Childhood stories

I read this Medium post that’s blown up recently, which is about the almost unimaginably huge amount of content on Youtube for children and the ways in which the site’s design has allowed disturbing content to become mixed in with appropriate videos. It’s an interesting read. Unsurprisingly, it prompted me to think back on my childhood encounters with stories, ideas, pictures, feelings, anything that I could not make sense of and that affected me strongly. I’m sure many other people did similar. The things that article talks about are certainly concerning (if couched in a slightly hysterical tone) and I don’t wish to suggest otherwise. It was just a springboard for me to think about instances of exposure to weird and confusing things I had in my younger years (definitely not when I was as young as the children that Youtube content is designed for/affecting, and there’s a great difference between giving a child a book, as would happen to me, and sitting them in front of rolling videos).

One of the most fascinating books of my childhood was The Oxford Book of Children’s Stories, a compilation of short stories from the 1740s through to the 1990s. I can’t quite remember how I first got a hold of this book. I do remember our family owning a copy at some point. Internet searches have given me a bit of information on it, but I get the impression that it is not hugely popular.

This book is a central part of the collection of mysterious, strangely exhilarating things that made a significant impact on my young mind. It was a firm favourite on the weekends when the family settled into “quiet time” – reading and other non-TV activities only. The stories in it were so unlike any contemporary children’s books I read. Their intriguing titles drew me in, some simple and others strangely exotic. Each entry was idiosyncratic in form and subject and vocabulary. I understood all the words, but they were put together in ways that were highly unusual to me. Some had a clearly recognisable moral. Others were not so clear or seemed to have none.

Particularly notable about this book is the handful of stories that were scary or violent or otherwise disturbing, and that paired these themes, to great effect, with a delicate ambiguity. I found one of them here: The Wailing Well. Brilliant and very creepy. I found another here: The New Mother. Horrible and wonderful. Bits and pieces from these and other stories are remarkably vivid in my mind, well over a decade since I read them. A man carrying a young boy’s bloodless corpse. A long wooden tail dragged across the ground. Nanina’s bloodied, bruised feet held tightly in the roots of a tree. Good-hearted little Tommy treated cruelly, and that so casually, by the girl he held such sweet childish affection for. A hostile stepmother making life hell for her powerless new stepdaughter.

Each author of those stories clearly had a great skill for showing a young reader dark and frightening things in ways that were gentle but didn’t coddle or comfort. Truly awful things – gruesome, unjust, punishment beyond the measure of the crime – happened to the (usually child) protagonists of these tales, and the moral of the story often seemed to me to simply be “the world is sometimes a terrible place”. This lesson was imparted in a carefully detached manner, shown rather than told, without the heavy-handedness or world-historic feel of the moral message of so many children’s stories. The rather pedestrian truth of the brutality of life was conveyed in a fittingly matter-of-fact way.

At the time, I wondered if the content of some of these stories was perhaps pushing the boundaries of appropriateness; I could see that it was certainly very different to what I found in other books I would read, even ones that dealt with obviously unusual subject matter. I see now that the material was fine for me at the age I was reading it at, and, moreover, that I was enriched greatly by having things that I perceived to be dark and mysterious and that I could experience alone. As valuable as the content itself was my perception of it, and the role of both content and perception in me creating my private child-minded world of inexplicable and intriguing things. I deeply valued my time spent inside these stories without adults offering explanations or guiding me away from ambiguity. I was taught to feel comfortable treading water when I couldn’t make sense of things, and my young and small world was broadened in profound ways. The mystery of it all was the reward, of course.

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Use of Weapons

 

I recently had the great pleasure of reading Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks for the first time. He’s an extraordinary writer and this is an extraordinary book. He masterfully handles two timelines unfolding in alternating chapters, slowly converging, each telling part of a richly detailed and ultimately heartbreaking story.

As in much of his work, Banks is not holding the reader’s hand. He leaves it to us to negotiate jumps in time and space, but I sense that he doesn’t want to give his readers a stressful experience. It seemed most natural to let the changing cast of characters and places, bizarre events, humour and tragedy wash over me instead of obsessively worrying about keeping track of each detail. Use of Weapons is an unhurried book and I didn’t fight it.

I would say that the story plays its hand close, but it’s hardly playing a game. The concealment of the true nature of certain characters and events isn’t a cheap gimmick here. Banks is not out to deceive the reader. He is honest about what he’s doing, and eventually shows us that it was done in the service of a higher purpose. Trust and patience is rewarded.

I often think about how the reading experience is impacted by the physical nature of a book: a reader can literally see and feel the unread section of a book growing smaller, and this surely has some psychological effect on how we read a novel and anticipate its ending. As the pages disappeared in Use of Weapons I knew that answers must be coming, but, as is usual in his work, Banks will not present them neatly packaged. Each timeline in is infused with a hazy sense of something-not-quite-right from the start, and I became almost weary with dread as the book progressed but refused to accelerate.

Answers came in shocking bursts. I wept hopelessly at the book’s most shocking reveal and again at its devastating conclusion. It was a punch to the stomach followed by a liver shot.

Banks has a precious gift: he shapes and directs his readers’ emotional responses with incredible delicacy and intelligence. His books aren’t packed with explicit themes and subject matter, but he knows how to deliver sudden moments of unbearable horror and pain and bittersweet sadness that leave an indelible impression. The enormity of events becomes clearer the further away I get from them. I’m still turning this book over and over in my mind, weeks after I finished it.

The story is like a grand saga – not in the sense of some massive modern-day multi-book series, but a myth, a cultural artifact. It feels temporally ambiguous, standing outside any particular time and place. It’s already happened and might never happen at all. Unlike much science fiction, it’s not about one single world- or galaxy- or universe-changing event, but about people and history and purpose. Small details and minor plot points contribute to the sprawling story as much as its most impressive turns, and the whole becomes an offering to the tragic figure at its centre. (See the end for a comment that is also a spoiler). I didn’t feel like a participant in this book, but a witness to its events.

I’ve been reading science fiction since my early teens but I’m glad that I came to Iain M Banks a bit later in life. I’m not sure my younger self would have known how to appreciate his work quite so fully as I can now. Each time I pick up a Banks book I haven’t read, I’m a little sad. Excited to read it, of course, but aware that what we have now is it. I’m savouring the unread titles. He is missed.

 

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To be clear: the tragic figure, to me, is Cheradenine Zakalwe, not Elethiomel. When the twist was finally revealed, I was completely heartbroken. I like to see Use of Weapons as an atonement of sorts for Cheradenine’s grim life and death. I don’t think Iain M Banks would necessarily agree with this interpretation, but I’m incurably soft-hearted with this sort of thing.