On a recent rainy afternoon (rather like today) I went hunting for something to read. As always, I had heaps of must-reads cluttering up my bedside table –  but none of them appealed. They all seemed too weighty or too complicated. Basically none of them fitted what I was after… so I went trawling through our library for something that felt right.  What I found was our remaining three Dick Francis paperbacks.

Dick Francis novels

I don’t remember when exactly started reading Dick Francis thrillers, but it was sometime in my teens. What I do remember is just how much I loved them. The writing style was clear and clever, the protagonists easy to identify with, and the detail on all aspects of the racing world intensely believable. I also remember that I was both surprised and gratified to discover that Dick Francis was a retired champion jockey. No wonder his words seemed to hold the ring of authenticity!

Over the years I’ve continued to read his books, some from the public library, some from stock – and even buying them from second-hand bookshops when on holiday. The man was a prolific writer, producing over 40 novels, along with an autobiography and the official biography of racing legend Lester Piggott. It’s been fun to discover and rediscover his version of the racing world each time I’ve delved into one of them.

Not long ago, we swapped many of our paper copies for eBook versions – and I confess I do miss those well-thumbed old paperbacks. Even so, Kindle in hand, I’ve romped through Banker, Bolt and Come to Grief over the past few days – revelling the adventures of Kit Fielding, Sid Halley and Tim Ekaterin, all top blokes and very dashing protagonists.

It’s been a bit like coming home after being away for ages – the feeling that I’m reacquainting myself with people I’ve half forgotten but who’s company I enjoy each time we meet up. I’m looking forward to spending time with Neil Griffon in Bonecrack next, then Gene Hawkins in Bloodsport. I’ve got the rest queued and ready to go – and if the rainy weather persists, I may make it through them all 🙂

Have you read any? If not, you could try your local library for a taster – it really doesn’t matter in which order you read them.

I’m pretty sure we all have at least one guilty pleasure – that thing we do or enjoy, but we’re not sure that other people would approve of if they knew about it. Mine has lasted most of my life.

I can’t remember a time when books were anything but a core part of my environment. Our parents’ bookcase(s) provided us with an early introduction to fiction, fact, travel and poetry. Titles I remember in particular are 1000 Beautiful Things (Authur Mee), Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (ed. Francis Palgrave), The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde and The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. We all learned to read before we went to school and were encouraged to join the local Public library at an early age – both great strategic parental moves to keep children entertained and occupied.

However, even once I could read, I always enjoyed listening to one or other parent reading stories or poems out loud. They both had a gift for it, their voices clear and their delivery paced for our enjoyment. So it’s not surprising that, when my younger brother and I were given Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland first story records1965 Disneyland read-along storybook records, I was hooked. Each title was on a 33⅓ long-playing vinyl record and came with an illustrated Disney read-along book of the story.

They all started with a similar preamble: This is the story of <Alice in Wonderland>. You can read along with me in your book. You’ll know it’s time to turn the page when you hear the chimes ring like this: <the sound of Tinkerbelle’s chimes would ring here>. Let’s begin… It was a very effective format, enabling children of any reading age to follow the story via a combination of words, sound and pictures. They were narrated by Robie Lester and mine included the songs Alice in Wonderland and I’m Late (which I still sing to myself when I am running late).

Several years later I was given a small cassette tape recorder and, soon after, found that some libraries stocked ‘talking books’ for vision-impaired readers. Feeling more than slightly guilty, I tried adding one to my selection of books. To my surprise, the librarians simply issued the cassette like any other book. It was the start of my guilty pleasure. I call it that because, as an adult, I do sometimes feel slightly sheepish listening to stories instead of reading them – as though I’m taking the easy way out. In some instances, such as Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, this is actually true. I’ve tried to read this classic on a number of occasions, but simply couldn’t get past the first chapter. As an audio book, however, I could finally tick it off my bucket list.

This is because I find it enormously satisfying to sit and listen to a story, to have a tale narrated by someone who can bring the characters alive the way my parents used to when I was a child. The difference is that I can pause, rewind and replay these stories at will and can listen to them whilst gardening, knitting, driving, doing mosaic and so on. Audio books (and headphones) are also an insomniac’s best friends at dead of night, when turning on a light to read a physical book might disturb other family members.

Although I now subscribe to a paid audio book service, I still regularly borrow talking books (at no charge) through the public library system. A few of my recent favourites are the Girl Genius series (Phil & Kaja Foglio), Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman), The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion), A Conspiracy of Friends (Alexander McCall Smith), A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki) and Nation (Terry Pratchett). All are beautifully narrated, either by the author or by talented voice actors, and each provided me with hours of enjoyment.

