Recently the memory of a book I was given as a child by my Dad re-emerged while I was telling a colleague an anecdote. He loves classical history, and I mentioned this obscure book that I had been given when I was around 11 or 12, that I don’t believe I fully understood at the time. I was edging my way into more adult literature around this time, and one day my Dad handed me The Night Life of the Gods by Thorne Smith – something he had read as a child and loved. His copy was well worn, proof of his affection for it 30 years earlier, and as any child might I idolised my father and took on his recommendation. I have a strong recollection of thumbing the fragile pages while we were on an excessively long holiday in California, sitting in the back of a rental car zipping across the Mojave Desert, listening to TLC on my trusty Walkman.
As much as I wanted to, I just didn’t really get it. There were whole chunks of the book that I remember being hilarious, but others that just sailed past me. After lending the book to my friend I was inspired to re-read it, convinced that I would have far more patience now. I opened it for the first time in 15 years, and sensory memories came flooding back to me when I touched the grainy pages and out fell an old ratty cotton bookmark I’d shoddily embroidered as a child.
The novel was written in 1931 about a wealthy eccentric American, Hunter Hawk, and his insufferable family, and reads like something between an Evelyn Waugh satire and a Neil Gaiman romp. With great effort, Hunter has perfected a method of turning people into stone statues, and with the help and magic of ‘The Little People’ he also learns to turn statues into flesh and bone, causing no end of havoc. While being comical, Smith often alludes to the corruption of wealth, the mindless parties, drug taking and heavy drinking that fills these people’s lives, and there is no small amount of romantic confusion that pivots around off stage sexual encounters. I’m no longer surprised that this book didn’t click with me when I was 11.
It really is a treat – an escapist, screwball delight that has you wrapped up in the pleasures of the gods. Smith knew exactly how to throw you off course, and give you the sensation of being carried away by a circus – all reason and rationality lost along the way. I’m so glad I picked this up again, and it’s such a shame that there is pretty much nothing by him in print any longer. It’s likely that this will be the only novel by Thorne Smith I’ll ever read.
Reading this reminded me of the things I chose to read as a child, and the things I ignored that I really shouldn’t have. I wish I had been a more adventurous reader as a child, as I feel sure that my 11 year old self would have truly loved books like Howl’s Moving Castle or His Dark Materials (as I certainly do now as an adult), and I wonder how reading books like these back then would have changed me. I would love to go back and visit myself, and hand me a copy of The Call of the Wild or The Wizard of Earthsea and wait for my reaction.
While thinking about the books I wish I’d read, I also considered the books I deeply loved as a child that I could get something completely different out of now as an adult:
I think anyone who grew up around Great Missenden, like I did, feels a special sort of connection with Roald Dahl in an almost possessive or territorial way, as he was a well know local. We used to drive past his home on the way to school, and I would stretch in my seat to glimpse the famous gypsy caravan through the bushes in his garden. I loved Boy because, unlike Dahl’s novels, it felt like reality with a lick of adventure, and not the other way around. He used to play tricks on locals and family members to pass the time, and detailed the brutal corporal punishment at his school that I always felt thankful wasn’t mine. I still feel emotionally attached to this biography, and I would love to have a read of it from the other side of my childhood.
I only recently found out that the novel was pre-dated by the radio series – I had always assumed otherwise. I remember listening to the series in the car on long journeys when I was small, when the main attraction was the silly words and names like Zaphod Beeblebrox, and then reading it some years later (after watching the 80s TV series too). I feel that Douglas Adams’ sense of humour influenced my own, and it’s again something I feel mildly territorial about as it feels so valuable to my formative years. It would be great to give it another read through, to see how little I probably remember.
I loved Spike Milligan so much, from his riotous part in The Goon Show (another car journey treat), and his various TV shows that must have been repeated on the BBC when I was small, to his surreal drawings, and of course his poetry. I think revisiting his children’s verse is vital, as well as the vast collections intended for adults, to recapture the eye watering giggles they inspired in me 20 years ago.
I felt there was a bit of an absence of female writers/female characters on my list, and I’m still wondering why that is. However, Wuthering Heights got me around 14 years old, and I have re-read it 2 or 3 times since. It really shaped how I felt about love and romance for a long time, making me believe that anything I may have felt for someone that was less than earth shattering really wasn’t worth the bother. A dangerous notion in the hands of a teenager, and probably the reason for my very romantically unsuccessful adolescence…
This was my opener – the gateway book which would lead me to the harder stuff: Discworld. It seems as though Discworld overshadows a huge amount of Pratchett’s other work which, although inevitable, is sort of sad. The Johnny Maxwell series grabbed me instantly as a child – the nonsense and chaos, combined with adventures that seemed tantalisingly possible. These are some of the few novels Terry Pratchett set in our reality, and they really are so much fun, as well as offering an alternative world-view integral to broadening children’s minds.