Friday, 3 June 2011
Phil Baker and Me
There's always been my brother, because he was older than me. I had no terrible adjustment to make(as he had, when I came along), having to share my parents' attention all of a sudden - on the contrary, I had a special person to tease me, torment me sometimes, and tell me stories. And to act stories out with.
On those evenings when my parents went out - either to the Youth Club they ran at the YMCA in Kendal, or to go dancing at a hotel in Windermere - Phil and I were left in the care of our poor grandmother, which was as good as being left with the cat to look after us, because she had mental health problems, and when we were naughty, all she did was to pray. God did not cause us to behave, I'm afraid, instead, we did exactly as we liked.
What fun we had! We'd go under one of our bedspreads and travel all over the world - to the North Pole, which was too cold, and the South Pole, which was too hot, a searing desert. I was so disappointed when Phil told me that he'd found out that the South Pole was actually cold, too. It seemed so pointless to have one Pole so exactly the same as the other, and it was years before I found out that this was not totally the case.
We'd play the 78 rpm records on the radiogram in the sitting room and act out exciting ghost stories to 'The Night on the Bare Mountain.' And on long rainy Lake District sunny afternoons, when our father was away leading a conference or training course somewhere, and our mother was studying for her external degree from London University, we'd act out the dramas of our respective king/queendoms, Philipland and Leslieland.
Mine was populated by teddy bears, his by cars. I can't remember the content of these dramas, except for once when Philipland invaded Leslieland and Phil claimed that my bear wasn't Allowed to defeat his tanks by sitting on them. Unfair!! But that was the kind of stand-off about the imaginative life that prepared me for negotiations with editors.
Later, he brought exciting books home from the library, like Candide, which I read with my eyes popping. Later still, when he was doing A-Levels and I was doing O-Levels, he introduced me to literary criticism my teachers hadn't told me about. Like John Dover Wilson, who taught me (quite rightly, I still feel) that Shakespeare should always be studied as something that takes place on stage, not read as a book.
By the time I was doing A-Levels, he was at Cambridge, and further stimulated my ideas. He always had the knack of making literature exciting - though it has to be said that sometimes, when I actually read the book or went to see the film or play, it wasn't as exciting as him talking about it, so he was clearly putting something of his own into it…
He read my poems and suggested alterations - he had started a poetry magazine at Cambridge. He was always encouraging and interested in my writing, even when it wasn't in any way outstanding. He was far more musical than I am - he played a multitude of stringed instruments - I was in the school choir, only - but I learned vestigial skills on his bouzouki, and we used to improvise together, and sing together - I feel that really helped build an ability to comprehend narrative structure in my brain, because I'm sure that the structure of storytelling is the same, at neurological level, as the structure of music. Now that I'm writing a novel whose main characters are in a band, he's being characteristically generous and imaginative with advice and information.
I think it's often parents who are acknowledged as Formative Influences - and certainly our parents were that, providing me with an endless hoard of source material, both as villains and heroes. They were amazing people who contributed much in their respective fields, but though they thought it'd be great if I became a writer, they were very prescriptive about the way we should live, and about the kind of things I should write. When I didn't follow their spec, they were outraged.
It was my brother who first shared that imaginative space with me, and then encouraged me to find my own voice.