MISS CROFT HALF A CENTURY ON

MISS CROFT HALF A CENTURY ON

This blog posts every Monday, but my girlfriend Monica is coming from London soon, we will be having a holiday in Athens and Kythnos, and there will be no new post until Monday 29th February. You can always contact me about anything, including Bargain Online Fiction Tuition, at john@writinginkythnos.com. I taught fiction for the Arvon Foundation, and the University of Cambridge (Madingley Hall) for over 25 years.

I recently bought a present for the little boy of a Greek friend here on Kythnos. He is 4 years old, and in the village bibliopoleio, I got hold of a set of DVDs and a book all about Noddy, the innocent little puppet lad with the triangular cap, the red and yellow taxi that he drives by way of a job, and the bearded gnome friend called Big Ears. The first Noddy book appeared originally in the UK in 1949, and the last one came out in 1963. I’m assuming there might be a few foreign readers out there, have never heard of him nor his author Enid Blyton (1897-1968), a towering and impossibly prolific legend in herself. My guess is they’d have to live somewhere very remote, Novya Zemlya or rural and road-free North West Togoland, as everywhere I have travelled, Noddy and Big Ears and Bumpy Dog and PC Plod are there, and in abundance. And by the way, note that this roll call of the good and the infinitely harmless puppets, omits the wicked and creepy presence in the books of Sly and Gobbo, two nasty little goblins with truly hideous pointed ears and noses.

You couldn’t move for Noddy translated into Portuguese on Algarve news kiosks back in the mid 90s. Nor can you two decades on in Greek peripteros, where he is rendered into Greek as NONTI. It was only when I had the present at home, it struck me as a bit poetic and more than a bit moving, that I had probably read these same Noddy tales myself, when I was his age 4, back in West Cumberland in 1954. Of course they didn’t have DVDs 60 years ago, and we only got our TV in the pit village in 1956. But isn’t it remarkable that the books I enjoyed in a remote English province, are now being read by a little Greek boy in an obscure Cycladean island over 60 years on? Agreed, that if my friend’s son had been 12, and I had bought him David Copperfield or Heidi or Black Beauty in Greek, that I had read in English in 1962, it would not have been a miracle. But an arguably very dated UK children’s author, whose principal staple is cheery and very English school stories, rather than the magic and wizardry of world celebrity JK Rowling, it seems to me altogether mindboggling, that Enid Blyton should be being read here in Kythnos in Greek in 2016.

In the autumn of 1954 I had just begun, with no slight trepidation (I was ever a happy home bird) at the village nursery school. My two teachers were Miss Croft and Miss Taylor, one dark and one blond, one minus glasses, and one plus a notable squint and specs, both in their mid 20s, and both outstandingly kind and caring women. Fast forward no less than 50 years to the autumn of 2004. I am launching my novel Murphy’s Favourite Channels to a fairly packed audience in Tullie House Arts Centre, Carlisle, Cumbria. Before I begin the reading, a lady of about 75 on the arm of a woman writer I know already, turns up and introduces herself as the former Miss Croft, my nursery teacher from 50 years ago. I can get as emotional as the next  in the right circumstances, especially with Greek sunsets, Greek dawns, John Abercrombie’s and John McLaughlin’s guitars playing jazz so tender they would make anyone, even stogie-chomping Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone cowboy movie, weep. Anyway Miss Croft and I were both tearful and embracing, as neither of us had clapped eyes on each other for a not unpacked half a century. She looked damn near no different to me, then 25 now 75, though the hair was a little bit greyer. As far as I recall, at 4, I wasn’t bearded, bald and long haired all at once, but she charmingly claimed I hadn’t changed a bit either, and she had also closely followed my writing career through the local papers and TV.

