How to travel to other worlds and not leave your room

As an avid reader, I’ve always been surrounded by books. Whether I’ve been transported to another world by Neil Gaiman, learning about the economy à la Freakanomics or finding about e-personalities, I always have a book on the go. A few weeks ago, I asked myself what three books have influenced me – a question that I’ve never asked myself. I posed the same question to a few friends of mine who’ve agreed to guest blog on teacaup and cake. This week, Tea With Me writes about going on a big adventure with Bilbo, the Bible that is Rachel’s Holiday and the talent of Gaiman.

When the lovely teacup and cake asked me to guest blog on the three books that define my life my immediate thought was: No chance, there is no way I could limit it to three books when so many have given me nourishment over the years.

However, the more I mulled over books in my head, the more the same few kept bobbing up in my thoughts, and I realised that there are certain books which I have filed in the ‘important period in life’ section and it’s those that deserve attention for this blog.

The first is The Hobbit; a book I first read when I was ten and which I have read countless times since. Tolkein’s pre-cursor to the epic Lord of The Rings became my default book to read when I’d exhausted my hoard from the local library and was waiting patiently for the next trip. I’ve never looked at why this book had such a profound impact on my early years, but writing this blog has made me realise the truth.

In the book, the main character Bilbo goes on an awfully big adventure. He leaves the security and safety of his home and wanders off with what is essentially a random band of strangers into a completely unknown world. It’s this first part that I latched on to because I was rarely allowed out to play, not allowed to go out and have the same freedoms as my friends and most of my time was spent in my bedroom alone. Tolkein’s fantastical tale was my emergency fire escape. I could go with Bilbo and walk through magical woods, speak to dwarves, elves and shape-shifting men, it lifted me out of the four walls of my bedroom without physically placing so much as a toe over the door and planted the seed of one day escaping my home town firmly in my head. A dream that I came to fulfil when I was 19.

My second choice could not be further from my first in every way. Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes became the cult book to read in my circle of friends. One copy was passed from girl to girl, treated like a bible, read and subsequently raved about. For those unfamiliar with Keyes’ early novel, Rachel’s Holiday is about alcoholism; both the effect on the person (in this case Rachel), the struggle to both face and overcome the addiction, and the effect alcoholism has on others.

The book was a common link between us all its impact on me really kicked in when the usual angst of teenage girls became serious issues of self-harm, eating disorders and sadly, in our latter teens, the death of someone who had been the centre point of our group. Although the subject matter in Rachel’s Holiday differed from the issues I was experiencing, the themes of helplessness and of fear resonated with my sixteen year old self and when I think of those years, I also think of that book and its bright cover and wrinkled spine. It still sits on my bookcase, my memories of that time as ingrained as the ink that graces the pages.

And so we move on to my final choice, yet another very different selection from the two detailed above. I’ve used words to earn a living for several years now, but in the last 18 months the urge to write a tome of my own has been growing daily and my third selection is a novel that drives me onwards towards one day achieving this goal. American Gods by Neil Gaiman is, for me, an inspiring novel. Not because of the story (which I admit is astounding on its own), but because of the quality of the writing; it motivates me to be better, feeds my ambition and pushes me to write as often as I can. In my opinion it’s a wonderful example of skill and talent; a tale to look up to and admire and why it had to be included as one of the three books that have influenced my life.

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Restore and move on

Yesterday was a weird day. I was at the back of the room listening to a middle-aged woman trying to rap an apology to me. She hadn’t done anything wrong. She was rapping on behalf of an inmate at Lewes Prison.

I was part of the Sycamore Tree Project – a six-week victim awareness course which aims to create a dialogue between ‘victims’ and offenders. For the victim – I hate the word victim. The word ‘aggrieved’ is more appropriate – the project provides a voice and  an opportunity to tell those who matter – the offenders – how they really feel. For the offender – it is a chance to say sorry and to hear how crime affects people firsthand.

I heard about restorative justice on Radio 4. The whole point of prisons is punishment, with the idea that the prisoners won’t re-offend. The reality is, prison doesn’t work and our prisons are full. According to the Prison Reform Trust, 49% of adults re-offend within one year of their release, and for those whose sentence is one year or less, that figure increases to 61%. For the criminals who have served 10 custodial sentences or more, the rate of re-offending is 79%. The National Audit Office estimates that it costs us between £9-£13bn a year.

