Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Road to the Dales by Gervase Phinn

Gervase tells of a life full of happiness, conversation, music and books shared with his three siblings, mother and father. This book is a snapshot of growing up in Yorkshire in the 1950s - reminisce with Gervase, and share in his personal journey - of school days and holidays as well as his tentative steps into the adult world. You can devour numerous uproarious stories including the incident involving a broken greenhouse, crashing his brother's newly restored bike as well as secrets about his first dates, adventures at summer camp, family trips to Blackpool and many other captivating tales. With a wicked ear for the comical, and a sharp eye for detail, this beautifully written book visits poignant moments, significant events and precious memories from a boy called Gervase.

I love Gervase Phinn's books. His writing is gentle, family-friendly, with a sharp observational humour that gives his words a wry wit. As a consequence, I was thrilled to see that Phinn had written a new book dealing with his own life while growing up in Yorkshire.

My view of Road to the Dales is extremely positive, in the main. In fact, the main factor of 'Road to the Dales' I didn't enjoy was the structure. Phinn's commentary darts all over the place, which does give the novel a gossipy feel (this might have been the aim, to be fair!) but doesn't help the reader really get too much of a grasp on what Phinn will be chatting about next. It is far from linear, and, in the first part, deals more with Phinn's family than on his own story.

I did also recognise a few anecdotes from Phinn's novels about being a school inspector in Yorkshire. It strikes me that most people who would read this book would have read his prior novels, and so it seemed a little short-sighted to duplicate material. Happily it was very infrequent.

These minor issues aside, 'Road to the Dales' is a wonderful book. The stories of Phinn's early life and his progress through school, the holidays he takes, the games he plays on the street outside his house - all are related with warmth and a huge affection for the places and people that informed Phinn.

Having a father of a similar age as Phinn lent extra poignancy to my read, since I've heard my dad speak of many of the same sweets, food, games, experiences from when he was growing up.

The part of the novel that I enjoyed the best was the way Phinn spoke about his teachers and the learning that led him to pursuing the role that we see him taking on in his books about being a school inspector. I also had good-humoured, passionate and experienced teachers while going through primary and secondary school - who definitely helped to instill in me a love of books and learning - and appreciate Phinn's eulogising on how important a factor it is in a young person's life. Quotes like the following fill the pages: "Like all great teachers he did not stick slavishly to a script but would deviate and tell stories to arouse our interest. What I learnt from Ken Pike was the importance of young people having high expectations and self-belief."

I also loved the humour - something that I'd already encountered in his books about being a school inspector. Little anecdotes such as the following are delightful:

"One trainee nurse, a permanently cheerful Jamaican woman with a beaming smile and sunny disposition, was assisting the anaesthetist in another operation.

'Arm board,' he said, meaning the device on which the patient's arm rests prior to the administering of the anaesthetic. The nurse nodded and smiled but made no move.

'I said arm board, nurse,' repeated the anaesthetist sharply.

'Ah'm bored too, doctor,' she replied pleasantly, 'but we'll soon be going home.'

As a final point, I do 'Road to the Dales' is an effective study of life in the 50s and 60s in northern England. Health and safety were unheard of, and life would have been unrecognisable to many of us brought up in a time where political correctness and safety for children are constantly spoken about: "Parents didn't worry about where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, and never imagined that predatory paedophiles were lurking around every corner and hiding behind every bush. It wasn't as if they didn't care about us [...] Amazingly, in all those early years, apart from a few scrapes and scratches, I never hurt myself and was never approached by the stereotypical 'dirty old man in a raincoat'."

Gervase Phinn admits candidly that, if you are looking for a memoir of a childhood filled with misery and difficult situations, then you need to go elsewhere. Phinn writes with love about his wonderful childhood, his family and his experiences. He recognises that he was blessed compared to others, and that humble joy is very evident. I greatly enjoyed this diverting novel and would recommend it to those who have enjoyed Phinn's prior work and those who enjoy real life memoirs.

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