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From Enid Blyton to Porn and Back Again: Childhood Reading As an Accident Waiting to Happen

By Stewart Home.

Going back to my own childhood to write about what I read then also acts as a reminder of how different growing up in the 1960s and 70s was to life for kids today. No computer games, internet, or wide choice of TV channels for me! That said, I was part of the original ‘television generation’ and loved shows like Doctor Who and Batman (and a little later The Banana Splits and Kung Fu), and these programmes in their turn influenced the publications I read.

Starting infant school in 1967 I was taught to read with the Ladybird Peter and Jane Keywords Books, which I hated because they were too easy to understand and seemed really dumb to me. According to the Ladybird website:

“The books were written by British educationalist William Murray and first published by Ladybird in 1964. William had worked with children all of his life and had always emphasised the importance of praise and a positive environment to get the best results in learning. He wanted all children to succeed in reading but had found that a significant proportion of children in the UK were having difficulty, so he set out to simplify the learning process.”

My memory of the books is that they depicted a simplified vision of life based on English middle-class nuclear families, and since among other things I grew up without a father, they failed to reflect my experiences. I also considered the illustrations to be really horrible and old-fashioned. I quickly came to loathe these books with their prissy and perfectly behaved juvenile characters, who — unlike me — never seemed to get into trouble. The books I most enjoyed at infant school were the Cat In The Hat series and related titles by Dr. Seuss. These combined anarchic storylines with crazy word play, and were very much to my liking. Unfortunately they weren’t used for teaching but we were allowed to read them during ‘free play’ periods.

Due to family problems, I missed a lot of school between 1968 and 1972. One of my teachers said that rather than spending these missed days looking at comics and playing with my Action Man, I should be given more educational books, and one series she suggested was the Patterson Blick Instant Picture Books. The Seven Wonders website describes this series thus:

“In the late 1960s and early 1970s Patterson Blick produced a popular range of educational and entertaining Instant Picture Books. The range was the brainchild of Dennis Knight, the author and artist on the series, who wanted to provide concise educational glimpses into a wide range of subjects for youngsters. Each book averaged 13 pages of beautifully illustrated content, including background scenes onto which the inserted transfer sheet images could be rubbed.”

So from the age of seven or so, I’d sometimes be left home alone with an illustrated paperback that included background scenes onto which I rubbed themed transfers. With a break for the cold lunch that was left out for me, one of these books would occupy me for a whole day, and this time was mainly taken up with deciding what to do with the transfers and adding them to the backgrounds.

monsters

My favourite among these Dennis Knight books was the first one I was given: Monsters To Caveman — this included a drawing of ‘cavemen fighting a giant mammoth’ on page 12 that particularly impressed me. Looking at this image again, I still see it as a very far-out and groovy graphic; simple certainly, but powerful, with one man lifted up in the beast’s trunk, and others throwing rocks and spears, as the two cavemen at the front run away!

Other publications in this Dennis Knight series that I remember enjoying include The American Indian and Battle Of Britain (where we got to prove our superior pluck to the beastly Nazis!). These books really thrilled me despite the fact that my teachers thought they were ‘educational’. They were on the whole less approving of my attraction to printed matter in the form of comics like The Beano or Whizzer and Chips. The Beano is well known as the longest running weekly comic in the world, and I loved the strips in it like Dennis the Menace, Roger the Dodger, The Bash Street Kids and Billy Whizz. By way of contrast, Whizzer and Chips was a late sixties innovation in British publishing, which Wikipedia describes as follows:

Whizzer and Chips was a British comic that ran from the issues dated 18 October 1969 to 27 October 1990, when it merged with Buster. The format of the comic was a new idea at the time, as the comic was divided into two parts; one called Whizzer and one called Chips, which was a pull-out section in the middle. The slogan was “Two comics in one, double the fun!”

“One concept was that the two comics were fierce rivals. A guest appearance by one character in the story of another would be described as a “raid”, and the “victimised” comic would seek its revenge with a “raid” of its own the following week.

“In common with most British comics both sections originally included some semi-colour strips in black, white and red (duotone) as well as black and white. To reinforce the distinction between the two sections, the duotone strips in Chips were later changed to black, white and blue.

