Monday, 18 March 2019
International Women's Day and Saving Hitler
What has International Women’s Day to do with my novel Saving Hitler? Celebrating the Day made me think about who my female heroines are. Which women had affected and shaped my life? Out of a sea of possibilities floated three obscure women. Women that in weird and wonderful ways re-entered my life as inspiration for characters in my book.
I was useless at school, dyslexic before the word existed. Unable to spell, unable to read properly. At the end of my first year at my secondary modern school, in the long summer holiday, three women reached into my life and changed it forever. Like many illiterates I was desperate with shame. I could pick out odd words and some simple sentences, but I’d never managed to read a book from cover to cover. During the lesson called reading I would stare at the page and my mind would wander the universe. A bad education is at least a good lesson for the imagination; but without reading and writing that imagination is in a cage.
By incredible good fortune I lived one minute away from a public library, a lovely library of parquet floors smelling of lavender polish, and oak shelves packed with books. I joined this library in the summer of my twelfth year. I told the librarian I wanted a book to help my younger brother to read. I said he was six.
Heroine number one: the librarian. We virtually lived next door, she must have known my family and the truth about this little brother aged six, but she didn’t expose my lie. Instead she smiled and bobbed her head from side to side. I learnt later that her nickname among the children who used the library was Noddy. Everyone liked Noddy. She took me to the Children’s section and gave me a slim volume of Thomas The Tank Engine. I took it home and began the laborious job of trying to read it. I can’t say I ever got to like the rather pompous and petulant steam engines, which is ironic as years later I dramatized some for television. However, I stuck it out and page by page made my way through the jungle of words. I read my first book cover to cover because I didn’t want to let Noddy down, didn’t want to take it back and confess I hadn’t finished it. Library kindness had worked where school harshness never had.
I took Thomas back to the library and returned to the children’s section, and stood helpless before the huge choice. Suddenly an old lady popped up by me.
Heroine number two: the library angel. I now realise the old lady must have been pointed in my direction by Noddy. She was in my life for less than a minute and changed it forever. Bizarre as it seems when I think of her now, I see her with my face; old, more chins than is feasible, and a grey halo of hair. She had smiling eyes and a soft voice. ‘It’s so difficult learning to read, but it’s so wonderful when you can. This is a good story.’ She took down a book from the shelves and gave it to me and went. I was holding Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree. A book too young for me chronologically, but just right for my reading age. I took it home and suddenly for the very first time I was reading a book that didn’t remain on the page but that reached up and dragged me down into the story. I was there in that enchanted tree, the boy with a book in his hands was gone. I realised what reading really was; not actually reading, but living, being there in the story, climbing trees in my head and visiting other worlds through a hole in the clouds.
With more confidence I returned to the library where my third heroine was waiting. ‘S’ was a Pakistani boy and although he was my best friend he’d gone to a different primary school to me and was now at a grammar. I’d taken trouble to make sure he didn’t know I struggled with reading and writing and finding him in the library freaked me. So why was he a heroine? From the beginning of our very long friendship ‘S’ always said he wished he was a girl. He really was deeply unhappy about being a boy and he had this crazy dream that one day he would find the girl who had his body, and who wanted to be a boy, and by some magic they would exchange. He was my first mermaid and from here on in he will be she. ‘S’ handed me a book she’d been looking at and said ‘I’ve read this, it’s really good.’ The book in my hand seemed as wide as a wall, the thickest book ever written. It was another Enid Blyton and in spite of its length I took it home.
The Sea Of Adventure sealed the deal with me and reading. I devoured it and went back to the library again and again that summer. Two women and a girl in the wrong body put me through reading university. Who I might have been had gone. Who I was to be was decided. Reading and writing were always run together at school and without thinking I assumed that as I could read, I would therefore write.
It was sixty years ago that I was saved, born again, and for most of my adult years I have been a writer. I have written plays for theatre and radio, screenplays for television, and now in my 72nd year my first novel is being published. My teachers were right; I am slow. And still my three heroines are helping me. I can see them in my book Saving Hitler. Noddy, who could smile down a lie and manipulate a reluctant reader – I see her in her youth in WW2, the innocent smiler who’d undertaken two tours for SOE in Occupied France. My Angel who appeared so briefly in my life reminds me that a character doesn’t have to stay long and that a brief appearance can be devastating. In Saving Hitler she’s male and Japanese. And ‘S’, a pass-over character, the most interesting character in any story; that person who starts as one thing and changes before the reader’s eyes. It has to be the protagonist.
Perhaps all writers have to go through a change, passing over into a new life in place of an old one. And we all need help to make that journey.
As ever, thank you for all those who have pledged. We are now at 66%, and creeping closer to the final funding goal every day. Please do spread the word to any readers you know.