I thought it best to make more of an effort with my blog so please tune in more often. The thing is I only use it to post short stories and don’t get much time to plot them all. So here goes with a more “book review,” set of posts where I write about some of my favourite reads. They will include the mainstream and the self-published, novels, short stories, fiction and nonfiction, comics, graphic novels, books my kids enjoy and well, anything really; no borders here; whatever I feel like (my blog my prerogative alright?!)
So after having a look at the last book I read I thought I should turn the clock right back to the beginning for one of my most important influences. Knee-high to a grasshopper I was when I boarded my Rayleigh Tomahawk and peddled as fast as my chubby legs would take me to the newsagents. Grasped firmly in my hand the 15p pocket money Dad gave me. It was a Thursday and no coincidence my pocket money was that day; The Beano was out. It cost 9p; leaving me 6p for sweets and at a halfpenny each you get a hefty dozen of fruit salads, blackjacks and flying saucers. I recall the woman behind the counter’s frustrated sigh as she stood with a scoop in hand awaiting the important halfpenny decision and a queue of kids behind me.
I would get home, munch my sweets and read my comic; revelling in the stories of Dennis and Gnasher, Lord Snotty, Billy Whizz, Little Plum, Smudge, the Bash Street Kids and so many more. The comic though was more than a read as later I would grab myself a pencil and paper and copy the adventures. As time went on I began creating my own characters and plots based on the in-house style. It was a Bash Street Kids story where the teacher took the kids on a visit the Beano studio that really took my attention. I am sure it was a fun strip for the staff, a chance for the artists to caricature the writers and the writers to mock the artists but for me it was so much more than that, for the first time I gave consideration to fact that people actually sat and wrote and drew these things, for a job! In awe of the concept I set my ambition that day to become a cartoonist.
In a world that looked very dated, the children all wore shorts and the teachers wore traditional cloaks and mortars, burglars wore masks, stripy costumes and carried a bag with “swag” written on it and prisoners wore suits with arrows on. However it was always daring and not very PC by today’s standards, Dennis the Menace armed with catapult but would always end up with the retribution of his father’s slipper. Although his beating was gradually faded out, when I first began reading it the last panel of Dennis the Menace would always have him over his father’s knee while the dad ceremonially held his slipper ready for a swipe and later on they only planted the thought into children’s heads by showing him calling for Dennis while holding a slipper or else drawing a door with effective “Thwack!” sound effects. We relished in the styles of yore and the mountains of mash potato with sausages stuck out at all angles, we savoured the speech they used to cover up obscenities like “Golly!” the world that convinced me that a haggis was a hairy, dumpy little creature with fangs that lived in the Highlands of Scotland where every man walked around with a tree trunk under their arm.
That world broke the rules of English as well as stereotyping everything in its pages. For years after reading the Beano I pronounced Dennis’ dog G-Nasher (sounding the silent G) and they didn’t help much by adding a “G” to every word beginning with an N that came from Gnasher’s mouth, G-news, G-night, etc. Well, if Shakespeare could make up words willy-nilly why not DC Thompson? However the comics opened us to a world that couldn’t be replicated so easily in film as it could with modern CGI and we had no choice but to read. We read the whole thing from cover to cover and eagerly anticipated the next Thursday to come along. I read, unlike most children today and although it was not the best piece of literature it was keyed in with our likes and dislikes. It sorted the men from the boys, telling us who the “menaces” were and who were “softies.” It taught us if we lived by the sword we died by the sword, all the characters meeting a fate of their own foolish consequences. It taught us that the rules of language were there to be broken and it gave us hours of laughter and enjoyment.
In an interview I did some years ago I was asked of my influences, “what comics did you read as a kid?” I answered the Beano and so the interviewer asked if I had any desire to read any Fleetway or perhaps even venture into American superhero comics like Marvel. I simply said no, but now, thinking about the question a bit more clearly I should have said, “Of course I did, I would have loved to have every comic ever made but heck, I only had 15p!”
So loyal to the Beano I was and only if I was lucky to find some money on the floor, been good enough to warrant my father giving some extra or cunning enough to get away with slipping a Dandy, Beezer or a Nutty Comic inside the Beano without the shopkeeper noticing did I ever venture beyond that comic. However there would be occasions when you could further your reading experience. Those opportunities would be thus: 1- the creation of the comic library where full length stories of, not just Beano characters but features of ones from the Dandy and Nutty (like Bananaman) too would be available, though this was not until the mid-1980s. 2- Summer holidays and a massive A3 sized summer special would be a treat worth every penny from the camp shop. 3- the most important, the annual, normally reserved as a stocking-filler on the Christmas holiday. The annual was so important; it was like all the characters would put on a special show.
So then, imagine if you will a jumble sale in a school hall in the early 1980s, musky old 70s clothes, jigsaws and unwanted toys priced exceptionally low in order that someone might desire this tat. My mum is hurrying through, perhaps looking for a winter coat when I am distracted by a Beano annual from 1973. My mum protests, why did I want that old thing when I read the modern Beano? Why indeed? I justified my argument by the fact that it was the year that I was born, and it paid off.
This event opened my eyes to the Beano of yore, a place that still cradled serious adventure stories in its pages, something the Beano of the 1980s had long dropped. I was thrilled to see my heroes inside, but drawn by slightly differently. I was also keen on the ones I had not met before, wondering why they were dropped. I recall getting a bit of a crush on the leather-clad masked catlike Katie from Billy the Cat! I was also quite correct, the art in the Beano of the 1970s seemed more polished than that of the 1980s and so I ventured off to discover the world of the Great British comic book style, although the artists were never allowed to sign their own work so I never knew any of their names they were the William Hogarth’s of their era.
It would be decades later when my comic “Rat Arsed and Shit Faced 2; Escape from Newport,” would be reviewed by Dez Skin of Comics International. He compared my style to that of a man called Ken Reid. I called his office and spoke to him to thank him for the great review and he mentioned the guy’s name again, I didn’t know he was, taking him to be an American underground cartoonist like Crumb and Shelton.
When I admitted this to the man on the table next to me at the Bristol comic con who was the Thrud cartoonist Carl Cristlow he told me that he was a very great British cartoonist that drew for the DC Thomson and Fleetway, if Dez said I was like him than I should take it as a very high compliment. He told me that he drew Roger the Dodger and many others and it suddenly fell upon me that despite citing the many underground cartoonists like Crumb and Shelton as my influences Dez had managed to decipher the clear influence I had as a youngster reading the Beano. This is when I set about discovering all those artists names, the newly arrived internet helped. Ken Reid, Leo Baxendale, David Law to name but a few, with the crème-de-la-crème, Dudley Watkins.
It really felt at that point we had come full circle and I still hold a deep love for these comics to this day. It is shame to see their demise in popular culture as the kids download games to play on tablets. We saw the final Dandy Comic a year or so ago and I fear for the future of the Beano now too. From 1937/38 they ruled children’s lives, they bought fun and laughter and they inspired so many to take up reading and writing.
If I am to write blog posts about my favourite books these have to be, without question at the top of the list. DING – DONG! (You will only get this if you were a member of the Dennis the Menace fan-club!)
If you liked this idea of me babbling on about my favourite reads please let me know by commenting and liking as it will spur me onto to write more.