rhyme to encourage children to find the characters within the pictures –
Each, peach, pear, plum, I spy Tom Thumb.
Tom Thumb in the cupboard I spy Mother Hubbard.
Mother Hubbard in the cellar I spy Cinderella
and so on.

Equally delightful, full of charm and ingenuity, is the Ahlberg’s ‘Peepo’ which follows a baby through a typical day. A series of holes literally peeping through on to the next page lead children on to the next event in the baby’s day. Interestingly for its time, we see father, not mother, making the tea and preparing to give baby a bath. The most original and charming of all their books, however, must be the ‘Jolly Postman’ trilogy – the first of which, The Jolly Postman and Other People’s Letters, took 5 years to produce. Once again they use rhyme to incorporate fairy tale characters into the narrative, but this time they use the innovative device of envelopes which include not only letters but also cards, games and even a tiny book!
‘Later on the postman, feeling hot,
Came upon Grandma in a shady spot.
But Grandma what big teeth you’ve got!
Besides, this is a letter for …’
– I’ll leave you to guess who!

The entrance to the secret garden
Inspired by the books I read as a child, I spent quite a bit of time in my Aunt’s wardrobe trying to find the door to Narnia and tapping walls in old houses, looking for secret passages and hoping to find priests’ holes - books like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’ in which Mary Lennox, a sickly and spoilt orphan, is sent from India to live with an uncle she has never met - a hunchback recluse who spends most of his time abroad. His home, Misselthwaite Manor proves transformative and Mary, with the aid of good Yorkshire fresh air and the friendship of two plain-speaking characters, Martha the housemaid and Ben Weatherstaff the gardener, becomes a healthy and agreeable child.

With the aid of a friendly robin who unearths a rusty old key, the key to a hidden door, Mary discovers a secret garden and begins to garden with the help of Martha’s brother, Dickon, a young boy with the almost supernatural powers of being able to charm nature. The ultimate secret of Misselthwaite Manor is uncovered when Mary, hearing strange cries in the night, discovers her guardian’s son, Colin, who has been kept hidden in the manor house. Bed-ridden, he is convinced that he is an invalid, unlikely to live for long. Mary succeeds where no one else has dared to try in braving Colin’s tantrums and persuading him that he can lead a normal life. From then on the two share the secret garden and Colin’s strength recovers as the garden blooms and he is subsequently reunited with his amazed and delighted father.

Philippa Pearce’s ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ shares much with the previous book – young Tom is sent away from home and stays with a childless aunt and uncle who live in a flat which is part of what was once a fine country house. Bored and lonely and unable to sleep, Tom hears the grandfather clock in the hall strike 13. On investigating he discovers a door which leads into a splendid garden. In the morning the garden is not there. Tom, however, learns that each night he can return there and becomes involved in the lives of the people he meets – the Victorian family who once inhabited the house. Most of all he becomes companion and playmate to Hatty, a young orphan girl who is rejected by the family. Only she can see Tom and their friendship becomes very close. However, Tom realises that time does not stand still in the garden and that both his and Hatty’s lives must change accordingly.
The midnight garden

Moving on to the present day the trend, particularly for the older age range, is for stories which reflect today’s concerns and there are many accomplished authors writing issue-based novels, writers of the calibre of former Children’s Laureate, Jacqueline Wilson, with her heroine for today, Tracy Beaker; the lauded American writer Meg Rosoff with her award-winning novel ‘How I Live Now’ set during a third world war and the controversial writer of ‘Doing it’ and ‘Junk’, Melvin Burgess for example. But my own favourite writer for this teenage market is the Australian author, Sonya Hartnett.

Winner of numerous awards and described as ‘the finest Australian writer of her generation’, Sonya Hartnett wrote her first book at 13. ‘Thursday’s Child’ published in 2000 went on to win the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Set in the Great Depression it follows the young Harper Flute as she observes her family’s struggles to survive. Her silent little brother, Tin – the Thursday’s child of the title - has ‘far to go’ as he literally does just that and spends his time escaping the real world by building tunnels with disastrous consequences.

