Friday 25 May 2018

The Best Year Of Our Lives: The Characters - Jim Gray

The grey-haired man whom Paul encounters during the Epilogue describes Jim Gray as Paul's "deputy", but then I guess he would. The Best Year Of Our Lives is, of course, Paul's story, which lends some explanation to this assumption.

Jim is just a little bit younger, and just a little bit smaller, than Paul, and at their age this may indeed count for something. But these slender margins of seniority should not be permitted to obscure the seminal role played by Jim in making this story work. He is at the centre of it all - his father runs the club, his girlfriend is Paul's closest competitor, his brother has an integral role to play and, perhaps most importantly, his sense of perspective more than once keeps Paul treading the straightest path.


Creating the correct dynamic between Jim and Debbie was one of my most difficult challenges during the writing of this book. Whilst Debbie's oozing charisma and cool bravado threatens to overwhelm all in her path, there always had to be a sense that Jim in some way retains dominance within the relationship. Being older and being male, he can level with Paul in a way that Debbie cannot and one is allowed to feel that to some extent at least Debbie only gets away with what Jim permits her to, for the sake of a quiet existence.

At the same time of course Jim has the added responsibility of keeping his brother Colin in his box, as the latter's more or less similar size and stature enable him to assert a degree of sibling rivalry which defies the age difference between them. Add to that his oft-expressed exasperation with Steve and emotionally Jim is fighting on every front, whilst being the cog at the epicentre of the mechanism which turns the gang sans Paul.


Beyond the genuine affection that Paul has for his closest friend, Jim provides an essential link back to the younger members of the gang without which Paul might well have felt estranged. Generally fourteen and fifteen-year-olds aspire to be seen stepping out with the bigger kids, but Paul is able to move in the preferred company of the younger ones because his sidesman, with the slightly younger girlfriend and the still younger sibling, is from his own stable.

Jim Gray is an important, essential component of the complex intersection of personalities which is the Aitston eight. I don't think the story would have retained any credibility without him - indeed I fear Paul would have been left without much kudos and looking a little, well, strange, and set adrift. At the very least, for Jim the right to wear the lumber jacket is one that has been thoroughly earned.

Friday 11 May 2018

Crowlink, a Magical Location for School Journeys: an Appreciation by Ken Noakes - Review

I may never again review a book by another writer to which I am as personally attached as this one. Crowlink: A Magical Location For School Journeys - An Appreciation By Ken Noakes is not just a fascinating venture back to an age of innocence for those of us who as children were part of the experience. As a retrospective it serves also to remind us that that innocence was shared, in some degree, by the adults in our company back in those far off days and indeed by society itself.

At 56 pages, which includes over forty fascinating illustrations, it is in fact a booklet rather than a book. That is ample enough to do its job, which is to recount the experiences of the author as a young primary school teacher - first at Worple Road School and then at Isleworth Town School - on the annual educational trip for pupils, in their last year before splitting up and moving on to their respective secondary schools, to the rural hamlet of Crowlink, hidden in a remote valley in the Sussex Downs.

As one of the Worple Road pupils who attended this annual event, at the age of ten way back in 1972, this work was always going to hold a special interest for me (I even get a mention at one point as one of those who still has his project folder, relatively intact and in safe keeping). Ken Noakes was my class teacher that year. I thought he was quite middle-aged at the time, but he must have been in his very early twenties.


For primary school pupils at Worple Road (and presumably for those later at Isleworth Town) Crowlink was the culmination of seven years of learning and development. When you got to the fourth year of junior school, which followed on from three years at infant school, going away to Crowlink was your rite of passage. Excitedly, we all brought in our £1 a week to school (plus £1.50 insurance) to get our yellow card stamped, and once the whole £9.50 had been forfeit we were booked on the coach, and nobody was going to stop us.

So much for Crowlink, what about the book? Well the book is, as the title suggests, an appreciation of all that was wonderful about the week spent at North Barn, the Holiday Fellowship Guest House, a rather grand building surrounding a small but well-kept lawn which stood at the end of a track which, for its greater part, was accessible only on foot and via a cattle grid. Heading out from the building the track became progressively larger until it was almost a road, with vehicular access, and further down still was a pond.

