Chris Powling, with supporting team, looks at a new series of memoirs for teenagers.
Adèle Geras opens with her father’s glass-topped desk; John Gordon with his own near-drowning; and Laurence Staig with exotic animals screaming themselves awake in Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoo. Nicholas Fisk, on the other hand, begins thus:
‘Here he comes! Walking towards us! I see him distinctly, clear as day! – No wait. That’s not true. I don’t see him distinctly at all. What we are looking at is a walking, talking, breathing, solid ghost. Not the ghost of someone dead: I am still alive. His flesh my flesh, his heartbeat is my heartbeat.
Because he is me. But so long ago…
I know the feeling … and recognise it in all four of Walker’s new series, Teenage Memoirs, as each author grapples with the mystery of how they got here when the) started from there. Despite this, and their inevitable preoccupation at the time with sorting out both themselves and the opposite sex, preferably in some kind of proximity, the writers remain quirkily individual throughout as well as totally convincing. You can’t imagine any of them living the life of the others.
What of their common destiny as writers, though? Doesn’t this unite their growing up Surprisingly, not much – at least on this evidence. True, after his years as an accident-prone ordinary seaman, John Gordon joined ‘a literary and debating society with dandy-ish pretensions’ while working in local journalism but there’s little here to suggest the future author of The Giant Under the Snow. As for Nicholas Fisk and Laurence Staig, their ambitions at this stage seem musical rather than bookish – playing in a jazz-band and a rhythm-and-blues group, respectively. Adèle Geras, meanwhile, has her heart set on an acting and singing career. For each of them, apparently, writing fiction must wait. Whatever else young readers take away from these memoirs, they’ll know that authors aren’t made to order.
How are they made, then? Could it be by reading? Or a relish for the marginal and the dramatic compounded with a distinctly maverick streak? These are shared traits, certainly, though much the same could be said of many a derelict in a local library. What really distinguishes this quartet is their way with words – their ability to make sentences sing and sizzle a bit on the page, whether they’re writing about being young in the forties, the sixties or the seventies. There’s not a dud amongst them in this respect and they’ll hook many a teenage reader even if some, as indicated by our reviews opposite, may be left a bit puzzled about the actual point of these highly enjoyable excursions into social history. Personally, I’d have liked a heavier dose of hindsight all round – after all, presumably they were chosen as contributors because they’ve become celebrity storytellers. So let’s hope the next batch, and with such a good start there’s sure to be one, foregrounds writerliness rather more. Maybe a poet should take the lead. The series editor, Mick Gowar, perhaps?
Nicholas Fisk, 0 7445 2104 1
This book, part of the ‘Teenage Memoirs’ series, is a brief snapshot of the author’s latter teenage years in war-stricken London. The book deals with life after school and the search for a direction in life as well as illustrating the effects of war from a naive, teenage perspective.
Although enjoyable and very readable, the book never really establishes a purpose. There are some very nice passages illustrating his `Pig Ignorance’, but the language never really compensates for the lack of storyline. Thankfully it’s not the standard teenage problems page type lecture on puberty, but then it isn’t a particularly graphic insight into wartime life, either. However, it’s always entertaining and rises above the rather patronising tone that the series title suggests. (Jon Boden – 15)
John Gordon, 0 7445 2106 8
This book is certainly unlike any other that I’ve read. It is difficult to get a grasp of what it’s actually about or get a feel for what John Gordon is telling his readers. But having said that, I still found many parts both interesting and funny, with different tones and characteristics being used. I enjoyed the book mainly because it has an ironic humour, and although the book seemed to me to ‘drift’, this fitted the atmosphere the author was portraying. It’s an interesting tale, capturing unusual aspects of a wartime sailor’s life, and plenty of people will enjoy it. (Helen Lawrence – 15)
Adèle Geras, 0 7445 2105 X
Once more Adèle Geras had me pinned to the sofa while I avidly read (from start to finish in one sitting) her latest in my collection. She hasn’t failed to delight me yet and this book is no exception. Yesterday is about three years of her life spent at Oxford University. From page 7 to page 85 it’s filled with beautiful descriptions of the city during the 60s, together with a fast-moving storyline incorporating wit and real feelings with which we can all identify. This book is immensely readable and informative and I’m pleased to say isn’t in any way a self-congratulatory account of Adèle’s years ‘up’ at Oxford.
The cover, too, is quite splendid – it’s obvious the illustrator has read the book carefully – so as far as I’m concerned, it’s full marks also to Carolyn Piggford. (Ellie Powling – 16)
Laurence Staig, 0 7445 2107 6
A highly entertaining autobiography of the early years of Laurence Staig. It starts off with him as a young boy iii the 50s living in a circus in Manchester, with exciting tales of childhood dreams and adventures, and finishes in his late teens with a family tragedy. His father was a motor-bike stunt rider (whose act was called ‘The Globe of Death’) and he was just one of the many extravagant characters who influenced Laurence’s early life.
All in all this is a good read, but I think aimed more towards 12-13 year-olds because of the easy style used throughout the book. The storyline kept me interested and keen to read on.
Incidentally, Smokestack Lightning was a 60s R & B hit by one of the author’s favourite artists – Howlin’ Wolf. (Tim Tovell – 15)
All titles are published by Walker Books in their series ‘Teenage Memoirs’ edited by Mick Gowar, and priced £8.99 each.