I need to tell you more about these Tullie House book launches, as they go to show that way out in the forgotten sticks, meaning dear old neanderthal North Cumbria, they can still do things in style, and especially if they are determined to do their local lads and lassies proud. The genius behind it all was Mick North (born 1958) a Lancastrian who migrated up to Cumbria in 1991 to become Carlisle Arts Officer. I had met him earlier in 1986 when I was flogging copies of my Panurge magazine down at Lancaster University, and he was a mere boy of 28 who was then in charge of the prestigious Lancaster Litftest. Before Mick arrived in Carlisle, whoever the Arts Officer was had been no visible dynamo. Famously they had got a distinguished theatre company to come along without bothering to promote the event, so that on the night itself, its single performance, not only was the dozy Arts Officer not present, neither was a single member of the public. The local TV advised of a humorous scoop, went along to show the ticket lady sat in the stalls beamingly enjoying the play, which the courageous actors went ahead and performed, in full, to an otherwise empty theatre. Mick rapidly changed all of that, in a way that his stunned council bosses could only marvel at. Right away he booked ‘Three South American Women Novelists’ on tour around the UK, but instead of sitting on his hands and hoping for the best, he mail-shotted trades unions, WI’s, and women’s groups all over North Cumbria and South Scotland. Lo and behold by intelligently targeting all the focus groups, he got an extremely respectable audience, and I was there and saw it, and was suitably impressed. Of course it needs both confidence and sharp brains to do something like that, and it also helps if you come from outside of Cumbria where things tend to go by old and tried if hopeless methods, meaning plenty of token and supine gestures, but not a lot of trying. Anybody can get an audience, even in sleepy Carlisle or Wigton or Dumfries, for the Bolshoi Ballet or for Kiri Te Kanawa, but for Three South American Women Writers?

When Mick decided to launch my books, and he generously showcased 6 of my novels between 1993 and 2006, he had a brainwave, and one which I thoroughly applauded. Instead of inviting folk along to a dreary old literary reading and nothing else, he thought, let’s give them something special that will be a bit of luxury icing on top of the all too worthy cake. His inspiration was to get the Tullie House catering staff to provide an optional themed meal, so that folk could not only come and see me fooling about performing my comic novels, but also have a gourmet meal notionally allied to the contents of the book. So for the piscine spiritual thriller John Dory in 2001, there were exquisite fish dishes (halibut and salmon) on offer, along with some delicious vegetarian options; for Jazz Etc in 2003, he opted to put on an approximation in the form of Cajun/ New Orleans cuisine. A strict vegetarian himself, he nevertheless offered meat and fish dishes to get folk in the New Orleans/ Creole gumbo , swamps and sultry erotic, Cajun and orgiastic jazz mood. It was, thank God, an extra bonus for those selfless pals of mine, driving from the far end of West Cumbria, to make a whole night out of it. They could count on great food as well as the horseplay of my book launch afterwards, where I always included inane quizzes with sumptuous prizes as part of the histrionic buffoonery.

2 sample quiz questions I put to the Tullie House audiences at my book launches.

-How much does a packet of 20 Capstan Full Strength Maximum High Tar cigarettes cost these days (a visiting Hawaiian American got the right answer, and he fearlessly smoked 60 a day of the incendiary buggers)?

-Who out there can accurately pronounce (this was posed at the launch of The Legend of Liz and Joe) in faithful Cumbrian dialect his galluses’ lyeups flyeuh lyeuss [the loops of his braces/suspenders flew loose]?

The best attempts earned the winners a bottle of Jura malt and a bottle of Irish Jamieson’s whiskey respectively.  It should be noted that the single genius (apart from me who wrote it in the first place) at pronouncing the mad Cumbrian dialect, was from Suffolk, and she was notably posh, and ought to have been a Radio 4 newsreader. Nonetheless hoist by my own petard, in the end my book launch quiz prizes cost me about as much as the fee that Mick managed to wangle for my readings. But frankly, and I mean between you and me and when the artistic chips are down, who cares? You only live once, is one of those rare adages, that when it comes to truly numinous and ineffable sagacity, can never be improved on.

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