“Readers were encouraged to become either a “Whizz-Kid” or a “Chip-ite”, depending on which section they preferred. The leader of the Whizz-Kids throughout was a boy called Sid with his snake Slippy, and the leader of the Chip-ites was a boy called Shiner, who had aspirations to become a boxer. Both had their own strips within their respective sections, Sid’s Snake in Whizzer and Shiner in Chips.”

I liked Sid’s Snake but for me Shiner had the edge, so I guess I was a Chips boy. Slightly more adult in its orientation, the ubiquitous Commando Comics was one of the other graphic-based publications I frequently read. World War II was a playground obsession among my peers and a frequent topic of conversation among adults. ‘Two world wars and one world cup’ seemed like a powerful slogan when I was a young boy, although obviously I now view it as weak and nationalistic. Likewise, British comics came to look tame after I started getting my hands on their American equivalents (usually all in colour and with adverts for items such as X-Ray Spex and body-building courses). The American comics I saw were usually issued by Marvel or D.C. — Batman, Superman, Justice League of America, The Hulk, Spiderman, Silver Surfer, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America etc. I liked American comics because they completely dispensed with realism and revealed a world that was utterly fantastic. That said, I wasn’t against realism per se, but if I was to enjoy stories grounded in realism then they needed to incorporate things I could recognise from my own life.

Backtracking a little, I didn’t like any of the children’s fiction I was given to read by adults. I found things like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven books tedious. Just as bad was a book we read at junior school, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. The one text-based book I do remember liking from this period was The Zebra Book Of Facts For Boys by Cyril Parsons, which someone gave me as a present: it was a compendium of geographical, social, historical and other facts. I thought knowing the lengths of major rivers around the world, and the height of mountains, was a lot of more interesting than the Christian fantasies of C. S. Lewis, or the reactionary world of Enid Blyton. These two writers might as well have come from outer space because what they wrote didn’t relate to the world I lived in. While adults were giving me Enid Blyton and C. S. Lewis to read, I was standing around in the playground discussing the break-up of The Beatles with my friends.

As a kid some of the places I was taken to visit included Stonehenge and other Neolithic monuments; and nearer to home the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum (where I liked the dinosaur skeletons, of course), and the British Museum (with the ancient Egyptian artefacts particularly grooving me). This, combined with my reading of American comics and liking for sci-fi movies, led me on to books like Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, which speculates about the extraterrestrial cultures of alien space travellers playing a key role in the development of ancient civilisations. Between the ages of about 10 and 12 I read a swathe of paperbacks about UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness Monster, ESP and other esoteric subjects. Although the authors of these tomes could rarely muster a coherent argument, seeing through their bluster still helped develop my critical thinking. I was particularly taken with the work of T. Lobsang Rampa, because I found it hard to believe anyone could be hoodwinked by what was so obviously rubbish — and I laughed my socks off reading books like The Third Eye and The Rampa Story.

casino

By the time I started secondary school in 1973 at the age of 11, I was reading the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, which brought words such as ‘whore’ into my vocabulary. And from Bond I moved on to hardboiled crime including the Mike Hammer detective series by Mickey Spillane — one of the attractions of all these books being sex and violence. By this time I was also watching a lot of horror movies, particularly the old universal monster flicks when they were screened on late-night British TV. You were supposed to be 18 to get into most horror and kung fu movies at the cinema, but I often succeeded in seeing flicks like Fist of Fury, although I was obviously underage. Nonetheless, throughout the seventies I was consistently turned away from sexploitation movies and told I was too young to see them, despite the vehemence with which I lied about my age. My film interests were reflected in my taste for books and magazines about horror, sci-fi and kung fu flicks. From 1974 onwards I was a particularly avid reader of Kung Fu Monthly, a foldout poster magazine featuring Bruce Lee that first appeared that year.

A series of novels that I really liked but few of my school friends dug was called K’ing Kung Fu by Marshall Macao. A cover blurb describes them this way:

“Here’s the dynamite Kung Fu action stories you’ve been waiting for! The greatest Kung Fu experts of all time in a thousand bloody battles to the death! From the wastes of the Gobi to the sin alleys of Hong Kong and Shanghai, the young fighter K’ing hunts the mad killer of his master — the infamous Kak Nan Tang – on a vengeance trail ripping with action…”

I only read the four titles published in the UK — Son Of The Flying Tiger, Return Of The Opium Wars, The Rape Of Sun Lee Fong, and The Kak-Abdullah Conspiracy — but there were another three in the series that only appeared in the USA. Apparently the publisher Venus Freeway Press was an offshoot of Olympia Press, who’d issued books by the likes of William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi in the 1950s, authors I’d move along to as I got a little older.