If there was another, but proven way to tackle this issue of crime and re-offending, then I’m all for it – in theory. I never thought that it would turn into reality. After my nasty car accident last May, I asked Sussex Police if I could meet the Moron who drove into me and my friend. All I wanted to ask was why, and for Moron to take responsibility. I also wanted to show him that I wasn’t ‘29 year-old woman passenger in a black Mini’, which was how I was reported in the papers. Unfortunately for me, Moron wasn’t interested, and that’s when Sussex Police told me about the Sycamore Tree Project at Lewes Prison.

It was the first time I’d ever been in a prison. I waited nervously for the 20 or so men to file into the room. It was week three, when the aggrieved talks directly to the prisoners. It was the first time they had heard from someone who was directly affected by crime, and although my situation was unrelated to them, it had a profound affect on some. For the others – they didn’t care.

It was insightful. I had tried not to let the car accident affect me. After all, I walked away from the wreckage scot-free with all but a scar and a lot of bruising. I realised that I was angry. Very angry in fact. I didn’t realise until one of the offenders pointed it out to me. I swore, I cried, I didn’t hold back. I spoke for about 15 mins, after which, the prisoners asked questions.

The offenders had workbooks to complete, where they retold my story in their own words, write down who else was affected, then decide who was affected by their crime. I have to admit, that was a little strange.

In week six, I was invited to come back. This session was about making amends and moving on. I had no idea if anyone would listen to what I said. After all, some were there because they wanted too, while the others were on the course because it was part of their sentence.

I was surprised. I had a letter written to me, which was read out, another wrote a rap and someone else decided to carve sorry out of wood. The point here is that I didn’t ask them to do this. They were compelled to do this themselves. I spoke to the bloke who wrote the letter to me. He had also written to his partner, who he had punched after catching her in bed with his best friend. He had spent 20 years in and out of prison for various offences, but he told me that after hearing me speak, was the first time he had felt pain. He knew he wasted a lot of his life and decided that this wasn’t a life for him.

Another chap told me that once he was out, he won’t be dealing in drugs again. He didn’t realise the impact that he had. Moron  was chased by the police because he was stopped at a KFC for going out the entrance, and for suspicion of drugs. I suspect it was pot – only because you can smell it. And as me and this chap were from the same area, he could have supplied the drugs, which led to the chase. We will never know.

The Restorative Justice Council says that if restorative justice was offered, it would save £185m over two years. But more importantly, it would  reduce the re-offending rate by 27%, and although this doesn’t seem a lot, it does mean less crime and less victims.

In case you were wondering – Moron got 20 months community service, with a nine month suspension and a driving ban. Ironic really, seeing as he didn’t have a driving license in the first place.

My Life in Books

I’ve just discovered My Life in Books on BBC 2. Hosted by Anne Robinson (of The Weakest Link fame), celebrities talk about their three favourite books and why it’s important to them.

This got me thinking. Which three books have influenced my life?

The first book that springs to mind is Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. I enjoyed it immensely when I was at college, mainly because I found it funny, but also because, even in my late teens I had the body worries, man worries, work worries. Back then, part of me was scared that I would become Bridget. Now that I’ve hit my 30’s, I’m scared that I’m going to become Bridget.

“Can officially confirm that the way to a man’s heart these days is not through beauty, food, sex, or alluringness of character, but merely the ability to seem not very interested in him.” Bridget Jones’s Diary

Ok – this is sad. Elizabeth Wakefield was the reason why I wanted to become a journalist. There we are. My secret is out. I was a big, big fan of the Sweet Valley High series and would save my pocket money to buy a book each month. I don’t even remember why she inspired my career choice, but there you go. I suppose it was because I could identify with Elizabeth being studious who never really got into trouble.

I read the newest Sweet Valley book – Sweet Valley Confidential. I recommend you don’t. Awful plot, bad, bad writing which hasn’t matured with it’s audience and time you will never get back. Ever.

For my third book, I’m going to cheat here and say The Lonely Planet. As an eternal adventurer, I swear by these books. Yes, I know they’re a guide, but they’re my guide of choice. I’ve tried the Rough Guides, Footprints but I always come back to the LP. They’ve shaped my travels and have helped me decided on where to go, eat and sleep.

I also asked my two book-lovin’ friends, tea with me and Emma Taylor on the three books that influenced their lives.

Now it’s your turn. What three books have influenced your life and why.