visiting geraldine mccaughrean
If you’ve been following my blog, you might remember an illustrated book review I did of Geraldine McCaughrean‘s book, Pull Out All the Stops! Or my thrill at doing an event at the Hay Festival of Literature with Geraldine and Candy Gourlay. But if you could have gone back to 2006, just before I started blogging, you would have seen me by myself on London’s South Bank, clutching a ticket to see Geraldine McCaughrean give a talk about her novel, The White Darkness. It was the only book I’d read by Geraldine, but I was completely caught up in it, and instantly a fangirl. When Candy was asked in an interview, which book she wishes she had written, she picked The White Darkness. So you can imagine how Candy and I giggled like giddy schoolgirls when we got to go visit Geraldine for lunch at her house in the Berkshire countryside.
Geraldine had this picture I’d drawn for our Hay festival event taped to her refrigerator:
Of course, we wanted to see everything and ran around the garden and into the Wendy house at the foot of it. Just like me, Geraldine very much wanted to keep a horse in a shed in the garden, so a shed with a wooden horse’s head sticking out was the next best thing.
Geraldine’s husband, John, obliged us by lifting a big stone cover to show us their well. He told us some great stories about his years at sea. (Did you know that the Duchesse in The Death-Defying Pepper Roux was a real person?)
If little people have moved into the back garden, they’ll have had no trouble finding somewhere to stay; we found little houses everywhere.
Here’s the book I love so much, The White Darkness. She’s written about a girl named Sym, who’s hard-of-hearing, horribly shy, extremely introverted, but has a passion for stories about polar exploration, thanks to an uncle who’s given her books on the subject since she was small. To be more precise, she’s in love with Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates, the member of Scott’s expedition to the South Pole who realised he wasn’t going to be able to go on and left the tent to die in the blizzare, with the famous words, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’.
Sym’s 14, and knows she’s strange for having ‘an imaginary friend’, but her relationship with Titus gives her courage as her situation with her uncle gets dodgier and dodgier as you realise that, for a very long while, he’s been grooming her to take on a mad mission to Antarctica. I love the way Geraldine lets us watch how Sym deludes herself into believing things are all right; she’s terribly intelligent and practical, but also incredibly stupid because of her horrible self-consciousness, which is exactly how I remember being as I floundered through adolescence. And I can identify with the polar exploration stuff because my dad was also a bit obsessed with mountaineering (but not in a dodgy way like Sym’s uncle). Both my sister and I had to prove our ‘manhood’ by training to climb Mt Rainier when we turned 16, so we did lots of training climbs and learned how to use our ice axes to stop us if we slipped on ice and how to use a system of of knotted ropes to climb out of crevasse if we fell in while crossing a glacier. And we got to watch grown men being stretched to their limits: saw them being violently ill due to altitude sickness and going temporarily mad while panicking on slippery ice with malfunctioning crampons in a white-out. And sublime moments, too: poking my head out of the tent on a snowfield at 4am to see a line of tiny headlamps ascending a glacier, like the candles carried by saints in the Ave Maria of the early version of Fantasia. So I could well understand’s Sym’s fascination.
The other reason I liked Sym is that I also had a couple heroes that gave me courage when I was her age. I was such a miserable child and thought I couldn’t be uglier, and what made it worse was hearing adults say, ‘Cheer up, these are the best days of your life!’. Great, I thought, it’s only going to get worse. Note to adults: that is a horrible thing to tell a kid who’s depressed! So I couldn’t really see how things would improve as I got older. Until, when I was twelve, my parents took me to the cinema to see Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. I loved the horses, the great stretches of sand, and for the film, I became Lawrence as he remade himself in his new Arab robes, and loved him, and then broke as he began to go mad. I came out of the cinema a different person; I suddenly saw that there was more to the world than my little suburb, and I had a lot of exploring to do in it before I popped my clogs. (It never even occurred to me, until I saw the film again last year at Alexandra Palace that there aren’t any women in the film.)
When I was 15, I went to see Cyrano de Bergerac, the French-language film starring Gérard Depardieu, and was so smitten with the swashbuckling but painfully self-conscious Cyrano that I went back to see the film three times. I loved him for his wild bravery and wit, but mostly I loved him for what is summed up in the words that linger at the end of the film, for his panache.
