Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Fighting Fantasy

Well, well, well. 

Resurrection of a past era. 

When I was about ten or eleven, I was in WHSmith - book section (naturally) - choosing something to read on the train. I had recently gone to live with my mum, so Dad would come and collect me every fortnight for the train ride to London. 

The book that I chose was Vault of the Vampire.

My decision was based purely on cover art, I didn't bother to look inside. I was going through a vampire phase at the time. Anything with fangs had to be good.

I remember feeling bitterly disappointed when the joy of seeing how short the chapters were dissolved into the realisation that this wasn't actually a storybook at all. 

About to bin it, the sheer length of the journey forced me to take another look - thus spawning an adolescent love affair with Fighting Fantasy.

If you haven't seen them before, they're sort of a cross between Dungeons & Dragons and Point Horror. Each chapter is about a paragraph long. At the end, you have to make a decision - do you go left or right at the end of the hallway? Do you talk to the slightly dodgy guy in the corner sucking his pipe? Do you open the trapdoor?

Occasionally you get into fights. Dice are required for this, and there's a set of rules and a game sheet at the beginning. If you lose, you have to start again (or cheat). Often the storylines throughout the book are fairly complex and several choices lead to dead ends. 

It can get ridiculously addictive. But then, I was brought up on text games. Before all these swanky graphics and VGA monitors, computer games were all like this. Glorified Fighting Fantasy novels. To me, these were just the portable version (long before laptops).

Sometimes I'd forget to bring a book and Dad and I would sit on the train making up stories in the same format. We'd take it in turns to come up with a paragraph and a decision to make. Passed many hours that way. In my late teens I eventually started coding MUDs (Multi User Dimensions) - which were (are?) like huge, international FF books with lots of players.

FF cover all the major bases in storytelling: there's always a beginning, middle and end to your adventure, there's a quest - something you have to achieve - there's adversity and conflict, there's dialogue and character interaction... you're soaking all of this stuff up as you're playing.

Anyway, the other day I was sitting watching my nephew trashing hell out of Transformers on his PlayStation. I felt a swell of pride that he'd opted for Decepticons (the baddies). 

Mum wandered in and I said something along the lines of 'he's really into that, isn't he?' To which she replied 'yes, but he loves his books too.'

It's true, my nephew is an avid reader. He's currently into Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Aha! thinks I. A kid who likes reading and gaming.

So, I've just spent the day rooting around in my old room, scouring the bookshelves of my (mostly mispent) youth. I've managed to find 17 volumes in total.

Plus my pride and joy:

Those last two are sort of like the fanatic's guide to all the animals and cities mentioned in the books. I remember sitting in Mum's office at probation service one Baker day, drawing ground plans for a seedy tavern in Port Blacksand. You can see they've been studied closely.

So, things come full-circle. My nephew is nine now. I've stacked them all up by his bed for the next time he visits. It just remains to be seen whether he'll take to them. I hope so. It would be nice to think they've gone to a good home.

[August 2014: the BBC have devoted an article to Fighting Fantasy.]

Monday, 2 July 2012

The Generation Game

The Generation Game by Sophie Duffy is one of the best books I have ever read.

Finished it last night, been up until 2/3am for the past few nights. Couldn't put it down. I loved it. Everything about it. Including the cover.

I cried solidly from page 106 to the end of the chapter, then from about 160 to the end of the book.

It takes skill to invent a concept like Lucas, stick it in like a knife, and then keep on twisting it all the way to the end. Exquisitely painful. You sort of enjoy the torture, because it drives home your humanity.

I know, I'm gushing. I really am. It came in the Complete Luke Bitmead collection I bought a while back. Won the 2010 bursary as well as the Yeovil Literary Prize. It's extremely easy to see why.


Philippa Smith is in her forties and has a beautiful newborn baby girl. She also has no husband, and nowhere to turn. So she turns to the only place she knows: the beginning.

Retracing her life, she confronts the daily obstacles that shaped her very existence. From the tragic events of her childhood abandonment, to the astonishing accomplishments of those close to her, Philippa learns of the sacrifices others chose to make, and the outcome of buried secrets.

Philippa discovers a celebration of life, love, and the Golden era of television. A reflection of everyday people, in not so everyday situations.

I may only have been born halfway through this book, but there was so much I recognised that made me smile. I, too, was of a generation with Smash Hits, Hubba Bubba, the cuddly toy, and psychedelic orange squash. My smile was even wider when she mentioned liquorish rizlas.

It spoke of, and therefore evoked, so many memories of my own childhood. An era. Events: where I was when I heard Diana was dead; strangers sobbing on my shoulder; a sea of flowers. It summoned first loves, losses, realisations - an incredible achievement to chronicle a life from beginning to middle with such astounding emotive accuracy.

As another review mentions:

The story speeds up quite a bit when Philippa is an adult. I suppose that reflects our way of remembering our lives – early childhood experiences can seem so visceral, whereas later events often merge together.

Absolutely. This didn't escape me either, and added to the reality of the piece. The whole construct was technically superb, from the chapter titles to the interim breaks, the hooks, teasers, retrospective aha!s and the progression of time. I aspire to write this well.

The only problem now is what to follow that with?