Her book ‘Ghost’s Child’ is completely different and tells of the encounter between 75 year old Mathilda who lives alone and a solemn-faced boy she finds in her sitting room. Who the visitor is and why he has arrived only become apparent towards the end of the tale as Mathilda tells him her life story – a life in which she eventually finds a purpose and an occupation and finally understands ‘Bit by bit some of your sorrow changes to joy. And that’s how you go on living’.

This is a perceptive novel which poses huge questions about the meaning of life and the finality of death yet, ironically it is a novel of hope and one which reduced me to tears when I read it – on holiday with friend Wendy whilst she was researching her novel ‘The Woman Who Drew Buildings’.

Oh, to be nearly 7 again with a treasure chest of reading delight still to be unlocked! But it’s not possible – for, as Hatty says in Tom’s Midnight Garden,

“Nothing stands still, except in our memory”.   

 (c) G. Wales

  Wendy's Unique Writer’s Notes:

 Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies

Bookies William Hill have declared novelist Hilary Mantel, winner of the Costa Novel Award with Bring Up the Bodies, (her sequel to Wolf Hall) , as odds-on favourite at 5-4..Having won the Costa prize for fiction, she is in line to win the Costa overall book of the year. Very good luck to her.

The media will be vibrating this week with informed comments about and reviews of this book.

But in this highly personal series here on Life Twice Tasted Bring Up The Bodies  happens to be one of the books which I listened to when ill after Christmas in unabridged audio form. 

On my blog, my present project is to embark on a series of Writers’ Notes inspired by a focused audio-reading of these books. I have posted Writers’ Notes on earlier books (see

Here are my notes on Bring Up The Bodies.

Inevitably one must comment on the wide-ranging deeply investgated research that underpins this novel. She has absorbed the complex research in an all-ecompassing fashion, almost magically transforming it into flowing prose.
Every paragraph densely - sometimes poetically - worked to a point of transparency with the aim of giving us access to a formidable clever, self-consciously powerful man. Evident familiarity with the documents, literature and linguistic rhythms of Tudor history renders the prose authentic and peculiarly modern at the same time. This shows a touch of genius. The speech –extensive use of diaplogue p renders the reality.
Point of View
Mantel very cleverly manages to tell the story in the first person dressed up in the third persom. Working from the inside of his mind she refers to Thomas Cromwell as he, or he – Cromwell.  It is an intimate and very subjective characterisation dressed up as an objective account by the use of he. So very clever.
I read somewhere an opinion that this writer was in love with her subject. To me it is rather she is her subject and that is why the continuous narrative rendered through the mind of Cromwell works so well. Her affection for the dour Cromwell sings gracefully out of every line, every page. The writer expresses the subtle politics of the court, the continent of Europe and those times. 

So we are treated to Cromwell’s own subtle take on his obstinate loyalty to the selfish, quixotic Henry the Eighth, his cold passion, his political and psychological insight into court politics, his high intelligence, his puppeteer’s control over the objects of  his power – particularly Henry’s current and future Queens Anne Boleyn and her family  and Anne Seymour and the Seymours.

His battle with, and ultimate revenge on, the manipulative Boleyn (formerly his ally) is the dramatic thread in the narrative. Mantel’s  account through Cromwell’s mind of the imprisonment and execution of Anne Boleyn is the most gruesome piece of writing I have ever read.

So, it seems we should dislike Thomas, but the quality of the imagination and the writing here ensures rather that we understand, even like him. We get to see him as a dour but honest man, pragmatic with regard to the power of his role. But his dourness is shot through with a sense of irony. Witty asides demonstrate his insight into the machinations of those around him. His coolness is balanced with his clear fondness for his much milder and quieter son and for his political protégé  Ralph Sadler whose house (shared with his wife Helen, also one of Thomas’s protégées, is wonderfully and intricately rendered here – a kind of loving evocation of a life which contrasts with his own lonely home life.

Thoman is no cold shallow man. We feel with as he mourns for his wife and two little daughters. And we share with him his anger at the cruel execution of his mentor Cardinal Wolsey. The expiation of this anger, and vengeance on those who plotted his death, is another strong strand in this narrative.

 Some prose gems among hundreds – read the book again to re-discover them::
He treats doors as an enemy.
He slides his hands into his sleeves
Passage where an old knight advises to the young about jousting Very detailed. and full of pathetic tragic commitment

What have I learned from this book?

