Pamela Frankau: imaginary friend (1)

Recently my eyes have been revolting – paying me back, that is, for far too many years of staring at a computer screen; one hour staring at the screen now translates into two days of eye-based headache which no painkiller will touch. So I went back to doing things the old-fashioned way. Having laid in a good stock of paper (yes, paper) and pencils (yes, pencils) I now write the first two drafts in longhand (yes, writing) then type up the final draft, one hour per day, whilst starting on the first two drafts of the next piece. Whilst this means a permanent backlog and some frustration – it takes a certain amount of self-discipline to set aside one piece of work and move on to another, rather than having a beautiful electronic ‘script’ to gloat over. Re-learning the art of writing on paper is surprisingly difficult too. This is because word-processing and the internet re-routes your synapses, shortens your attention-span and generally fries your brain. If you want to find out more about this I suggest you download or even (gasp!) read the paper version of an excellent little book by Nicholas Carr entitled The Shallows.

Despite all this, I am quite enjoying it. It seems to be turning me back into a writer and, in some mysterious way reconnecting me to m my youthful self. It’s brought back memories. For example, one day in Woolworths…

One day in Woolworths, when I was fifteen and a half years old, I spotted a copy of Pamela Frankau’s Pen To Paper: A Novelist’s Notebook on a low display stand somewhere between Pick ‘n Mix and Cosmetics. It was a hot Saturday afternoon, and motes of dust were dancing in the sunbeams streaming in from outside. Pen To Paper beckoned me. I circled the stand and flipped it open while my companion’s attention was elsewhere. There was a sign: All Books 6d.

6d. Even with my measly 5s a week pocket money I could afford that.

My life changed the moment Pamela caught my eye in Woolworths that day, and I knew it. I was desperate to ditch Lyndsay Barwell so that I could get the train home, open those enticing, print-smelling pages and start reading it, but Lyndsay Barwell was not an easy girl to ditch. Besides I had only met her at the station half an hour ago. Lyndsay lived in Gillingham and I in Rainham, one stop down the line. Dull, determined, the only-child of older parents, she had fished me out of our form’s Least Popular reservoir as most likely to comply with instructions, or the least likely to have made other plans. Only-children have a nose for losers. We were both Man From Uncle fans. Lyndsay fancied Napoleon Solo and I, fortunately, doted on Illya Kuryakin. She went a step further and composed supplementary episodes of Man From Uncle in the back bedroom of her parents’ terraced house. She never actually made me read them. There is a name for this nowadays – fanfic (‘fic’ to its afficionados). I was just kind of embarrassed for her.

So, we went on to do the kind of thing teenage girls did on a Saturday afternoon in the sixties. The hardback book seemed to be trying to melt its way out of the plastic bag I was so noncholantly swinging, but we pootled on, buying a pink Rimmel lipstick each and staring at shoes we couldn’t afford in shop windows. Vacantly we grooved – or pretended to groove –to the new hit singles in the listening booths; we backcombed our hair, freed today from schoolgirl bunches; we drank tasteless coffee from glass mugs in a café with mirrors and a jukebox, smirking at the boys while the boys smirked back at us. I wanted to read that book. I wanted to read that book.

Finally it was time to go home. Bye bye, Lindsay Barwell, see you at school Monday. Terraces, allotments and fields hurtled past the window and ten minutes later the train deposited me on the down platform amongst the nettles and sweet-papers. I scuttled back to the side street, the ugly bungalow, my nagging, nuisance parents, my unbearable sisters and the bedroom I shared with the airing cupboard, to open Pen To Paper.

According to Lyndsay, who knew almost everything, the book was a remainder. She was about to tell me what remainders were, but I could see by the look of them. They had a slightly fly-blown look, poor things, and their dust-jackets were beginning to curl at the edges. They were books nobody much wanted to buy. Poor things! Years of being whispered about behind my back and not being picked for the hockey team – I identified with them. And then there was the 6d, and the fact that a book on novel-writing technique and one novelist’s life had turned up in a Woolworths store at all. Obviously a job lot; some assistant had tipped them out of a cardboard box unsorted.

According to the dust-jacket Pen To Paper had originally cost 18s. The jacket was a kind of mushroom colour upon which in curly brown capitals the designer had splurged the initials PF. I doubt if it took him more than five minutes. But I was not to be put off. I had known for some time that I was going to be a writer. I had no idea how to set about writing a book or how a writer was supposed to live. Trapped in my suburban, semi-educated world I hungered and thirsted for one of my own kind to talk to. I was like ET, without a phone to phone home with. And now, here, was my new best friend Pamela, chatting away to me as if we were idling side by side on the Rec swings, scuffing our shoes on the gravel, twisting the chains, passing time till dusk when the Rec-keeper emerged from his corrugated iron HQ next to the toilets, to expel us before he locked the gates.

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