I went to see Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was six or seven. It took a while for such experiences to be reflected in my reading, but films did have a major effect on what I and those around me read, and I doubt I’d have ploughed my way through the Bond novels if I hadn’t seen some of the films first. I probably started reading science-fiction books around the age of 10, and one of the first I remember lapping up was Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, a writer who’d had a role in scripting 2001. Childhood’s End dealt with a superior alien civilisation stepping in to prevent the destruction of the earth by nuclear war. By the time I was 12 my tastes veered more towards hipster sci-fi novelists like Michael Moorcock, and starting with Stormbringer (a novel patched together from shorter pieces), I became particularly obsessed with his Elric sword and sorcery stories.

I don’t remember when I first saw porn magazines but I’d seen plenty by the time I was 12. Lots of boys would have a stash of porn that they’d try to hide outside their home so their mother didn’t find it. We’d go around trying to locate other kid’s stashes and when we found them would randomly post the magazines through people’s doors. Anything that made it to the top shelf in a local newsagent’s we’d get our hands on, since this material was easily accessible and frequently shoplifted. I also saw more hardcore photographic books, since some boys at my school had dads with extensive collections of porn, and they’d borrow or half-inch items. A lot of boys just wanted to look at the pictures of naked ladies (even the hardcore material we perused tended to feature lesbian sex pitched at heterosexual men), but I found the written articles fascinating too. I can still remember pieces that I read in the mid-seventies on subjects such as how to pick up women for sex: hot tip, hang around outside beauty parlours checking out women getting their hair dyed, because when a ‘chick’ gets her first touch of gray she’ll be worried she’s past it and will happily get off with the first man who comes on to her! Another article from an American magazine that left a lasting impression was called ‘The Farmer’s Sensuous Daughter’, which claimed country girls were easier to lay than city girls. Unfortunately I didn’t know any country girls when I was a 12 year-old!

Novels about youth culture in the form of skinheads and hell’s angels were big in my school, and I was passed copies of Richard Allen’s Boot Boys and Peter Cave’s Chopper by other kids before I started picking up books like these myself. I was particularly impressed by the Mick Norman hell’s angels series — starting with Angels From Hell — in which gay bikers were even harder than the straight ones, and outlaw motorcycle clubs were the last chance of freedom for a British society menaced by a repressive right-wing government. Although more popular with boys, youthsploitation was also read by girls. Big among other boys in my school, but not to my taste or that of any girls I knew, were books like Legion Of the Damned and Wheels of Terror by Sven Hassel, novels supposedly based on the author’s experience of fighting in a Nazi convict platoon. That said, I saw more girls than boys reading factual accounts of the Nazi holocaust and concentration camps — although this was definitely a minority interest.

skinhead

Very popular at my secondary school and with more cross-gender appeal than war books, was the ongoing series The Pan Book Of Horror Stories edited by Herbert Maurice van Thal. These had fabulously lurid covers but tended to appeal to slower readers who’d get through a story a day; I could read a pulp book in a few hours and the short story format didn’t appeal to me as much as novels. Horror was possibly more popular with girls than boys at my school, and I remember far more girls than boys wading through William Peter Blatty’s turgid novel of the mid-seventies smash hit film The Exorcist! I didn’t read The Exorcist myself, but I did enjoy another horror novel that created a sensation among kids at my school, The Rats by James Herbert.

The sexual content in these books was a major part of their appeal, and any particularly explicit passage would be read over collectively and sniggered about. As kids we were curious about sex and since our headmaster was a Christian fundamentalist who’d ripped the pages on human reproduction out of our biology textbooks, this was the best way for us to find out about it. The fact that our nutjob head also spent part of WWII in a Japanese POW camp possibly accounts for the fact that some of us would go on and on about the film Tora! Tora! Tora! We’d also seen, but were less impressed by, old movies like The Bridge On The River Kwai, but I don’t recall anyone going to the trouble of locating a book on Japanese war atrocities.

