Thursday, 2 December 2010

"There's something wrong with the boy", my father decided. "He has too much imagination."

Ronald Searle's "Back to Skool"
Jubilee bags
The John Bull printing kit
"Eat Me" dates
Jimmy Clitheroe
Sea Monkeys
Professor Branestawm
Carry On Films
Chemistry sets

I braved the snow flurries to go to the second meeting of Islington's new LGBT reading group tonight. Despite there being only three of us there, we had a very interesting and animated discussion about our first book of the month - Paperboy by Christopher Fowler.

Coincidentally also the happy winner of the Green Carnation Prize for lesbian and gay literature that launched earlier this year, I found this a joyful read, full of pathos and humour, rocket ships, libraries, family secrets, Lois Lane comics, windswept car journeys to the seaside, Hammer films and general madness! All told from the perspective of the (much) younger Christopher, it has a quirkiness that is immediately familiar to anyone who has grown up out of austere provincial beginnings.

I may not have been a child of the Fifties, but my 60s upbringing in Wales was not far off what Mr Fowler so eloquently describes. The Dad whose DIY never quite gets finished, the crazy bohemian art teacher, the crazy dog, the frustrated intellectual Mum (Kath), Mum's friend Maureen, the sneaking into X-rated films, the absurd social conventions, the need to make your own entertainment, the lot!

Christopher, continually compiling lists (of words he has discovered, of book titles, of things in general) comes across as a bit of an eccentric, given his penchant for reading and writing in an otherwise book-free home.
"Where's Christopher?" Dad asked. "Under the table reading War and Peace to the tortoise," Kath replied.
However his observations and general joie de vivre, despite every opportunity for life to get him down, are what makes Christopher's story so engrossing. Not quite fiction, not quite autobiography, but an honest and absorbing narrative on life, Paperboy fully deserves this prize - and in general our group agreed.

Some felt slightly sorry for the beleaguered protagonists, all of them apparently unhappy with their lot, but in my opinion childhood (if carefully examined) is often like that. Not all sunshine and Santa Claus, but an awful lot of whispering behind hands, simmering resentments and aching boredom as well...

In contrast, I found parts of this book laugh-out-loud funny (much to the consternation of fellow passengers on my bus no doubt) - not least the bitchy interaction between grandmother Mrs Fowler and Kath, Dad (Bill) with his permanently dismantled motorbikes, the anarchy that was Saturday morning children's cinema clubs and the eternally doomed attempts at juvenile romance by our hero Christopher (another of his lists is "Books vs Girls"). At times, it had a distinct tone and feel of the TV series Beautiful People that I so adored a few years back.

Asked in a recent interview why he decided not to explicitly mention his obviously burgeoning homosexuality in the book, Mr Fowler said:
It was a carefully considered decision for several reasons. First, I’ve read too many coming out stories and they don’t have that much variance. Second, my sexuality was accepted by my family and considered less important than, say, finding work and feeding us, so it was never an issue. Third, I wanted to go to an earlier point of our collective childhood, to understand the roots of ‘being different’, which is clearly threaded through every chapter.
However he has planned a sequel, so there is obviously more scope for exploring the undercurrents that the "discerning" reader may already have worked out. Regardless, Paperboy is a bloody good read, and I highly recommend it!

Paperboy by Christopher Fowler is available from Foyles

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