I suspect that my slight feeling that talking books are an indulgence simply adds to their attraction, as with most guilty pleasures.

My best friend flew up from Brownies to Guides when we were about 11 years old. I wasn’t a fan of Brownies – the one time I went along they’d seemed to spend all their time doing what I considered frightfully ‘girlie’ things. Guides, on the other hand, apparently went camping and did lots of outdoor activities, which all sounded much more fun. So I joined up. The only downside turned out to be that I had to polish my shoes on Friday afternoons before going to meetings, but I soon learned to offset that by not polishing them on Friday mornings before school 🙂

In no time I’d mastered reef knots, sheet bends and that most useful of knots, the bowline.  I learned basic first aid and was taught how to raise, lower and fold a flag. We did indeed go camping and we also played endless variations of Kim’s game. In the version we played, 24 different objects were placed on a tray and covered with a cloth. The items were then revealed to the player for a limited time, say one minute, after which they were covered up again and the player was asked to list as many as s/he could remember. It was fun – and good training in observation and recollection.  We also learned what has turned out to be a most useful skill, namely Scout’s pace – a method of covering distance fairly quickly by alternating running and walking 50 paces. This gives one time to recover somewhat in-between bursts of running and is much more fun that jogging or running flat out!

One of the most interesting aspects of my time as a Guide was getting involved in the international pen pal scheme. Our troop established contact with a troop in Canada and a few of us started corresponding with girls of similar ages in Toronto. This wasn’t my first encounter with correspondence, as my sister was living in Angola at the time and I would occasionally exchange postcards with her. In both cases I learned a little about how and where other people lived and, as importantly, started to write for pleasure.

In later years, I began to keep journals, corresponded with friends via snail mail and email, wrote a lengthy work of narrative non-fiction and, more recently, a memoir. Last year I job-shared for a while and ended up with my other half (of the job share) as an office pen pal. We left descriptive and informative notes for each other so that we would both know what needed to be done. It was surprisingly entertaining and I found that I missed that more than any other part of the job when I left.

All of these writing experiences have been influenced by those early pen pal days, by learning how to express myself in ways that a reader might find interesting. I was therefore delighted to receive a card in the mail a few weeks ago, sent to me by a friend who also lives here in Perth. She chose to post a physical card rather than send an email or a text message. It was a lovely surprise, as was the follow up package I received a couple of weeks later. This contained an eclectic range of goodies, from a vintage magazine to a beautiful drawing of a teacup. The magazine includes a pattern for a knitted poncho and a recipe for a no-bake Pavlova. Win!

I’ve sent a physical reply (in the mail) – and have created this to augment it. Enjoy, dear Pen Pal 🙂

postcard1

This week a friend and I managed to find a last minute booking for what was described as a “quaint, rustic cottage” next to a lake in Bridgetown.  We jumped at the chance and headed off for a few days of sorely needed downtime at the end of a very busy term. The plan was to rest, but also do some writing, photography, drawing and (most importantly) chatting.

I’d been itching to try out my new camera since my birthday, so as soon as we were settled in our distinctly rustic abode I set out to walk around the lake and find something photo-worthy. I soon came across a derelict footbridge (snap), a rose arbour that had fallen into disrepair (no snap, too sad), a very orderly row of fairly young gum trees side by side with a lone fig tree (snap, snap), and a rather palatial kid’s cubby house (snap). All of these were interesting, but none of them stirred me more than superficially.

Then I saw it – a huge river red gum, standing head and shoulders above all the other trees. It was glorious and immediately evocative of a much loved childhood story. Indeed, the first thing sprang to mind as I gazed up at it was ‘It’s the Faraway Tree!’ I could easily imagine Moonface, Silky, the Saucepan Man, Dame Washalot and the rest of characters that paraded through my highly imaginative early childhood hiding somewhere in its branches.

Bridgetown Faraway Tree

Bridgetown Faraway Tree

Our host had placed a bench under the tree and from that vantage point I could gaze up at the enormous trunk as I reminisced. I remembered wishing that I had a tree with a slippery slide built into it so that I could whizz down on a tasselled cushion. What fun that would be!

I found I couldn’t quite stop myself from glancing up at the top of the tree as I thought about the lands that drifted across the top of the Faraway Tree, just in case… Like the storybook version, this is a tree that cries out to be climbed, for children to adventure into, for artists to photograph and paint, and for arboriculturists to conserve. It’s quite magnificent and the childhood memories that it stirred up made me smile each time I looked across the lake at it over the next few days.