The headmaster and some of the other teachers seemed to have a lot of trouble understanding the culture of their pupils. Many of the boys may have wanted longish hair, but this was not because they were hippies — our idea of cool was cherry red Doctor Marten boots that went up to your knees (although I only got my first pair of DMs after I left school, some kids stomped about in them while we were still there), Oxford bags and kipper ties with three or four inch knots at the top. Despite the fact that no one went in for kaftans or headbands, during daily assembly the head would bleat on about young people being seduced by bizarre eastern religions. At the age of 12 I’d sit there thinking this was completely nuts, since Christianity itself was absolutely the most bizarre eastern religion I could imagine. And despite the fact that there was a very sizable Muslim student body (and a few Catholics to boot), no concessions were made to non-Protestant views as we sat through five years of complete bollocks on the Bible-bashing front. We had to stand to sing, although I never sang, like a lot of other kids I silently mouthed the words to avoid getting pulled out and punished for refusing to participate.

At some point the Gideons were invited in to present us with Bibles. We’d been instructed in advance that we all had to accept this ‘gift’. The men dishing out these books appeared to be even bigger nutjobs than our head, and seemed completely oblivious to the fact that we just weren’t interested in their fundamentalist bullshit. A lot of us just threw the Bibles away as soon as we got out of the school gates, although several of the kids who lived in the local children’s home were excited by the idea of using the pages as cigarette paper.

Another example of someone failing to understand our schoolkid culture was the very well intentioned student teacher who took over the music class for a term in the mid-seventies. Up to that point we’d only been taught classical music, which we didn’t like, and so the student thought he’d try and relate to us by giving classes about Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited among other things. This educational progressive couldn’t understand why we hated this as much as classics, when to us it was obvious that Dylan made music for grammar school wankers. Northern soul was the pre-eminent musical culture for the hipsters among us, with jazz funk about to come in, and with the rest of the kids just liking typical seventies hit parade dross.

By 1975 when I turned 13, I’d also discovered that books could be used as talismans. I had two in particular that I’d leave on top of my desk at school to wind up the teachers. The first was My Queen And I by republican MP Willie Hamilton. I hated the monarchy and thought it should be abolished, a view that my teachers didn’t share. Hamilton upset them because he called the Queen ‘a clockwork doll’, Princess Margaret ‘a floozy’, and Prince Charles ‘a twerp’. I obtained Hamilton’s book when it first appeared in 1975, a good two years before the Sex Pistols gave a further boost to widespread anti-monarchist feelings with their song “God Save The Queen”. I read My Queen and I when I acquired it, but the copy of Das Kapital: A Critique of Political Economy by Karl Marx that I sometimes placed on my desk wasn’t read until after I left school. Still it served a purpose when I was 13 and 14, since it caused a great deal of upset.

Our English teacher, it was alleged, had appeared in the soft-porn magazine Mayfair when she was slightly younger; and as the ultimate wind-up, a pupil turned up at the school with the issue supposedly containing this spread one day. This much talked about publication was confiscated before I ever got to see it, so I never determined whether the story was true. This teacher was one of the few in the school I got along with, and I wasn’t surprised that she appeared unphased by this incident or others, such as the world ‘Mayfair’ being carved into her classroom door. A little later it was widely rumoured that I was having an affair with this married school mam, but since I’m in a position to know this wasn’t true, it makes me doubt the stories about her having worked as a porn model. That said, during the seventies one ex-pupil from my school did become extremely famous as a topless model.

I’m not sure where childhood reading ends, but let’s cut things off ‘pre-punk’ in the mid-seventies, at the very start of my teenage years. Like most kids, by the time I was 11, I absolutely did not want to read children’s fiction, I preferred what to me appeared to be more grown up stuff — which mostly meant it contained sex, violence and rude words. Ultimately the culture that surrounded me was far more grounded in film, TV, sport and music than reading. In a school like mine, which everyone left when they were sixteen and that was thoroughly working class, there were a lot of kids who didn’t read at all in their spare time — and some in every year who were illiterate. The books I read when I was younger were part of a broader popular culture, and can only be fully understood in their social and historical context. There is absolutely no point in looking at them as ‘isolated’ works of ‘art’… In fact, there is no such thing as ‘an autonomous work of art’!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stewart Home is Britain’s greatest living underground legend.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 12th, 2010.