Thursday 6 April 2023

Shirts v Books plus Goggle-eyes by Paul May

Lately, I've been making shirts. It turns out that I make all the same mistakes when I'm sewing as I do when I'm writing a book. Luckily, when a shirt goes wrong you've only wasted a day or two of your life, rather than a year or two - or ten!

This free, customisable shirt pattern can
be downloaded from the V&A website. 

Actually, when a shirt goes wrong it's usually possible to fix the problem by undoing what you've done and re-doing it properly, so the shirt isn't really wasted - it's just provided you with a painful learning experience. It would be nice if a troublesome book could be fixed as easily. 

At least with a shirt you do have a pattern to follow, and a set of instructions, although the pattern usually has to be altered to fit and the instructions seem to quite often miss out crucial bits of information. Or, just as likely, I haven't read those instructions properly. 

It turns out that my way of making shirts is very similar to my way of writing books. Plunge in, make mistakes, unpick them, do it again. And of course if you've done something wrong at an early stage in the process then the whole thing is going to have to come apart before you can fix it. But eventually, with each shirt I made I ended up with something I could wear and which, at a casual glance, looked OK. I've made five now, and they all have mistakes, but each one is a little better than the one that came before. I think, on the whole, that shirts are less trouble than books.

Cover by Caroline Binch, who also
did the cover of Berlie Doherty's
Granny was a Buffer Girl. She's probably
best known for illustrating Amazing Grace
with text by Mary Hoffman

This month's Carnegie winner is Goggle-eyes by Anne Fine. The book has a very unusual hero in fifty-something, white-haired, slightly tubby businessman Gerald Faulkner (AKA Goggle-eyes). The story is told by Kitty, the older of Rosie's two daughters, and Gerald is Rosie's new boyfriend. Kitty's parents are divorced and her father now lives in Berwick upon Tweed. The book has a Scottish setting though you'd hardly know that most of the time. 

This is a more complex book than it at first appears, always a good thing, I think. Yes, it's the story of a difficult young teenager coming to terms with her mum's new boyfriend, but Gerald isn't just any boyfriend, and Kitty isn't just any difficult teenager. There is an element of instruction in the story which is slyly acknowledged in the device of Kitty telling her own story to another girl who is in a similar situation, and in order to make her point, or points, Anne Fine delights in making the situation as extreme as possible. So Gerald is the most unlikely companion imaginable for Kitty's fiery CND supporting, anti-nuclear weapons protesting mum, and Rosie's fellow protestors are unflatteringly portrayed as ineffective, disorganised, well-meaning and hopelessly ineffective.

It's hard not to suspect that Gerald is Anne Fine's kind of guy, although his requests for Kitty's mum to wear particular clothes do veer into the slightly creepy and possibly controlling. But exaggeration for the sake of effect is the order of the day here. The first time we see Gerald he pets the family cat, with Kitty watching on.

'I thought now he'd be bound to try and get me to speak. It's hard to fondle someone else's cat in front of them, and not ask its name. But Gerald Faulkner was made of sterner stuff than that.

"Up you come, Buster,' he said, scooping Floss up into his arms. 'Who's a nice Kitty?"

I wasn't quite sure what he meant by that, either.'

Gerald makes lemonade and brings the children chocolates, but there's no pretence about him and he's not making any fake efforts to ingratiate himself with the children, -especially not Kitty. It doesn't take him long to make his political position clear.

"So," he said. "You're mixed up in it as well."

Though I had no idea what he was talking about, I got the feeling he was speaking to me.

"Mixed up in what?"

"You know," he said, grinning. "The Wooly Hat Brigade. Close Down the Power Stations. Ban the Bomb."

If Gerald was just winding Kitty up this would be repulsive. But he's not. He engages with Kitty like an equal, not as adult to child. He takes her seriously and expects his own views to be taken seriously by her. And Gerald, it transpires, is very good for Kitty's mum. The process of Kitty coming to terms with the arrival in her life of someone she doesn't want and who seems the exact opposite of everything she could have imagined is very skilfully handled. But in the end it's Gerald who is the most fully-realised character and who will stick in my memory.

I do have reservations about  the treatment of those protestors. I couldn't determine whether Gerald's views were Anne Fine's and there's an element of caricature to achieve comedy. The author does give Kitty some good lines in her arguments with Gerald, as well as allowing Rosie a shining moment towards the end where Gerald has to admire her passion even if he doesn't agree with her. But what some of my friends who spent time in Wormwood Scrubs after cutting the wire at Greenham Common would say about these comically pathetic protestors I hardly dare think. 

It's effective, of course, just because the differences are so extreme, although I suspect this romance is no more likely than your six-foot-tall ex-husband dressing up as Madame Doubtfire and taking a job minding your children. And, like Madame Doubtfire, this is a very funny book, probably the funniest Carnegie winner so far. There's not a great deal of competition for funniest book though. Of the fifty or so I've read so far only a handful could be described as having a humorous element, but there's no question that dry, witty and sometimes caustic humour is an essential characteristic of Anne Fine's writing.

Goggle-eyes is clearly intended to demonstrate to its readers that it's important not to rush to judgement of people, especially potential step-parents. And step-parents, in the late 1980s, were becoming a lot more common with the rise in the divorce rate, so it's a little surprising that this is the first book with a divorce in it since The Owl Service - though I may have missed one: I really should have been noting down some statistics. We also have a family that watches TV, another Carnegie rarity. I'm looking forward to seeing when the first computers and mobile phones appear.

And now I'm going to take some trousers to bits to see how they're made. Lee Child did the same thing with a favourite thriller apparently, when he was working out how to write his first Reacher. 

The parallels between sewing and writing are endless!

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