Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Emmo's "Books are dying, books worth saving".

Recently, I returned to my family home to sort through some old belongings, mostly books. When I visit my old bedroom it's like time-travel. It reflects my personality circa 2005 - 2007, my preoccupations as an undergraduate and my absolute immersion in the realm of (lived) ideas at this time.

(Please note the Beauty Myth and SCUM manifesto next to the best of Bizarre magazine... SCUM being the 'Society for Cutting Up Men', By Valerie Solanas - the one who shot Andy Warhol. A new friend of mine struck up a conversation about modern feminism with me last night... it's funny that Valerie Solanas is described as a radical feminist writer... I think there should be another term for violent separatist ideas... but that's a blog for another day. Also, I never read the Sylvia Plath Journals, at least not yet).

But, I have been lucky. I come from a house of avid readers and thinkers. Both my family homes are packed with books, the consequence for us kids being a genuine affection for the medium and an appreciation for the particular kind of magic an environment of diverse print can evoke, especially in children. I had the happy pleasure of revisiting some of my favourite children's books, it was both strange and delightful! The books of my childhood have had a lasting effect, there is no doubt about that, from the things I find funny, to my taste in houses and the ambitions I have for myself! The act of telling a story, of hearing it and a mixture of seeing it and imagining it was really important too. My favourite book then and to this day is Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales:

Calvino encorporates the best aspects of oral story-telling traditions in this old tome of a book which is now romantically falling apart with musty, yellowing pages, it squeals the realm of childhood fantasy. I also have a new edition, but it isn't half as affecting as this earlier edition. Calvino collected stories that existed mainly in the spoken traditions of Italian tale-telling and reworked them for publishing. Returning them to their original oral state, I went through a stage when I was about 16 or 17 of learning stories from Italian Folktales so as to retell them for the entertainment of my walking companion on our way to school: if we weren't sharing headphones and listening to Korn, we were laughing at The Mangy One, about a young woman who had to disguise herself as someone with the mange by wearing a liver on her head. 'Oh the good old days, are gone, are gone, forever'.

When deciding on bedtime reading, or rather, story telling, I remember using the titles as a method for selection, with alluring names indicating adventure and mystery such as, The Dragon with the Seven Heads and Bellinda and the Monster, but also, The Slave Mother and The False Grandmother and good old Silver Nose!

I did have my favourites though, stories I would return to repeatedly. One of the more memorable tales is Apple Girl, which was about a King and Queen who longed for a child but could bear none. So they prayed and prayed and one day the Queen became pregnant, but rather than deliver a child, she produced the most beautiful apple anyone had ever seen. So, without much comment on this phenomenon, the parents set about taking as great care of their apple-child as though it were flesh and blood. Each day they placed the delicious apple on a golden tray and set it on the balcony. And each day a young maiden would emerge from the apple and comb her hair in the sun. A neighbouring King, standing on his own balcony caught sight of the maiden and immediately fell head over heels and rushed to the Apple-Girl's parents to ask permission to keep the apple himself, to which, as is the case in many of these stories, they agreed. So off the neighbouring King went with the Apple and promptly locked himself in his quarters, mesmerized by the beautiful maid who continued to emerge, not a bother on her, to comb her hair in the sun. But one day, the smitten King was called to war and entrusted his man-servant to keep safe watch while he was gone: in no circumstances was the loyal servant to allow anyone entrance in The King's quarters during his absence, for if anything was to happen to his beloved fruit...! Enter the step Mother (not all stories in Italian Folktales follow this pattern, but it just so happens this one does). Bewildered and curious in extremes to her step-son's recent familial absence, step Mom successfully drugs the servant, enters the room and spies the Apple... "So this is where my son has been all these weeks! Locked up in here with this mesmerizing Apple!" Taking a small dagger from her basque (common for a Queen in the land of Italian Folktales), begins to poke and prod the Apple with it and from the wounds, flowed blood. Frightened, the Queen retreats, but not before her step-son returns, sees his maiden has been injured and takes his revenge on his Mother... so when that deed is done, ofcourse the lovers can now move onto the next level of their relationship and actually hang out, maybe even get married... I can't quite remember, but typically, poor Mom often gets the end of the stick, and sometimes worse.

Artist Ross Clarke (who I have mentioned a number of times by now) made me a gift of an illustration to accompany Apple Girl, for I had infected him with my love for the tale! What a talent he is.

Speaking of Moms:

There were lots of Cats:

And these lads:

If Italian Folktales was the most read book, the most poplar authors in my house were Janet and Allan Ahlberg. What made these books so good was Janet's illustrations. Really imaginative and lush! My favourite Janet and Allan Ahlberg book is Jeremiah in the Dark Woods which featured a little boy named Jeremiah Obadiah Jackenory Jones, who may be the earliest influence on my desire for Victorian Gentlemen's suits prior to my obsession with the Sarah Waters' BBC drama adaption of Tipping the Velvet.

