Tag Archives: Jan Mark

At last!

I’m doing it! I’m actually, finally reading it! ‘It’ being An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories from 1986, edited by Dennis Pepper.

Dennis Pepper, An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories

Having bought the book well used from the school library ‘some’ years back, I always meant to read it over the immediate Christmas period. The one about ten years ago… The book emerged every December and waited hopefully by my side and then it retreated after yet another busy busy Christmas, where I got round to reading one book instead of the half dozen I’d fondly imagined I’d be relaxing with.

There are about 30 short stories, written by everybody from Dickens to Geraldine McCaughrean. (You have to remember the collection is 27 years old. Some authors hadn’t even been invented back then.)

I understand some stories were commissioned, while others have been chosen for their Christmassy theme from classics and elsewhere. Some authors I’d never heard of, while the story by Jacqueline Wilson is like no JW story you’ve ever read.

Jesus is there, from the school nativity to actual Bethlehem, but mostly you get a tremendous amount of carol singing, with a few ghosts and the odd vampire. More vicars and snowy landscapes than you can shake a stick at, so really very traditional. It’s nice. The stories are mostly no more than five pages each, so they make for quick nostalgic dips in between whatever else you need to do at this time of year.

I was especially happy to get re-acquainted with David Henry Wilson’s Jeremy James, who Son and I used to like a lot. Among the other names that I do know are Jan Mark, Sue Townsend, James Riordan, Laurie Lee and Robert Swindells. But as with so many anthologies you don’t need to know the writers. You simply discover new-old authors as you read along.

In a way it’s quite good I waited, because I’m enjoying myself. I’ve still got a few stories to go, but I’ve also got a few more days until I ‘must’ read a ‘mellandags’ book. I shall explain that one later.


The Christmas book ad

The advertisement for books for a child for Christmas; which books should it contain? I was happy to stumble upon an ad that seemed to recommend good books. And it did… but it was from The Folio Society, which sells expensive editions.

And what they suggested were classics. The kind the giver and/or their parents, and grandparents, used to read. When you see a suggestion like that you often think that’s all there is. Or you are likely to, if the only ‘new’ book you’ve heard of is Harry Potter, who will soon be joining The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan and Wendy, The Hobbit, Ballet Shoes and Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales as a classic read.

The kind of book well-meaning adults go on and on about.

At the other end of the scale you have the books ‘everyone’ has heard of, but which don’t necessarily need advertising to sell. Jacqueline Wilson, Horrid Henry, David Walliams, Wimpy Kid. They are all fine! But like the books above, they are obvious choices.

Could we have an ad like The Folio Society’s ‘Best books for kids this Christmas’ that might mention slightly less famous books (and that could also mean the recipient is less likely to have a copy already), but ones that are so very good in a general sense that few children would dislike them if they got them for Christmas?

As The Folio Society ad says, it’s good to leave children alone to read. I’d just like them to have something more recent than what grandad liked when he was a little boy. Considering the books in the ad, they will be aiming at the age group between seven and twelve, roughly?

So, let’s see. Eva Ibbotson. Very reliable choice. What do we think of Michael Morpurgo? I find he is less of a household name among mature buyers than you’d think. Perhaps one of his less famous titles. Philip Pullman. Again, some of his less well known books, so not HDM.

I’m rambling, and you are thinking I’m picking famous names. But away from our select and relatively small group of adults who like children’s books and know about them, I hear people chatting about my big heroes as though they are minor players or newly discovered small fry. Good, but not gods. I have to stop myself from bashing their heads in. (Figuratively.)

Morris Gleitzman. Anything, really. Judith Kerr. Michelle Magorian. Jan Mark.

How am I doing? I’m avoiding picking those authors whose work might be best aimed at a particular age or sex to be successful, however excellent.

By the way, do children still enjoy The Wind in the Willows? Or is it now more of an older person’s choice, rather like Roald Dahl?

Hook, line and Alderley Edge pub

I didn’t see it coming, and David Fickling certainly didn’t. But when Daughter does something, she does it thoroughly. As David enthused at length about Alan Garner and his writing, which he admires very much, he mentioned god’s head (that might not be how it is spelled) and mused about what it might be. Without missing a beat Daughter explained that it’s an Alderley Edge pub, and David was very pleased to have an explanation at last. And then she had to go and let on that she’d just made it up.

