Ten books that inspired me!

The Secret Garden - the original Puffin version I've had since I was eight!

The Secret Garden – the original Puffin version I’ve had since I was eight!

I was given one of those challenges on Facebook, to list ten books that have really influenced me. The basic version is on my Facebook timeline, but as I’m long-winded, and it’s raining outside, I thought I’d do it properly. Also, I’m procrastinating from all the other things on my “to do” list for today.

This is a rather random list – it goes from classic children’s literature to Young Adult fiction, to graphic novels and music biographies. Think of it as a “mix tape” of books, rather than anything cohesive. If you’ve not read children’s literature before, or at least since you were a child, give it a go. Some people miss out on the most amazing books because they fear being seen as “babyish”. More fool them! And the same goes for graphic novels. I’m not the biggest expert in the world, but the Sandman series opened my eyes to its possibilities.

You’ll probably be able to see the themes that have influenced my own writing in all of these books.

I could go on and on, and I probably will, if people keep giving me challenges. It’s very difficult to choose. God help me if I’m ever on Desert Island Discs!

If you click on the links, it will direct you to the Amazon page for each book.

1. The Secret Garden – Francis Hodgson Burnett. I read this when I was about eight years old – a battered Puffin copy that my mum gave to me. It’s a classic of Victorian Children’s fiction – Wuthering Heights “lite”, I suppose, especially with the way the Yorkshire accents are written, but it gave me a deep love of nature, exploring forgotten places, and gardens.

2. The Didakoi – Rumer Godden. This was another battered paperback that my mum encouraged me to read when I was becoming an independent reader. Her suggestions were always spot-on. This is a moving novel about a half-gypsy girl growing up in a secluded orchard, until the outside world starts crashing in on them. Rumer Godden’s children’s books are always incredibly powerful. If you read the book, I’m sure that Kizzy is a character who will stay with you for life.

3. A Country Child – Alison Uttley. Yet another suggestion from my mum. She’s got a lot to answer for! I can’t remember when I first read this book. It just seems to be part of the fabric of my very being. Alison Uttley grew up on a little farm near Cromford in Derbyshire, not far from where I grew up, and only a short drive from Sheffield, where I live now. This book is a fictionalised version of Uttley’s own rural childhood, with beautiful descriptions of the life on a Victorian farm, and the curious imagination of a solitary little girl. Her description of the long spooky walk to school through the woods is a masterpiece.

I Capture the Castle  the beautiful Peacock version that I own - mine's a bit more battered!

I Capture the Castle the beautiful Peacock version that I own – mine’s a bit more battered!

4. I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith. Another battered paperback – this time a Peacock, rather than a Puffin. I bought this from a second-hand book sale at university, and only afterwards, did I realise that the writer was also the author of A Hundred and One Dalmatians. This novel is the diary of seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, daughter of a reclusive writer, who has holed himself up in a crumbling castle with his eccentric family. Although I’d never heard of this charming, funny and beautifully written book when I first read it, it’s now widely cited as an influential novel by many writers, including J K Rowling, so I’m in good company!

5. Junk – Melvyn Burgess. Moving onto a Young Adult novel that’s slightly more contemporary, I read this book about fifteen years ago. It’s a hard-hitting story of two suburban teenagers who run away from home and are gradually drawn into heroin addiction. It sounds grim, and it’s an emotionally challenging read at times, but the characters are so well drawn, and the realistic description of the grimy underground world of squats, punk and anarchism in 1980s really influenced my own writing.

6. The Sandman Series – Neil Gaiman. When I was in my first year at university, a friend lent me ‘Brief Lives’, a graphic novel in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. It was my “gateway” drug into the dark, magical world of Neil Gaiman. The Endless are seven beings, immortal siblings who rule over different aspects of creation: Death, Dream, Destruction, Despair, Desire, Destiny and Delirium. The Sandman is Dream, who oversees the world of sleep, with a library of dreams in his realm. A tall, over-serious, gloomy gothic character, he gets drawn into the lives of mortals. The series draws on influences as diverse as ancient mythology, Shakespeare, to DC superheroes. The combination of gripping, surreal plots, beautiful artwork, a tapestry of references and engaging characters draws me in every time.

