For somebody who ended up aspiring to be a writer of vaguely literary fiction, I had the most dismal reading habits when I was a child. Cutting my teeth on Buster & Giggles and the Beano, I graduated to war comics, Alistair Maclean, and the blood-fests of Sven Hassel. Literary fiction didn’t get a look in until my late teens. It probably shows. But the novels that really make me cringe when I look back at them are Richard Allen’s New English Library skinhead books.
Remorselessly detailing thuggery, violence, bullying, beatings, kickings, knifings, rapes, ‘Paki-bashing’ (and that was just the first page), they gloried in everything I now find most abhorrent. Gloating, voyeuristic, nihilistic, sadistic, nasty, brutish and short, and very, very badly written, they were disgusting. I loved them. For a while, a Ben Sherman shirt and a pair Doc Martens were pretty well the only things I wanted out of life. I even briefly had my eye on an Abercrombie coat.
To be fair to myself, I probably only read half a dozen in the series and that includes the suedehead (same ingredients, bit more hair) and hells angel (ditto, lot more hair) books that were also popular at the time. And even when I was reading them, I felt it was a faintly shameful pastime, something to be undertaken surreptitiously and preferably out of sight, like masturbating or picking your nose. I certainly never bought any. Who did? They just appeared out of nowhere, circulating like badly creased copies of Mayfair and those bizarre rumours about the shady pasts of our teachers.
I don’t recall anybody in authority catching me with a New English Library publication. The nearest thing to a showdown concerning reading matter was the occasion a friend was thrown out of class and excoriated as the devil incarnate when the chaplain chanced upon him browsing through an issue of Guns & Ammo during a divinity lesson. Didn’t seem to do him any harm, though . . . my friend, I mean; the chaplain later ran off with the art master’s wife.
True, my friend now has a passion for archery, which might make me a bit edgy if he did not, by his own admission, have an uncanny knack for sending the arrow thudding into the gymnasium roof or disappearing down the air vent instead of hitting the target. You might not want to stand beside him, or behind him for that matter, not without a full suit of armour, but I don’t suppose he poses a premeditated threat to the public at large. He’s certainly not patrolling the fringes of Clapham Common with a claw hammer and a bowie knife. Not as far as I know, at least. And while I may have very short hair, that is a consequence of embracing baldness, not some residual pulp fiction inspired desire to stick the boot in.
Given that the only discernible long-term repercussion of my own lamentable adolescent reading habits is a lingering sense of guilt, when there was some alarm expressed about my granddaughter-in-common-law (see author’s bio’), who was twelve at the time, reading Buffy the Vampire Slayer books, I howled with derision. Three years later she is turning into a lovely young woman and has thus far done nothing untoward with the garden fencing posts or the garlic salt. My point is you can feed all sorts of appalling rubbish to children and they’ll generally sift through it sooner or later, identifying what is meretricious, malicious or downright sick, and move onto something else. The main thing is that they learn the pleasure of sitting down with a book and taking off into some other world. Once that habit is established, the books can fight it out amongst themselves for precedence. Happily, unlike in life, it is generally the goodies that win.
This is why I won’t hear a word said against J.K. Rowling. As far as I know, nobody has ever accused her of exploiting violence and pandering to racism, but all too often, people who profess to love books seem to think that sneering at her is a measure of how much they value reading. The only thing I’ve ever read by her is her preface to the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, which was all right, but it didn’t exactly keep me awake at night racing through to see how it all ended. However, I have watched children reading the Harry Potter novels, among them kids for whom books are generally little more than a burden that, for some unfathomable reason, you’re obliged to lug about in a satchel when you go to school. And when you see a child like that utterly immersed in a 500-page novel and unwilling, even unable to tear themselves away, you know that something’s going right. Her sales figures may be a bit galling for those of us so low down the food chain that our Amazon ranking resembles the figure at the bottom of a banker’s pay slip. Tough. Anyone who gets children reading in the way she does deserves to have the cash tills ringing like a congress of campanologists on amphetamines.
Hopefully, in our politically correct world, books like the ones I read when I was a kid are a thing of the past. But if they’re not and your offspring are delving into the sort of reading matter that makes your hair stand on end, don’t panic. When a thirteen-year-old starts collecting nazi memorabilia and asking about buying an assault rifle, there may be some cause for concern. Otherwise, let the boy rock ‘n’ roll.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace