I was a teenager in the 1980s. I wrote to my friends on paper, with a pen, and posted the letters in stamped envelopes. The charts came out on a Sunday afternoon, and I hovered by the radio with a blank tape cassette in the tape deck. There was no way of knowing what was at Number One until the countdown was over, and if you wanted to buy the seven inch vinyl singles upon which the charts were based, you had to wait, because the shops weren’t open on Sundays. We ate Bernard Matthew’s turkey roll, Arctic roll and Swiss roll, and a rollover week meant that someone had eaten the last slice. Oh, and there was the threat of nuclear war. And AIDS.
I wasn’t sexually active when AIDS came in and the fact that suddenly sex could kill you came as something of a relief. But nuclear war? Oh boy, was I the right age to be scared witless by the prospect of nuclear war. My grown-ups gave me Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells, a novel whose ending is so bleak that in 1994 it was republished with a new one. But this was 1984. I was twelve. Raymond Briggs followed up Father Christmas and The Snowman with When the Wind Blows, with no respect for the sensibilities of his younger readers. And my parents, after almost two decades of waiting for the other to rescue them from their own bitterly unhappy childhoods, let rip with an apocalyptic divorce, which put to bed any lingering hope that regrowth might follow annihilation. I read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four that year too. I thought it was an instruction manual.
I did my O and A levels, went to university, and later trained as a teacher, putting off the writing I’d always wanted to do in order to earn the money I needed to be independent. In those few short years, the nuclear threat receded, leaving me washed up and soaked through with a fear that seemed to be mine alone; my teenage students, although only a few years younger than me, weren’t frightened. Not of nuclear war, at any rate. And judging by the numbers of divorced parents who attended parents’ evenings together without throwing things at each other, divorce had changed too. What to do with my nameless fear, in a world that no longer recognized it?
It was at this time I came across Maggie Gee’s novel The Burning Book. Here was nuclear war – but here was something else. A voice. A voice that said, Somewhere in all this fear, there are stories only you can tell. It was just a voice then. I was in love with teaching, and the need to write was balanced by the need to pay the hefty mortgage for which I alone was responsible. It took me a lot more time, and a marriage, and children, to really listen. I know now that telling stories means throwing yourself into a void with no guarantee of finding your way out. I know that being a writer means much, much more than writing your story down. I know how delicate is the balance between living life and fearing it, and that you cannot do one without doing the other. That fear is productive and vigorous and vital, as well as life-sapping and stultifiying. That we cannot control when, where or to whom we are born, but that we have some say after that if we choose.
A few short months ago, I was on a writing course when the tutor announced a guest speaker. I hadn’t known a guest was coming. Maggie Gee. I thought I’d misheard. But no. In she came, and she taught a session about taking your reader through the middle section of your novel as though she hadn’t, two decades previously, written a novel that had changed my life.
The Burning Book is out of print now, although you can still find it on Amazon Marketplace and Abe Books. Maggie Gee has written a great many more novels – all as aware, all as insightful as the relatively early one for which I was so grateful. I expect she’d say they were better. But how do you measure the value of a novel? Sales? Popularity? The Burning Book gave me something that Maggie Gee cannot possibly have planned or predicted as she was writing it. She threw her story into the void, where it found me. If I had been its only reader, it would have been worth what it cost its author to write.
The world has moved on again, to a place where books are more of a commodity than they have ever been. Writers strive for an audience, for sales, for Twitter followers and royalties and exposure. But as we engage with those very real realities, may we never lose sight of the reader who may, twenty years later, find us with an out-of-print paperback, spine worn thin.
Maggie Gee is appearing at the Little Missenden Festival at 2:45 pm on Saturday 12th October 2013. For tickets and further information, please go to http://www.little-missenden.org