Title: Paperboy: A MemoirAuthor: Christopher FowlerPublisher: Doubleday (£14.99, hardback)
For the baby-boom generation slowly emerging from the austere war years, an exciting new world was opening up through the mass market, promising dreams beyond suburban family life. Christopher Fowler’s Paperboy, however, is a nostalgic journey into the formative years of childhood, with reminiscences of both family life and his passion for literature criss-crossing each other on the road to his eventual success as a writer.
Brought up in a fractured home where his mother became the hard put-upon breadwinner whilst his father always insisted on having his evening meals with his own parents, young Chris discovered an escape into fantasy and books. Superman comics grabbed his attention first before he discovered the treasures lining the dusty shelves of the local library, an endless supply of books that he systematically devoured (until his dad burnt a poetry book and he never returned through guilt). Still hungry for more, he also scavenged the second-hand book stores for dog-eared paperbacks.
Even if his parents offered him little consolation, the voice of all these authors shaped his ideas and his dreams, from Agatha Christie and Dennis Wheatley to Dickens, Zola and E.M. Forster. So too did TV where the arrival of Dr Who appealed to his fertile innocence in those early stories, with frightened and anxious assistants and a not-totally-trustworthy Doctor. It was like watching his own family on screen.
The movies too became a major influence, taking him into amazing new worlds of discovery: aliens, monsters, secret agents, English eccentrics. Aspirations as a writer revealed themselves in his methodical reviews in an ever-increasing number of notebooks. The Hammer horrors and One Million Years BC impressed him more than the “tragic and frequent grotesque clowns” of the Carry Ons, although he developed a fondness for all those characters actors who reliably turned up in British movies.
Fowler’s ability to conjure up both the innocent wonder and painful reality of childhood makes for a pleasurable read. Light-hearted and witty, breathless in his descriptions, the author also fans away the mists of wishful nostalgia by punctuating the wide-eyed excitement with wince-inducing portraits of life at home. Likewise he paints a candid view of living in London during the 60’s, which was far-from-swinging for his emotionally dysfunctional parents. His DIY-obsessed dad, Bill, never quite escaped his ogre-ish mother who insisted he had his evening meals with her every night even after he was married. No wonder he seemed to be fighting his own personal demons all his life. This is the same woman who would snatch a book from out of young Chris’ hands because “It’ll be full of germs and bad ideas”. And Kath, his mother, exhausted herself between running the home and taking on endless low paid jobs, caught in a thankless and loveless marriage, but forever a fighter.
More specifically, it captures the suburban drabness of Greenwich and Blackheath, still cloistered from the city’s influences. Family holidays in Herne Bay or at the run-down, caravan shared with daddy-longlegs in marshy Kent, are bleak picture postcards. In fact it’s a domestic dependency that runs parallel to the voracious diet for words and movies that fed him, along with a familiar host of household brand-names long assigned to the past. There are touching revelations towards the end, where Kath shows the strength of her perceptive powers and her encouragement (through Tony Hancock’s pomposity) of her son’s desires to write. Her quiet cajoling kept his dreams alive, suggesting he look at plots as a way to understand people. Such advice, along with his own persistence and a second-hand typewriter, found him a published author in his late teens.
Since then, Fowler has developed his dual passions by writing urban horror tales as well as founding a movie-design agency, The Creative Partnership. Paperboy is indeed a warm-hearted memoir, but it’s also an honestly affectionate rites-of-passage tale for anyone who remembers the dreams of childhood and the people and places that shape our lives.
Paperboy: A Memoir is out now.