The author very much has the advantage over me, because whereas I visited Crowlink only once (well twice, my father actually drove my family and I down there the week before to recce the place), he had the benefit of returning year upon year with a fresh class of youngsters to relive the adventure and exploration. And one senses from the book that the whole thing was indeed something of an adventure to him and to his fellow teachers too, almost as much as to the pupils. His task in compiling the book, of course, was to diarise the various visits and outings undertaken by the children whilst flitting between the classes and the years (and two schools), merging the best of all into one narrative whilst steering clear of repetition.


One of the hazards of reviewing a book which brings back strong personal memories is of course distraction. One is instinctively given to reminiscence when reading of familiar events, which is naturally compounded by the fact that many of the names which appear throughout the book are well-known to me. For that reason I read it twice in quick succession, once for the trip along the proverbial Memory Lane and the second with the purpose in mind of trying to look at the work objectively. And my objective conclusion is that the magic of this book lies precisely in its quality as a marvellous reminisce - not just for those of us who went to Crowlink with Worple Road or Isleworth Town, but for anyone at all of a certain vintage who looks back with fondness to a simpler age bestowed with the mixed blessings of less regulation and more trust.

What I like most of all about the book from a creative point of view is the way in which three stories run coterminously yet at the same time quite distinctly. The first is the story of the South Downs and of the various local attractions and places of interest visited by the parties of school children and their teachers. The second centres on North Barn, on what it had to offer the children and the sheer buzz of being domiciled together for a whole week within its confines, free in most cases for the first time in their lives from parental authority but under the watchful and protective gaze of their teachers. And the third, and by far the most important, is about the children themselves - their emotions, their interaction with each other and with their teachers, their thirst for knowledge, their reactions to their unfamiliar surroundings, their development, their response to their first taste of (albeit well-supervised) freedom, their imaginations, their joy.


In my novel The Best Year Of Our Lives the main characters are just a little older than the Crowlink holiday children, but they will have been through some of the experiences, and felt some of the emotions, that the young pop-pickers of that lucky local generation were given the opportunity to taste. Indeed I wouldn't be entirely surprised if at least one or two of them had been there themselves. There is a faultless seam of magic which begins in contemporary reality and later sadly fades into memory, but remains unbroken nonetheless. Crowlink is still a part of me all these many years on.

Oh and did I mention that it was a well-written book? It is - spaciously laid out, generously illustrated, kind on the eye. But also it combines good ordered structure with humour and heart to make for an easy and enjoyable read. Second nature, I guess, for a school teacher!

Crowlink: A Magical Location For School Journeys - An Appreciation By Ken Noakes is available at £6.95 including postage and packing. Contact to order a copy.

Wednesday 9 May 2018

The Best Year Of Our Lives: The Characters - Beverley Turner

If Steve Turner is oafish, so his younger sister Beverley is sardonic. She may only be eleven, or twelve as the story progresses, but her innocence is only compounded by her unique and lovable wit. Loyal to Paul, proud of the gang, she is there till the last when most of the others (even Paul) have wandered at least on occasion. Only twice do we see her entirely serious - once with the self-induced, but thankfully temporary, loss of her relationship with Colin Gray, the other as the curtain descends, in Chapter 61.

As far as the aforesaid "relationship" with Colin goes, Paul himself finds he reflects on quite what that means when both parties to it are eleven. But that brings us inevitably to consider what any relationship entails. Or as Bowie might have put it - we're just older children after all.


Just how central is Beverley to the plot? In my view, very much so. The point of the gang for Paul is that it represents his last shot at childhood, and to hang on to that he needs the gang to stretch backwards, not forwards, just as far as crediblity, and credulity, will allow. As a settled couple who are by no means immature for their ages, she and Colin provide that much needed link back to earlier years without being entirely detached from the where the older ones are with their lives. They are the smallest of the bigger kids that feasibility will allow, as it were.

Beverley is too young to be scary like Debbie, or sensual like Tina, and yet she carves her own niche quite effortlessly with a wink and a smirk.