¶ Well I don't really know where to start with Pilcrow by Adam Mars-Jones, so I will settle for the very beginning and my apologies... this is a very long post because it is a very long book and I have been a very long time reading it.
¶ It was 7am and I was idly sitting up in bed looking at Twitter. Linda Grant had sent out a tweet that she was reading Pilcrow by Adam Mars-Jones and it was really good and she thought, being a nurse, I would like it, though I'm sure she said it much more eloquently and persuasively in 140 characters than that, because she is a writer after all.
¶ Now to be truthful I have never really wanted to read anything by Adam Mars-Jones. I'm a bit ashamed of this because it isn't very grown up, but a year of subscribing to the London Review of Books and reading his rather waspish reviews on books that I had really enjoyed sent me spiralling along the narrow road of judgement... the I Know I Won't Like Anything That You Write Even Though I Haven't Read It...that sort of thing. A bit like the decision I made when I was about five... about prunes, that I would be a lifelong prune refusenik despite never having eaten one.
I mean why would you eat something that looks so revolting??
¶ So anyway, I reluctantly downloaded a sample of Pilcrow to my Kindle, because I do often like the books that Linda recommends.
By this time it is about 7.04am.
By 7.10am I have read the sample and bought ...yes bought the book.
By 9.30am I decide that it really is time I got out of bed because I am supposed to be at my desk working, but in that time I have made a good enough dent in the kindle percentage-read to know that I am enjoying it tremendously, and have eaten a large slice of humble pie about that Adam Mars-Jones thing.
I even panic and start to hyperventilate when I eventually switch on my Kindle later in the day to find that the book has disappeared, not even a pilcrow to show for it, and I feel bereft. It transpires that there has been a huge KindleMuddle about the e mail addresses for my account and I am on the live chat facility to KindleHelp in a flash to sort it because I can't wait a minute longer than I need to to read Pilcrow.
¶ The first thing to sort is this pilcrow business.
This is a pilcrow ¶ and I have imported and liberally scattered a few around today (and at great technical expense) so that you can get used to it if it seems a little strange. A pilcrow is the name for the typographical mark signifying the indent of a new paragraph and John Cromer deides that this is the sign that best describes him...
'I am not sure that I can claim to have taken my place in the human alphabet, even as its honorary twenty-seventh letter. I'm more like a specialised piece of punctuation, a cedilla, umlaut or pilcrow, hard to trak dwon on the keyboard of a computer or a typewriter. Pilcrow is the prettiest of the bunch, assessed purely as a word. And at least it stands on its own. It doesn't perch or dangle. Pilcrow it is.'
The only problem, if I can call it one, is that the book at 525 pages (because Faber very kindly sent me a real one too) seems to have been by my side for a very long time indeed while I have followed the early first-person narrative life of John Cromer born and growing up in 1950s England.
Diagnosed at the age of about two with rheumatic fever John is placed on complete bedrest. Except it isn't rheumatic fever, it is Still's Disease, juvenile arthritis and by the time the misdiagnosis is discovered it is too late, John's joints which should have been kept mobile have locked permanently in a fog of excruciating pain. If there is a silver lining to the cloud of his doctor's inadequacy it is that he also refuses to prescribe John long-term steroids, this after taking fright at the near-miraculous complete remission induced by a trial dose. Though John is again rapidly returned to his bed-ridden state the decision in fact saves him from the fate of many other children who suffer arrested mental development and premature death because the doses are dangerously high...all in the days before the side-effects of steroid use in children were understood.
So the paediatric nurse in me is now wide awake and on the case, I spot that John's mother doses him with relentless amounts of aspirin and wonder if A.M-J has Reyes Syndrome up his sleeve too. That would be really ironic, that John's doting and at times suffocating mother (though can you blame her) might be responsible for his illness. That doesn't happen but I am really enjoying this intensely detailed style. If you are a nurse too this book is a must, and though the potential for boredom to set in seems huge, I wasn't, and this chunkster of a book is all made even more bearable by short chapters which carried me along and allowed me to stop when I needed to. "I'm a bit Pilcrow-ed out" became a familiar term chez dovegrey for a few weeks. You see what an odd book it is...you absolutely have to put it down...but you can't wait to pick it up again, and when you do within three or four lines you are right back into the novel.