  • An exhaustively researched, beautifully written and constructed novel set in a certain time space does not have to be lumped into a genre called The Historical Novel. It does not ‘date’.
  • The rich possibilities of in depth use of that very close third person
  • The possibility of showing unlikeable characteristics in a likeable way
  • Showing power positions through well conceived dialogue
  • Best to challenge oneself and be ambitious and not ‘serve’ the market.
Last note; Don't care for the cover - dour and unexciting. Other editions have better covers, But does the cover really matter?


Gillian Wales Reflects on Literary Values and Catherine Cookson

Gillian says: 'Catherine Cookson wrote 97 novels during her long lifetime – she was born in 1906 and died in 1998 at the age of 92. Although her books can be classed as ‘regional romances’ her popularity extended nation-wide.

In the public library service in 60s and 70s, we all used to dread the publication of the next CC book – all libraries had extremely long waiting lists for her books and it was not unusual for borrowers to wait for over one year before the latest title became available to read. In the mid 80s her novels topped the best-seller lists and 35 of the top 100 books borrowed from libraries were hers. C always donated her Public Lending Right monies to the Royal Literary Fund to help struggling writers.

CC always felt patronised by the literary establishment, despite having been described by The Sunday Times as ‘the greatest historical novelist of all time’. She had no illusions about her own work – ‘I don’t class myself as a great author but I AM a good story teller … Highbrow literary people look down their noses at me, but their work doesn’t sell does it?’

Born in 1906 in Tyne Dock, South Shields, the illegitimate daughter of a domestic servant, Kate McMullen, for many years she believed that she had been abandoned as a baby and that her mother was really her sister – a belief which was reflected in her first novel, Kate Hannigan, which was published in 1950. C’s mother begged bare-foot from door to door and they lived in constant fear of the workhouse. Her biographer, Kathleen Jones, describes C’s childhood as ‘one marred by violence, abuse, alcoholism, shame and guilt’.

An avid reader, C determined to be a writer from an early age. Leaving school at 13 she first worked as a domestic servant. From 1924-1929 she saved the money she earned in a workhouse laundry and established an apartment hotel in Hastings. One of her tenants was schoolmaster Tom Cookson who C was to marry in 1940 when she was 34. Later, after a serious nervous breakdown and a series of miscarriages and stillbirths she began to write as a form of therapy and joined a local Writers’ Group. (Tom was more than willing to help with grammar and spelling).

Despite her books being marketed as ‘romantic fiction’ her novels do not fit comfortably into this genre although in the early 1960s she did write classic romantic novels under the name of Catherine Marchant.
Her central character is as likely to be male as female, her heroes and heroines rarely get their man or woman – and she often introduces some twist of fate to make the central character continue to suffer or to be denied true happiness. Kathleen Jones tells us that when asked if she saw herself as a romantic novelist C retorted ‘What nonsense, My books are social histories of the North – full of reality and no fancy frills’.

CC has been described as a champion of the working class, ‘the voice of the North as Dickens was the literary presenter of London’. Her work is a graphic portrayal of the lives of the working classes in 19th and early 20th centuries. Kathleen Jones again,‘She resisted sentimentality and wrote plainly without avoiding unpleasant fictional truths. Her novels had firm moral foundation despite the violence, sadism, cruelty and sexual perversion … she showed the best as well as the worst in human beings’. CC’s novels somewhat mirror her own life as she believed it was possible to escape and rise above the poverty and shame as she herself had done – but at a price.
In my teens and early 20s I was an avid fan of CC’s novels but later my literary tastes, with most of my generation, moved on from enjoyment of the drudgery of the ‘clogs and shawl’ narratives of the past to novels depicting present day society, a more equal society in which women were no longer depicted as subservient but as successful entrepreneurs, in control of their own destiny – as in Barbara Taylor Bradford’s ‘Woman of Substance’; women who took control of their lives as in the novels of Margaret Drabble and Margaret Forster. Kathleen Jones tells us that CC was not a supporter of feminism and saw it as ‘women wanting to be like men’ despite believing that ‘most women could buy a man at one end of the street and sell him at the other!’ 