Jeremiah, you are stylin'!
His Grandmother is an archetypal strong female role model and like all good children's books, it features delicious looking (and smelling) baked goods - strawberry jam tarts in this case, the very reason Jeremiah sets off into the woods in the first place!

Wolves in top hats and other classy fairy tale revealry is found in The Jolly Christmas Postman, where the protagonist, said Jolly Postman, delivers the Christmas post to a host of different characters. The clincher is, you can also open the post and read the letters or play the games and see what everyone is being delivered for Christmas! WEE! And like Santa, the postman gets to enjoy a dosen cups of tea and a variety of delicious mange.

And yet another Janet and Allan Ahlberg book. This one had great illustrations of stockings as far as I can remember... I may be completely off on that score actually, Nevermind! I just have this memory of clothes hanging up and drying in a kitchen... may well have been nappies... must make time to confirm memory... :

I mentioned earlier the influence these books had on my taste in houses... The GORGEOUSLY illustrated Loosing Willy is about a young boy who lives on a ship "that is always ship-shaped" and constantly looses himself, his clothes, and whatever else is going. You can see him dismantling there down below:

Winnie the Witch lived in my dream house and had dream house keeping talents as well. At first she lives in a completely black house, but unfortunately for her, she keeps tripping over her also black cat. She's a pretty furious character and decides to colour the cat in all different and humiliating shades, before realizing that it's the house that needs to change and, in sparks of fire-crackers and colour, Winnie transforms her gothic abode into a colourful but still awesome abode. I used to love comparing the before and after pictures (she also has amazing washing and beds!)

And there was Hildild! A very industrious crazy lady who hated the night and slept all day just trying to fight the night, capture it, burn it, frighten it and eventually, spit at it. I used to ADORE the images: Her perch over-looking a sleepy town with rolling hills and twinkling stars, and those millions of little steps and secret places and details to make it personal, livable. Besides the story, I would pour over the image of the house, paying much attention to the various details the artist had included, like the ladder running up to her window, the wood for the fire, the allotment in her garden, all provoking a sense of independence and security. She had all she needed, and a dog! Except, she did have a frustrating and sad preoccupation with the night.

But part of the pull to these books for me as a child was their WEIRDness. And they often were Weird. The weirdest books we had were the Frog and Toad collection by Arnold Lobel. When I see these books now I have a physical reaction to them - they make me creep out! They were inoffensive and mild, but the style of illustration and the often surreal narratives created a sense of loneliness, emptiness and discomfort in me as a child, but I don't necessarily think this was a bad thing... it was kind of engaging.

The Occult.
Before I read books, before my parents read Italian Foltales, before before before, my Dad told us ghost stories. These were the BEST stories in the world and he would tell us the same ones over and over and over; in the car on the way home from visiting relatives, while the night time swallowed us and all we could see was the moon and the road under the headlights and we would make sure our feet were tucked up under us, away from the darkness underneath the seats; at birthday parties when all the friend's were around and the curtains were drawn shut to keep out the light and at hallow'een with us kids in our fancy dress, watching the flames of the fire, manging the door-to-door takings. My parents were not ones to discourage our youthful fixation with the darkness, witches, banshees, ghost horses, and other magical entities that populated the landscape of our imaginings. They even facilitated our witch craft:

This was a BRILLIANT book, on one side it was Ghouls and on the other Vampires:

And this is the kind of stuff I read later, in my early teens, and being honest, I still revisit them now at age 26 when I'm home. Usborne Spinechillers series, including puzzle books were great! I have tried to find other issues in this series in my local library with no joy, but I'd quite like to find the other stories in the collection. They also did three-in-one books which were tote awesome.

Bringing us way back! WAY back to 1983, the year before I was born and Ladybird's Spine Tinglers and Comic and Curious Verse, possibly the best children's books EVER.

The most memorable story in Spine Tinglers is 'The Hairy Toe', where, well, I'll let you read for yourself:

I wish I had taken more photos of the innards of this gem, but I can always do that again. So so so good! There is a poem in called something like 'My Sister Jane' (by someone well known as far as I remember). Jane is "a bird a bird a bird", "it never would do to let folks know, my sister's nothing but a great big crow"... Anyway, it's brilliant.

One that I think we must have borrowed from a library, had such a lasting impression on me that I felt the need to track it down online, so as to pour over it again! After many failed attempts I eventually found it, with the few details that my memory had saved. Another ideal house/ self-sufficiency scenario, The Maggie B is a story about a little girl who dreams about owning her own boat. She and her baby brother go sailing the seven seas, with a small farm and fruit trees on the deck of her tidy boat. When the storm comes, she braves it, before cooking a delicious sea-food stew and baking some treats while the rain and wind whip round outside.

This book actually lives in my current house, which has a spiral stairs suitable for any good witch. But I'd love a boat house eventually... maybe even with a pelican and fruit trees on deck!
(Will have to take my own photo of the Maggie B and do it justice!)

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