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Revisiting the books of male adolescence – Part 1

Some people can remember the exact moment from their early teenage years when they first encountered A Great Book. Such recollections are the stuff of literary memoir. The child reaches up on tiptoe, in a library into which autumnal sunlight filters through green-tinged glass. He pulls a calf-bound volume from a high shelf. Or a well-thumbed paperback, abandoned by an unknown stranger to whom the author will forever be grateful, fills a lengthy train journey to Crewe or Novosibirsk. Whatever the mechanics of discovery, Austen, Trollope, or Dickens is found, like illumination in a wholly darkened world. The details are immaterial. You have read such things before. By contrast, I can remember the exact occasion that I discovered Andy McNab.

It was in the library of my minor Fenland public school. I was, I am fairly sure, in the second form, which places us in 1997-8. A matter of months beforehand the headmaster mounted a dais and expressed concerns regarding the new Labour government. I, by dint of a July birthday and the longer summer holidays gained by my recent evacuation from the state education sector, must be 12 (previously there was some chance I would be at school on July 18, now, in this brave new fee-paying world, there is none).

The book I find is called Immediate Action. It is large format, hard back, the cover is green. I cannot be sure, but I imagine it is swaddled in some kind of plastic protective sheath. Most extraordinary of all, and of this element I am quite certain, is the bookplate. ‘Immediate Action,’ I discover, has appeared in the school library through the bequest of no lesser personage than Mr. Strong.

Strong, and that really was his name, occupied a slightly unclear portfolio, more than caretaker, less than estates manager. He favoured adidas tracksuit trousers. He had been in the army. His gift of Immediate Action to the library was surely an unprecedented act of literary donation, perhaps intended to stiffen the weedy youth of Cambridge. (All will be clearer when we turn to the book’s subject matter). Who knows Strong’s true motivations? But at the time I was grateful for them. ‘Immediate Action’ went into my rucksack. I read it. Indeed, I practically inhaled it. I loved it.

In retrospect, all this is rather embarrassing. But it is true, and I think it illustrates a wider phenomenon. Retrospective assertions of youthful literacy are not to be trusted. I have always questioned, for instance, whether John Stuart Mill really took Greek at three. Such claims are such robust scaffolding for subsequent intellectual adulthood that, to my mind, they should always be treated with suspicion.

I would therefore like to make a counterclaim. I did not read much classic literature as a child. Of course, the proof of a negative is a notoriously thorny philosophical proposition, so here too an element of trust – nay credulity – is required on behalf of you, the reader. But if you can privilege me with such little faith please do. For, as someone who has in later life read a number of books, I am interested in the fact that, with few exceptions, I did not tear through serious ones when I was small. Is this, for instance, evidence of some deep-lying failure on my behalf?

I find my own reading history interesting too because it is not that I did not read at all when smaller. There are issues of verb voice here; I was read to, as part of the suite of activities, viz. piano lessons (unsuccessful) and French exchanges that I once saw described as necessary to ensure your child becomes a bona fide member of the English middle classes. Being read to involved the classics of the pre-Harry Potter children’s canon: Black Beauty, Children of Green Knowe, Swallows and Amazons etc. But beyond this passive activity, or perhaps fostered by it, I was a self-directed consumer of books. I was, to choose a tired noun, a reader. It is just that the books that I chose to read on my own accord cannot now surface on an adult’s – or my own – bookshelf without causing wincing.

I decided therefore to revisit my teenage reading to try to find out, in the baldest terms at least, what it all meant, and if any of what I read stands the remove of time. The period in question is pre-15 adolescence. Pre-teen is too young, too much in the being read to category, 16 and onwards in occluded by forthcoming university entrance and another, equally potent spectre, nascent literary pretension (more of that later). Thus the age from 13 to 15 is the most fruitful to re-plumb. As I write this, in the kitchen of a Norman gîte with a large white wolfish dog asleep at my feet, I am not only on holiday but also on the cusp of 27. Therefore we are receding a dozen years and more. Stay with me please.

In terms of the texts that I chose to re-visit, it is most illuminating to first list the titles; subsequently we can examine whence came this seven-strong collection (seven being the limits I determined of my stamina for such an act of cod-Freudian regression). The books I re-read for this excursion were as follows: Captain WE Johns’ Biggles Learns to Fly and Biggles Flies East, Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, Andy McNab’s Immediate Action, (of course) Willard Price’s African Adventure and Underwater Adventure, and Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War.

Due to living abroad I did not have access to the shelves in my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house when collecting these texts. Due to the aforementioned wince-factor too, I knew that I had since purged a number of the books I needed, even from that ancient sanctum. Instead I listed a selection of texts that I could remember reading and ordered them from Abebooks.

My choices did not aim for completeness – I read more than seven books in my childhood. Rather I sought to choose a sample that reflected those I had found myself; books that I had never been told to read. In the interest of full disclosure I should say that in the case of Willard Price I could not remember which of his 14-strong ‘Adventure Series’ I had read, and so chose two representative examples from that plethora. In retrospect, in the light of their astonishingly formulaic composition, I do not think that it really matters which particular titles I chose to revisit from the Price Oeuvre.

Let us now, before cracking the spines of these well-worn volumes, draw initial synoptic conclusions. Our slice of seven books crosses genre boundaries. ‘Young adult fiction,’ is a grotesque term and one not in common parlance when WE Johns and Willard Price were writing. Both author’s work though was conceived and marketed in that niche on original and subsequent publication. ‘Thriller’ is a problematic term too, a pejorative built on the questionable suggestion that excitement is inimical to literary merit. Clancy and Forsyth were surely though pitched with that, notably adult, market in mind. Meanwhile McNab’s offering, boldly blurbed (and hyphenated) as “a no-holds-barred account of an extraordinary life” is surely – in the broadest sense – autobiography, or at least memoir.

The lesson or moral from this reading list culled from the depths of memory seems at first then that it is omnivorous. As previously stated, I chose texts on the grounds that I read them first without a sponsor, that my young teenage self had come across them independently. Of course, nothing, not least reading, truly takes place in such vacuum-like isolation. For example I was introduced to Forsyth – in the form of the more canonical The Day of the Jackal – by an aunt whose other literary gifts included a copy of Richard Burton’s 1883 translation of The Kama Sutra, presented on my 16th birthday.

Meanwhile, while I cannot remember how I first encountered Biggles it is true that he did subsequently acquire a measure of institutional sponsorship, when the tape collection in the Akam familial Volkswagen expanded to include (alongside the ‘Just So Stories’) an audio version of Biggles read by Tim Piggott –Smith (a name seared on my youthful memory). However, in general I found these books by myself. Returning to them they seem a disparate collection. Perhaps though it is more profitable to search for common ground, to look for a thread of continuity – perhaps ‘boy appeal’, which we can analyse.

Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. His website is www.simonakam.com and he has also written these which we think are excellent:  The Long and Winding Road (on Land Rover parts in Africa) and Stars of the Stalls (on second hand book shopping).

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