Stupid Roxanne!, I thought. WHY can’t she stop being such a cow and realise it’s really CYRANO writing those letters? I wouldn’t make that mistake! Step aside, you bubble-brain, lend me your good looks, then Cyrano and I can have decades of adventures together, not two minutes of passion before he expires in a outpouring of tragic poetry.
Cyrano didn’t exactly become my invisible friend, as Titus was for Sym, but I thought about the story a lot, it lodged itself inside me, and it made me much less worried that the boys at school found me very unattractive; I could think, Well, s** you, you’re nothing as good as Cyrano. When the girls’ affairs seemed petty and tedious, I could think, Screw that, it’s not like they’re fighting the Spanish. And there was something comforting in the fact that he wasn’t classically handsome in the style of the American male movie stars but still incredibly sexy, much more so. I had my very first kiss from a boy who only spoke French, not English, during a summer home stay in Belgium when I was sixteen, and it felt like I was sticking up a big finger at all the crap I’d had to endure back home. While I was getting back into comics, here in England, I did a little tribute comic to Cyrano (which you can read in full on my website):
So I was chuffed to bits to find out that, not only had Geraldine written this amazing book with which I could identify so strongly, The White Darkness, but she’d written a novel version of the Cyrano play! So fabulous.
And it just gets better. I’m discovering that Cyrano shows up everywhere in Geraldine’s work:
He sliced sausage and carved ham with more panache than Cyrano de Bergerac, his long knife flashing like a dueller’s rapier. He diced with death at the slicing machine, paring saucissons all the way down to their knotted ends with never a care for his fingertips. He ran the deadly cheese-wire through cheeses, like God separating Night from Day. He remembered the preferences of all his regulars and pitted all the olives himself, for fear the elderly choked or broke their teeth on the stones. Within a fortnight, he was a celebrity. Well, that is to say, a few regular customers came to know his face, and smiled when he served them. – The Death-Defying Pepper Roux
[in a letter]: O Lor if you could just see him playing Cyrano rite now! He is magin manqif magnee sub lime.
[at school]:Fuller Monterey drew in his tortoise-shaped head and refused to answer. He looked even more sullen than usual.
‘Habbakuk Warboys, then. What does a proper noun have?’
Kookie, however, was quite equal to the challenge. ‘Panache!’ he said. – Pull Out All the Stops!
And I seem to remember several more Cyrano references, but those are the ones I can find quickly on a Thursday morning. I’ve been reading Geraldine’s books for adults, and they’re just like all her books, full of daring, wit, intensity, stomach-lurching extremes, passion and above all, panache. My favourite is Vainglory, which punched me in the gut at the end of almost every chapter, and once kept me up very late into the morning hours, lying rigidly in bed worrying what I would do if I’d been in the position in one of its characters. It’s out of print, but that’s just silly, and you can still buy it used online. … Just to add, all of her books are for adults as well as younger people and shouldn’t be pigeon-holed, it’s just that these three I’ve read so far are only for adults, with some hardcore violence and, well, The Ideal Wife is about a man in his 20s who adopts two 10-year-old girls with a Rousseauian vision of turning one of them into his wife, so it’s well dodgy.
Two of my writer friends, Candy and Philip Reeve, owe their writing to their love for Geraldine’s books and their study of her marvellous use of language. Philip one said he was very envious of me because I’m still working my way through Geraldine’s books, and I have so much to look forward to. To say I think you should read Geraldine’s books is the the biggest understatement I’ve ever made on this blog.
While I was at Geraldine’s house, we went through her costume boxes and she let me borrow her pirate hat to use in my upcoming pirate-themed events for You Can’t Scare a Princess! (Ah, and note the Cyrano reference in the dedication to You Can’t Eat a Princess!.) As Candy and I drove away with the borrowed bits of costume, waving and feeling sad to leave, an image from the Cyrano film came into my head of the little boy at the theatre who holds onto Cyrano’s hat while his hero fights a duel of with with an ill-equipped mocker. After Cyrano has triumphed, he takes back his hat, stops, give the boy a quick, fond look, ruffles his hair, and the boy is left smitten. Ah, what panache.