7. Phonogram: Rue Britannia – Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. This is an amazing graphic novel that I bought from a specialist comic shop in Nottingham, Page 45. I thoroughly recommend a visit, to the website as well as the bookshop. The Phonogram series is about Phonomancers, magicians who use music to influence other people. This book is about the “death of Britannia” aka Britpop, and explores people’s relationship with nostalgia and the power of music. It’s difficult to explain, but if you were an indie music fan in the 90s, this book is essential reading. There are also lots of Manic Street Preachers references too, which I really appreciate!

8. Hopeless Savages – Jen Van Meter. This is another gem of a comic book that I bought from Page 45 in Nottingham, originally as a birthday present, but I read it, and loved it so much that I had to buy a copy for myself. Dramatic, funny and hugely enjoyable, this is the story of a family who prove that you don’t have to conform to the norm to be happy. Punk legends Dirk Hopeless and Nikki Savage now live in suburban America, with four children. The youngest, the wonderfully named Skank Zero, is now in high school, with her own band, finding her own identity. I love this punk rock family and want to be one of them.

9. Everything (a book about the Manic Street Preachers) – Simon Price. Over the past four years, I’ve become a massive Manics fan. Simon Price’s book told me everything I needed to know about them. It’s simply the most thorough and in-depth music biography I’ve ever read, tackling the really challenging subjects such as Richey Edwards’ self-harm, depression and disappearance with great sensitivity and honesty. At the same time, the book is gently humorous, entertaining and thought-provoking. Sadly out of print, but you can get second-hand copies via Amazon, it’s high time for an updated edition.

10. Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love – John Einarson. I got into Love through 60s garage punk and compilations such as Nuggets and Pebbles. They were a brilliant 60s psychedelic band that should have been as big as the Doors, but drugs, paranoia and perhaps racial segregation in the USA at the time prevented Love from being bigger than a cult band. Their classic album Forever Changes is a  psychedelic masterpiece. Unfortunately, I didn’t get into the album until a couple of years after I’d seen Arthur Lee live at Glastonbury. And sadly, Lee died of Leukaemia in 2006, meaning that I will never get the chance to see him again. But this book is the next best thing, a wonderful insight into the world of Arthur Lee and Love, with some extracts from Lee’s unpublished memoirs, it’s an entertaining, moving and enlightening read.

11. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little insight into my world! If you’ve enjoyed my recommendations, here’s another book you might enjoy. A novel about love, betrayal and cider, you might spot some of the influences from the books above in my own first novel, Outside Inside. And wait to see what I’ve soaked up and absorbed in my new novel, which will be out at some point when I’ve stopped procrastinating…

 

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I’ve been on the radio!

This August, I’ve had two visits to BBC Radio Sheffield.

A couple of weeks ago, I accompanied Dave Cherry when he was interviewed on the Rony Robinson show about his life and times, and about his novel, The Woodhead Diaries, which I helped to edit and publish.

To my surprise, Rony’s producer asked if I would also like to be interviewed. My hard work seems to be paying off – I’ve now helped several people to be published, and I’ve even produced a poetry anthology of the work I’ve done so far with patients at Newholme Hospital in Bakewell, Dales Tales.

This week, suffering from the effects of a late summer cold, I talked about my life and my experiences that led me to start writing and set up my own business. Here it is. I hope you enjoy it! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUS7Cn3JCEw&feature=youtu.be

And many thanks to Dave Cherry for recording the interview for posterity and making it into a short film.

Have you got a story you want to tell to the world? I can help…

Don’t let the past ruin your life. Remember it. Use it. Find a way to move on.

I was so shy, I had to hide inside this tree! Check out the mullet! I'd just started secondary school when this photo was taken.

I was so shy, I had to hide inside this tree! Check out the mullet! I’d just started secondary school when this photo was taken.

I’ve been thinking a lot about bullying recently. I’ve been working in schools and talking to young people. It still seems that school staff struggle to stop bullying and the effect it has on the self-esteem of their victim. Despite their best intentions, it’s sometimes very difficult to separate playground squabbles and everyday disputes from something more worrying.

