This series of shorts will be written as random memories surface. They could be triggered by a sound, smell, seeing images or from conversations. The order in which they are written is also random to reflect the immediacy of the moment that they manifest themselves.
At secondary school in the 1960’s one of my teachers, Mr David Gowers, not the English cricketer; took an interest in what I was reading.
I always remember the day I was in the room that served as a library reading a fictional spy story. I can’t remember what it was called but I do know that it was definitely not a James Bond story as that would have been far too racy for young schoolboys to have open access to a the time. Anyway, Mr Gowers sat next to me and looked at the book I was reading.
‘No, no Russell……..this is not a proper story if you are really interested in spies. You want to read about spies at least read something that is true’.
With that he got up from his chair and searched the shelves. He came back with a hardback book and put it in front of me on the table. I could see there were some pages of photographs near the middle of the book. Mr Gowers watched as I turned to the photographs which were of men and women doing combat training or standing in front of aircraft dressed in civilian clothes.
The stories that enveloped the pictures were of men and women trained during WWII in espionage and sabotage. They would be trained and then parachuted into France to support the resistance movements, send back intelligence or wreak havoc amongst the enemy by singular acts of sabotage and bravery.
After I finished reading the stories I realized that most of the photographs of these people were probably the last ones ever taken of those that did not survive their missions and were either killed in action or suffered brutal endings during interrogations. No military uniforms or identity so no Geneva Convention to protect them in enemy hands.
Despite the horrific stories of these people I was hooked on non-fiction from that moment. History and biography is what I started to love reading and continue to do so today. However, after I had read the collection of spy stories Mr Gowers did introduce me to some adult fiction……not pornography.
As well as being my form teacher for a year Mr Gowers was also my English teacher for a couple of years. Each week he would set the class an essay topic on a Friday to be written up as homework over the weekend. Each subject assigned was like a license to explore my imagination and create a journal of my travels on to the pages of the small exercise books the school issued that were neither A5 nor A4 but somewhere in between. They were held together by staples which would catch the skin of your hand with a sharp jab if you were concentrating on what you were writing to fill the lined pages and your hand tried to slide over the centre of the book when you reached the middle pages.
Having been brought over to the UK from Canada by my parents and with fresh memories of the cold winters and hot summers there some of my writing for Mr Gowers must have carried some North American influence. Through the clarity of hindsight this is the only reason I think that he pointed me towards my next set of reading.
In the library on another afternoon Mr Gowers asked if I had read any James Thurber or F Scott-Fitzgerald. I had not read any of their books or stories. He went on a search of the shelves.
‘Russell, I can’t find any Thurber but I have found The Great Gatsby. I have a Thurber at home you can borrow once you have read Gatsby’.
‘Thank you sir’ I said.
Bearing in mind I was only 13 or 14 at the time I did not fully appreciate the themes and characters Scott-Fitzgerald had written. On my first reading of the story it was about a lonely man that threw wild parties at his house on Long Island that he only ever attended from the distance of his private rooms in the house. It was a glamorous and superficial world and to paraphrase one of Scott-Fitzgerald’s expressions, ‘it was like crystal glass, very beautiful, very fragile and totally transparent’.
There was also something magical about the name ‘F Scott-Fitzgerald’ that grabbed my imagination.
It was not until I saw the movie with Robert Redford that I began to understand the deeper themes of the story.
I know that there appears to be a contradiction between Mr Gowers lighting the flame of interest in non-fiction and then introducing me to American fiction but I appreciate now that he was trying to broaden my reading experience.
I re-read The Great Gatsby a few years ago after watching the movie with my wife. When we first sat down to watch it her reaction was to not enjoy it but after a few minutes she was enthralled and enjoyed it. This most recent reading extended my understanding of the story.
Mr Gowers did lend me a Thurber book. At the time I was really impressed by his work and would borrow whatever I could from the library. Here was an author who could write short stories and illustrate them with simple, almost not very good drawings. My interest in him waned after a I left secondary school.
These recollections started to resurface recently as a result of the release of a new Great Gatsby film being released with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. From the short extracts shown on TV it looks even more lavish and glamorous than the version with Robert Redford. The recollections were then reinforced on a Saturday night on TV when there was a documentary about the life of F Scott – Fitzgerald broadcast. It showed how when writing Gatsby he impregnated the character with a lot of his own characteristics. He interwove the shallowness of his own Jazz Age life of the 1920’s in New York of flappers, wild parties, loves lost, loves found again and illegal booze into his story all reflected in the green light on the water of Long Island Sound.
Perhaps I should read more fiction as sometimes it is a very close relative of reality.