Although I’d remembered the names of all the magical characters in the Faraway Tree books, my memory referenced the human characters generically as the children. Out of curiosity, I looked it up as soon as a Wifi connection was to hand and the second or third ‘hit’ I got was a link to the Enid Blyton Society. This provided me with a plethora of information on all things Blyton, including the names of the children in the series (Jo, Fanny, Bessie) and some examples of the lovely illustrations and cover art from the early print runs.

I spent ages pouring over the covers and jumping between examples of some of my favourite early reading matter. Much to my delight I found a listing for the Five Find-Outers Mystery Series. I read these books with alacrity at much the same time as the Faraway Tree series, but subsequently never found the books again. In the intervening years I’ve asked numerous people whether they’ve read them, but no one I know had even heard of the series. Most people went so far as to ask whether I meant the Famous Five, Adventurous Four or even the Secret Seven! So the sense of vindication was actually quite ridiculously strong and decidedly childlike when I discovered that the Finder-Outers and little Buster the dog really do exist in Blyton-land and that I hadn’t made them up.

The combination of the real and imagined trees, the photographs I took and the information and images on the website has been like catching glimpses of a kaleidoscope of my childhood, of a fragmented land that seems to move further away each year. It’s brought them closer together and has made me want to climb more trees and to hunt for adventures – or perhaps it was simply relaxing for a few days that did that.

From The Enchanted Wood, by Enid Blyton. Illustration by Dorothy M. Wheeler, taken from the first edition.

From The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage, by Enid Blyton. Illustration by Joseph Abbey, taken from the first edition.

Just before New Year I was given a very attractive five year memory book. Essentially there are 365 pages, each page being designated for a particular day and each entry appearing five times on a page. The premise is that you just add the year and then write a line or two in the box – every day for f5 year memory bookive years. Because of the way the book is structured, you can then look back at any particular day and see what you had on your mind on that day over the course of the five years. It’s a way to keep track of both the everyday and the exceptional events in your life – but in brief, rather like a Twitter-log,  so that you don’t have to feel that it takes up a lot of your time or mental energy to keep it up to date.

The quandary I face is that I’ve actually kept a journal/diary and then a blog for many years and my entries tend not to be particularly concise. Whilst I do subscribe to Twitter and have learned to keep within the 140 characters that it dictates, my posts tend to be along the lines of passing thoughts or comments. I see the line-a-day diary entries as more personal and perhaps even meaningful, but have realised that I need to ‘Twitterise’ them so that they fit into the space provided in order for them to be succinct and interesting.

Thinking about all this brought to mind a Bernice Rubens book I read a while back. A Five Sentence is is about Miss Hawkins who, on retirement, is presented with a five year diary. For varioubernice rubens_a five year sentences and complex reasons, Miss Hawkins feels compelled to write in the diary – but has nothing to write about. So instead of writing about what she has done, she writes about what she will do – and then follows through on what she has written as though the entries are instructions, returning to tick the items off with a red crayon when she’s completed them. It’s a strange and disturbing little book, but a beautiful example of character development and clear, crisp prose. Sadly, I leant my copy to someone. Happily, I just found that it’s available as an Ebook and have downloaded it to reread.

Miss Hawkins and her five year diary, along with my attempts to Twitterise my thoughts for my five year diary, resulted in rumination as to the nature of compulsion and as to why people keep diaries/journals/blogs (of whatever sort). Some reading on the topic suggests that the reasons for doing so are probably as diverse as the people who keep them, ranging from tracking daily and/or special events to annotating holidays, from writing practise to therapy.

In my own case it started out as a means to discard or offload thoughts and feelings that I didn’t want to or couldn’t  share with anyone else. I was a moderately introverted teenager and had a range of complex issues to manage on my own, so I was basically writing to myself – and it worked very well. I was able to live in the moment and not hang onto angst or issues unduly and, as a result, to become somewhat pragmatic about life. This has served me well over the years.

More recently I’ve taken to writing for a wider audience, sharing my thoughts with others as a way of broadening the scope both of what I write and what I think about — and I enjoy it. This brings me back to day six of my line-a-day five-year-diary. I’ve managed five days of short entries and I think I’m getting the hang of it. I just hope that the three ladies in my life who ended up with one of these diaries at much the same time are busily writing in theirs each day too…