As a newly self-employed person, making a lot of new connections and creating my own opportunities, there’s a lot of pressure to be confident and bold. Most of the time, I manage to be comfortable with myself, and some great things have happened to me over the last few months. But there are times when I feel that I’m holding myself back – that self-doubt is creeping in and that negative voice in my head tells me that I’m worthless.

Sometimes it doesn’t help to hark back to the past. But sometimes it can be useful to examine what happened; what changed; how I survived – and thrived!

Bullying is all about psychology. A child more likely to be bullied is often more insecure to begin with. As an only child, I wasn’t used to the rough and tumble of sibling arguments and the back-up of a close family unit. My parents may have over-protected me slightly, as they didn’t have any other children to worry about. I was naturally independent and imaginative, apt to day-dream (some things never change!), but maybe lacking the social ease of others and the confidence to join in with playground games. I remember wandering around the playground on my own at primary school in Kendal in the Lake District, complaining to the dinner ladies that no one would play with me.

In reality, I was okay. I had some good friends at that school, even though my best friend Michael Jackson (yes, we all thought it was really cool that he was called Michael Jackson, even Michael himself) moved to the Isle of Wight. At home, Russell from next door but one played out with me and an extended gang of kids on the back streets, getting into scrapes like making bows and arrows and firing them at car tyres (don’t worry, the arrows were just made of twigs!) and climbing into the gas works and making a den in some coiled-up pipes. I was a tom-boy, despite my parents worrying about my safety constantly and not letting me watch Star Wars. I probably was bullied occasionally but I had a bit of an attitude and I could give as good as I got.

When we moved to Derby, things changed. I joined Portway Junior School mid-way through Second Year Juniors (Year 4 nowadays). The school was run in a bizarre fashion, by a very eccentric head teacher called Mrs Shaw who seemed to think it was a public school (a private school!) The boys had to wear short trousers, even in winter, and I had to go from wearing whatever I liked, to a proper school uniform with a tie, and a red and white stripy dress in summer. We even had to do proper joined-up handwriting with fountain pens. The desks were the old-fashioned wooden kind with lids that lifted up and inkwells. I was used to a much cosier, modern school. And here I was, stuck in a “posh” suburb of Derby. The head teacher looked down on people like me, who lived in the part of Allestree near the school, which was still nominally a council estate, albeit a very leafy one!

In my first week, I made a fatal mistake. A plump, blonde girl sat next to me, smiled and gave me a novelty rubber. Most kids collected novelty erasers in the mid-eighties, shaped like various objects and scented. I kept mine in an old ice cream tub. She gave me one shaped like a teddy bear. Soon after that, I stuck up for her in the playground when a tough-looking girl was picking on her, and my fate was sealed. It turned out that the girl who’d been kind to me was a social pariah. She did her own thing and didn’t seem to care what people thought of her, even though she could behave rather oddly at times, trying to kiss ants in the playground. The tough-looking girl lived in our cul-de-sac and all her cousins and brothers played out there too, taunting me as they rode around on their bikes, and once even throwing stones at our front door. So no playing out for me after that. It took me until my mid-teens to dare to walk to the end of the road, rather than running through the “gitty” at our end of the cul-de-sac, hoping that I wouldn’t run in to the bully or any of her family.

But at least she was honest about being a bully. It was the snobby kids, who got their school uniforms from Next; whose parents were estate agents, and who were invariably picked to be prefects and lunch monitors. The lunch monitors were the amongst the worst. Rather than a canteen system where children could pick what they wanted, we were forced to sit at the same table every time, where some incredibly stuck-up, bossy child would dole out inedible luncheon meat, greasy chips and mushy peas that were actually so dry they had cracks in. If you didn’t eat every morsel, with a wilful effort not to be sick, holding your nose so you couldn’t taste anything (or at least that was the idea), then the lunch monitors would “tell on you”. Looking back, I can’t imagine the sort of child who would willingly volunteer for a job like that, unless they were power-hungry and enjoyed humiliating other people. They’ve probably got top jobs in management now!