My generation had found ‘The Women’s Room’ by Marilyn French ultimately inspiring andErica Jong’s ‘Fear of Flying’ liberating and Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch had almost been our bible so it was with some reservation that I faced the prospect of revisiting CC’s work more than 30 years on.
However, at times the quality of the writing produced by this uneducated, working class woman and the ability of her stories, particularly some of the earlier novels, to grip and enthral and continue to weave their magic - even after all this time - is remarkable. 

Although the calibre of the writing did not compare, I was reminded on more than one occasion of the Booker prize-winner Pat Barker’s novel ‘Union Street’ – a gritty novel of working class life, set in Middlesbrough. I recommend in particular Fenwick Houses’ written in 1960 and dealing with issues surrounding illegitimacy, incest and domestic violence and‘The Long Corridor’ published in 1965 in which a sexually transmitted disease within the context of a loveless marriage is handled with compassion and understanding. At no time is CC  judgemental and the matter-of-fact way in which she introduces this forbidden topic shows that she was way ahead of her time. 
Recently  I watched a BBC4 programme which proclaimed that the North became THE cultural powerhouse of the 1960s and that the trends in literature, theatre and film of the time confirmed this hypothesis. 

As evidence, novels such as Alan Sillitoe’s ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ which showed the factory floor as a dynamic place to be, a place which gave economic freedom to its workers; Keith Waterhouse’s ‘Billy Liar’ which introduced a new sort of Northern woman – carefree, ruthless, free-spirited; Shelagh Delaney’s ‘Taste of Honey’ which started life as a play and was eventually filmed with Rita Tushingham playing the female lead as an exuberant young woman with a sex life; and the start of the soap, Coronation Street which brought the North into national prominence.
But where was CC in the midst of this celebration of an up and coming Northern cultural excellence? The BBC programme described Northern culture in the 1960s as ‘schizophrenic’ – an amalgam of ‘we can do anything versus get on with it’.

The afore-mentioned writers, mostly male I trust you’ve noticed – belong to the former set, whereas I suspect CC, perhaps BECAUSE of her popularity rather than despite it, can be categorised as the latter and her novels seen as depicting the ‘get on with it’ attitude were not considered worthy enough to be part of this celebration of newly described Northern culture.
Ironically, as CC’s biographer Kathleen Jones informs us, in 1957 CC began a novel entitled  during a single day, a day in which an innocent dawn encounter sparks off a series of incidents that reveal terrible secrets festering beneath a veneer of respectability, including child abuse, illegitimacy and homosexuality – a taboo subject at the time. 

Her publisher, Macdonald, held back publication, arguing that it was not the kind of novel her readers had come to expect of her. It was 1996 before it finally appeared in print. One can only wonder what the reaction would have been had it been published – obviously it would have caused a stir, dealing as it did with rarely talked about contemporary social problems – much as John Braine’s ‘Room at the Top’ or Stan Barstow’s ‘A Kind of Loving’ did at the time. Had it been published shortly after it was written it might have catapulted C out of the ‘romantic genre’ that she had been slotted into and increased her standing as a writer of serious issue-based novels and hence completely changed the course of her subsequent writing career.

In the 1990s reviews of her novels became more critical yet ironically in the USA her work was studied as social history and was also on the university curricula in Australia and New Zealand. Many of her books were filmed or made into TV series and she is still the most borrowed author of the last decade in public libraries nationwide, seen as a writer of ‘tragic yet safe stories’. C was awarded an OBE in 1985 and in 1993 was made a Dame of the British Empire.

Today her work is often categorised as ‘of its time’, somewhat quaint and of little relevance to the fast pace of 21st century life. But I urge you not to dismiss her out of hand. TryKathleen Jones’ excellent biography which will certainly wet your appetite and encourage you to read Cc’s novels. The background to her novels may be seen as reinforcing the myth of ‘the blighted north’ but they also reinforce true family values; they tell of the courage and endurance of many of the men and women they portray: above all are ‘a good read’.

CC was a born storyteller, in the words of my little aunt, she could be described in Northern parlance as a real ‘romancer’, a teller of tales par excellence.

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