(I was thinking that I was a wee bit surprised at her knowledge of pubs, especially in Alderley Edge, but you never know what your babies grow up to know, do you?)

He took it well.


After my Random trip to London five months ago I knew that I had to go and visit David’s Oxford office, because it’s like publishers offices used to be like, and generally really wonderful, according to those who get to go there with their books. The lovely Matilda put us into the diary and threatened – ever so nicely – that there’d be weeding to do in their garden. It seems Linda Newbery and her recent book Lob, about the Green Man, had something to do with that. I believe Linda planted some trees out there. It looked really pleasant, and we were let off the gardening in the end.

DFB garden

David Fickling

Captain's hat

Curious Incident red cars


DFB floor

R L Stevenson

On their other outside there was scaffolding. There is always scaffolding wherever I go. It sees me coming. Here it was padded in yellow stuff. Presumably to prevent me injuring myself when walking straight into it. I had wondered if DFB has the whole house in Beaumont Street, but on the top floor they have stashed some dentists who are used to persuade authors to behave. Other measures against difficult writers involves incarceration in the basement. We found two men down there, ostensibly ‘working’ on comics and covers, but I don’t believe that. It’s also where David keeps his bike, and I can just imagine him racing through Oxford, red scarf trailing in the wind.

I do like a colour co-ordinated man. (Or have I said that before?) It’s all to do with Mother Fickling, whose clothes shopping expeditions little David didn’t care for. But once he knew he had to dress for an ‘audience’ he hit on his ironic style, which is very Fickling. Red bow tie, occasional red scarf, and red socks. And shirt and trousers in-between. Saw no evidence of shoes. Captain’s hat hanging on clothes tree.

Once we’d Garnered on about Alderley, we moved on to where we belong, and David does a good falsetto when he talks about Australia, which is nice, but not for him. Neither was Spain. He’s learning Japanese, but is most likely not contemplating moving there. He likes Oxford, and his house where you can’t swing even a small cat.

David and I have both – separately – worked our way through what the library had to offer, and that’s how he feels you should expand your reading, by trying new things. He reckons the UK is bad for comics, and he still hopes to remedy this by bringing his DFC back. He will not be beaten.

Among the many DFB books both in David’s room and in Matilda’s front office he has some shelves with his own childhood books. And Daughter pointed out how many different language versions of Philip Pullman’s books she could see. I noticed lots of copies of Jan Mark’s Useful Idiots, and I hadn’t known David worked with Jan.

Someone else who works at DFB is Bella Pearson, and on the same upstairs floor we encountered something as rare as an editor of adult books. She remained safely behind a closed door, and David did a passable Attenborough commentary on this species.

As I mentioned yesterday, Matilda went and got us sandwiches for lunch, although David said he’d be happy to take us out (must remember that) and even threatened us with sushi (we’re northerners for goodness’ sake!). Once we’d sorted our chicken from our falafel we did very well. Even Daughter managed fine, avoiding all tomatoes, and the root vegetable crisps.

If he is to be believed it seems David has a past in Swedish geography, and accidentally ended up at Cambridge through having read a book on history. Now he’d quite like to do physics… But he’d rather avoid blogging, so let’s be grateful for that.

David Fickling

And after our little battle over the k-word, David gave in at the end. One day I’ll learn to curb my typing, but I guess that’s not today.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

Stratford Boy

Stratford Boys

There is only one other novel that’s made me feel like The Fool’s Girls by Celia Rees did, as far as getting that ‘Stratford feeling’ goes, and that’s Jan Mark’s Stratford Boys.

The first sentence of the book is sheer genius for setting the tone of the whole story; ‘The Shakespeares had the builders in again’. You can’t know that it was the same in those days, but it’s quite fun to imagine that it was. It’s what makes you identify with Will Shakespeare and his parents and friends. No matter what century; we’re all the same. More or less.

16-year-old Will ends up writing, and putting on, a play with his friends, and various other more or less sane characters. It’s absolutely hilarious, and not everything goes wrong. In fact, by the end of the book Will is thinking ahead to ‘next time’. So it can’t have been too bad.