Nasty things were whispered about me (for example that I had AIDS!!!), because I continued to stick up for my only friend. I started to think there was something wrong actually with me. Surely I didn’t smell? Was I hideously ugly? The only thing that made me different was that I wasn’t a snob and I wasn’t “rough”, as my mum would say. As a teacher’s daughter, I had my grammar corrected all the time! I didn’t know where I fitted in, and it didn’t help that by the time I went up to Secondary School, I was five feet and four inches tall, with size six feet –already the same size I am now! My confidence was at rock bottom, and I had a mullet hairstyle. It was 1988 though, so maybe I wasn’t the only person who’d been given that hairstyle at the unisex hairdressers.

Woodlands Secondary school wasn’t much better. Most of the kids from Portway Juniors were there. Children from the other feeder schools were more ethnically and socially diverse, but I had very few friends – and only because we were left-overs. We clung to each other, while I gradually discovered that I was totally bored in their company. I fell in love with music, with bands like the Stone Roses. My only friend from Junior School was still obsessed by Kylie and Jason (this is way before Kylie was cool and Jason became a gay icon!) and her tiny bedroom was a confection of pink. Before long, I was listening to the John Peel show under my duvet and buying the NME. But I was very lonely and didn’t have anyone to share my new passions with.

When I started singing and playing the guitar, I got a lot of name-calling after my performances, and sometimes it felt unbearable. But I was also on the road to recovery. My form tutor was very understanding, and got me some counselling – I got some stick for that as well, but gradually, I was becoming stronger. My passion for music was stronger than my fear of the bullies.

The biggest turning point came when a new girl started in Year Ten. She was a couple of minutes late to our first GCSE History class. Of course the only spare seat was next to me, the social outcast. But the new girl just smiled and sat down next to me. Over the next two years, Kirsty and I became best friends. We were both imaginative, intelligent and unconventional.

Instead of makeshift friendship groups reluctantly associating together because we were the dregs who didn’t fit in, Kirsty seemed to bring everyone together: the talented but shy people; the classical musicians; the drama queens; the science geeks and the sporty clean-cut girls. We were proud of standing out; of being who we were. There were struggles along the way, but whenever bullies tried their luck, I had a real group of friends to back me up. And I backed them up in return.

By the end of Year Eleven, I was officially cooler than almost anyone else, because Kirsty and I – and another friend called Mary, were going to Glastonbury festival on our own – our first genuinely grown-up adventure. And since then, the only thing that’s stood in my way is my own fear; my own insecurity, whether it’s innate, or born out of the days when no one fought my corner.

On holiday in Turkey, aged 16. How cool am I? I wish I had some Glastonbury photos from 1993 but I seem to have lost them!

On holiday in Turkey, aged 16. How cool am I? I wish I had some Glastonbury photos from 1993 but I seem to have lost them!

Toolkit for overcoming bullying – things I wish I’d known at the time but probably helped me through. This is written as if I was advising myself at the age of thirteen!

  • Be proud of who you are. Whoever you are, you are not a freak. There’s nothing “wrong” with you.
  • Don’t be afraid of being alone sometimes. Make the most of your time. Read a book, play a game, daydream, write, learn an instrument.
  • Don’t conform to fit in. Be proud of the music you like and your hobbies. That will make you a million times cooler than the bullies.
  • Don’t be afraid. Hold your head up high. Pretend you can’t hear the things the bullies are saying about you. Failing that, think of some put-downs and say them calmly, without sounding angry or upset.
  • Tell your teachers and your parents about bullying, and they’ll help. But the biggest struggle is actually with yourself. You need to start believing that you’re an amazing person and you can achieve great things.
  • Start doing great things: write songs and perform them in public; volunteer for interesting things that take your fancy! Don’t hide in the corner – follow your dreams!
  • Be patient. Great friends are just waiting around the corner. You’ll find your soulmates – eventually, you’ll have a whole circle of friends who are really cool, amazing people!
  • And just remember that bullies are really insecure people who get their kicks from making others feel small. Sometimes they come to their senses and change their ways. Don’t give them the satisfaction of letting them make you unhappy.
  • Making yourself happy is the best antidote to bullying!