Some time ago, a friend posted his top ten ‘life-changing’ books, and then ‘invited’ me to do the same. I’ve always grown up with books,but it was really difficult to think of those which I could actually suggest were ‘life-changing’. In some respects, all books are – they stimulate the imagination, feed the mind, encourage you to think in new and different ways, imagine new worlds and possibilities.
And they become companions, hand-holders during times of your life which can be turbulent, frightening, or inspiring. On a recent trip to London, I had the marvellous opportunity to meet friends from many different stages of my life so far, reminding me of the different people I have been, the different chapters of my life. Laurie Anderson once described losing her father as like a library burning down – all those stories, those memories suddenly gone. During my trip I was reminded of some of the big and small stories in my life.
It was in that spirit that I began to think of other friends, of the books I turned to, sought out, stumbled upon, or was given, that helped me transform and grow, that mentored me or held my hand for a while. These are ten of those books, and of course the invitation is now open to you, dear faithful reader, to share yours too…
Ned The Lonely Donkey. One of the first books I remember. I loved Ladybird Books – easy to read, exciting, great stories or information. I can’t remember much about Ned now except that he was a loveable lonely (and a bit mangey) old donkey in a field, and his story introduced me to loneliness, sorrow, isolation. it’s not, as far as I know, an autobiography. But there’s a happy ending, and he finds a friend in the field by the end of the book…
Roots by Alex Haley. I read this after being blown away by the TV series, enthralled by a black family’s story from capture into slavery through to a present day still haunted by racism and injustice. It appealed to an emerging liberal sensibility against oppression, but started from personal stories and testament. It may well have been the start of my interest in people’s stories and the telling of them, and my first clumsy political sensibilities.
Dragonsinger and the Dragons Of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. At school, I was a Librarian, which was a good way of getting out of Games/PE lessons – there was always an excuse to go and do something in the library. I was fascinated by the fact that there were so many books, and my friend Andrew Cosgrove and I used to make up a Top Ten chart of books that we liked. We also had to deal with the spectre of the Phantom Clipper Nicker, which is another blogstory. I was always fascinated by this beautiful and magical cover, and the fantastical and fabulous world ir created – which was as real to me as any other world. Although I was a huge fan of television science fiction like Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, I hadn’t actually read much science fiction. I fell in love with the dragons, and the Drangonriders Of Pern, and the legends of that world Anne McCaffrey told. I kept revisiting the books as and when they came out, always delighted when a new one hit the shelves. I was delighted when Anne McCaffrey replied to an email I sent her, and took the time to give me a whole background to a coupole of her later gay characters. I had no idea there were so few women writers of science fiction, or what animportant part she played in the genre. I just loved the stories.
And The Band Played On by Dandy Shilts. I read this when it first came out, very nearly in a single sitting – a harrowing account of AIDS in the gay communities in the ’80s. I grew up, and came out, in the 80s, and the spectre of AIDS was everywhere, defining an identity, a community, a politics, and our sex lives. It’s difficult to look at the book now without being far, far more critical – particularly of the whole ‘Patient Zero’ character – but it was a roar of anger and an opportunity to write a queer history at a time when narratives were disappearing or being rewritten far, far too quickly. I’ve recently read Virus Hunt by Dorothy H Crawford, which gives a more up to date account of the origins of HIV, of how much our knowledge and treatment has come, and how far there is to go with our understanding of this virus.
How To Be A Happy Homosexual by Terry Sanderson – the homo’s handbook. Because we needed a manual, back in the day. A lovely, warm, encouraging, gentle and empathic book acknowledging the pitfalls and challenges of Coming Out, and celebrating its achievement. Nowhere near propaganda, but sensible and helpful advice that helped me understand myself, the impact of homophobia and homophobic society, and mincing along the yellow brick road of self-acceptance. With all the changes since, I don’t know if this or a similar book is necessary or helpful – but I suspect its message of self acceptance goes way beyond just Coming Out.
British And Irish Political Drama In The Twentieth Century by David Ian Rabey. I studied drama at University because I’d enjoyed writing, directing and (over) acting in panto. Then I had a long conversation at a student party with my Drama tutor David Rabey and fellow ‘Lurking Truth Theatre Company’ member Ian Cooper, as the Communards sang Disenchanted in the background. ‘This is me’ I said, reflecting on the rise of Section 28, the AIDS Crisis and my own Coming Out. The next day, I found a copy of the book in my pigeon-hole with a dedication from David encouraging me to move from disenchantment to action. Drama, public space and performance were all given a context, and my own anger, frustration and disenchantment a more positive, creative outlet. I became a Lovey, Comrade.
Impertinent Decorum. Which is a cheat, as it’s What I Wrote. My first book, and the result both of my M.Phil research, life as a Queer Activist in London in the 90s, and became what one friend referred to as a ‘personal manifesto’. It’s concerned with Gay Male identities and ‘theatrical manoeuvres’ – the way gay men use the body, codes and space to create identity and culture. It feels like a far away place now, but helped me to make sense of creative and political activism, emerging politics and identities, and my first experience of researching, structuring and writing a book.It also introduced me to the gay slang/uage polari.
Feel The Fear (And Do It Anyway) by Susan Jeffers. One of those ‘happenstance’ books that a friend of a friend recommended when I was going through a hard and self-questioning time. Essentially a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) manual reframing negative thought patterns to an attitude that ‘I Can Handle It’, I still find it useful to revisit and have recommended it to many counselling clients with excellent results. A little American in tone, I can tell by the way people react to the title if they’re likely to benefit from the book or not.
A Liar’s Autobiography by Graham Chapman, of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He has ceased to be. I loved both the inspiring, confused mess of his life, and the revelation that people ddo actually lie about their lives. Sometimes consciously, sometimes not. We are all works of fiction. I saw the film version recently – which was all very clever, but lost a bit of Graham in it.
The Wounded Storyteller by Arthur Frank. A recent gift from my brother, I love the way the author recognises the importance and difficulty of the ill and wounded owning, telling and making sense of their own narratives, in an effort to limit the way the self becomes diminished in its journey through illness. It’s helped me make sense of the last two or three years – and is also a reason for this blog, even though I didn’t know it when I started. I’ve just recommended it to my Oncologist. I like this quote from the book, which beings together themes from most of these, my ‘life-changing’ books, which have helped transform, recreate and regenerate me over the years:
One of our most difficult duties as human beings is to listen to the voices of those who suffer. The voices of the ill are easy to ignore, because these voices are often faltering in tone and mixed in message, particularly in their spoken form before some editor has rendered them fit for reading by the healthy. These voices bespeak conditions of embodiment that most of us would rather forget our own vulnerability to. Listening is hard, but it is also a fundamental moral act; to realize the best potential in postmodern times requires an ethics of listening.
I choose to include reading in this definition of listening, as reading involves listening to many stories, faltering in tone and mixed in message, and which help us to remember our own vulnerability. I think, even as a child, I always knew that Ned The Lonely Donkey was a Wounded Storyteller.