¶ This is ...sorry I was missing the old pilcrow there...a post-war nation trying to find its feet and John Cromer, who seems unlikely ever to find his; a nation still living off the glories of a war victory and receiving regular top-up doses of courage and derring-do as the conflict is relived at cinemas and on the small screen via all those war films we would watch every Sunday afternoon. A people in thrall to the gutsy courage of the legless Douglas Bader has little sympathy for those who don't 'try'. Fussed over by his mother who is be-devilled by class and the family's place in the system, chivvied and largely untouched by his ex-RAF father, and aided and abetted by his able-bodied brother Philip, John eventually moves from home and the confines of his bedroom, to the Nancy Astor-funded Canadian Red Cross Hospital at Taplow, before heading off as an adolescent to the Vulcan School (named after a bomber plane) in Berkshire.
Not a lot happens in the grand scheme as events and characters pass through John's life and are double-filtered, because this is an adult John narrating his childhood self, and not trying to disguise the fact. But the strength of the book is the focus on the minutiae as John's life shrinks to the world visible from his prone position lying on his Tan-Sad. The irony not lost in that Tan-Sad, whilst being the makers of many activity toys for children, and thus a by-word for fun and escape (I would travel miles on my scooter...on the days I took my roller skates off) were also the manufacturers of the pram-like contraption that John is confined to and wheeled around in for much of his childhood.
This is a childhood overlaid with adult intellect, and I have to take my hat off to AM-J, never boring and much of it very funny if it wasn't so dreadful. It was hard not to sneak a wry smile as my pre-conceptions were continually challenged and as I cringed at the innate cruelty.
'WHY AM I ENJOYING THIS SO MUCH??' I wrote very upper-casely at one point in the book, and because I regularly couldn't quite believe I was.
I was bound to love all the 1950s childhood references. Adam Mars-Jones is just a year younger than me so he too knows the power of...
... Uncle Mac and Children's Favourites and that my favourite song was Sparky's Magic Piano too
... and the Etch-a-Sketch that we all coveted,
... and the game shinty ('hockey for hooligans') that we all played at school
... and Professor Branestawm and chemistry sets
... and this has to be the very first book that ever mentions the PDSA Busy Bees and our leader Enid Blyton. John Cromer and I probably both collected 'honey for the hive', the milk bottle tops, rags, bandages and amalgam all to the best of our respective abilities.
Here's my proof... I expect John Cromer has one of these too..
More irony given that we were all working diligently to be kind to animals and wearing our badges 'constantly' and with pride, whilst kindness and appropriate care for disabled children remained very much in its infancy.
There is a great deal of very intelligent stuff written about Pilcrow out there which I would hate you to miss whilst I am displaying my Busy Bees certificate and wittering on about prams, so you might want to check out a few links to other bloggers who have enjoyed this one too...
If you grew up in this era the book really holds good, reading at times for me like a trip down nostalgia alley, but it comes with timely reminders about differing standards and the cruelty that was meted out to many children in schools. I was frequently educated by fear as an able-bodied child at a state primary school, it is even more chilling to read about John's care...at least I could race off across the playground. Were it not for his indomitable spirit and stoic personality, this would read like a manual of how best to abuse a crippled child... hard to believe that words like that even existed now isn't it, let alone that they were everyday parlance for defining disability. The sadists who found their métier in the caring and teaching professions seem incomprehensible these days, and I find it ethically fascinating and complex that some of them are now being judged by today's very different benchmark and being called to account if they are still alive.
I have Cedilla, the sequel ready and waiting to read and I am mighty keen to follow John Cromer into young adulthood. He has started to explore his sexuality as best he can so what on earth will he take into maturity from a childhood like this ? I suspect a cast-iron resilience to hardship, but it is to Adam Mars-Jones's credit that John Cromer has leapt (would that he could) off the page and into that odd world of fictional reality for me, a character who seems knowable and known and of whom I have to know what happens next.
But I am definitely feeling a bit Pilcrow-ed out for now so I will gather myself before embarking on the next 733-page phase of John's life.
And mainly because I don't have clue where on earth to find a cedilla on my keyboard either.