Paperboy, by Christopher Fowler

Memoir of a secret bookworm
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The Independent Culture

If you were born in the suburbs in 1953, this book has your name on it. Actually, it has Christopher Fowler's, but this memoir is exactly right for anyone who wished they had been born in a less embarrassing time, place and family. Fowler's dream was that his life was a bad dream from which he would soon wake up.

Paperboy refers not to newspapers but to books. "You're just made of paper," yelled his unfulfilled, unliterary father, whose collection of printed matter ran to little more than a copy of How to Make Explosives. "I'm surprised you don't curl up and bloody blow away." He burnt a treasured book of poetry that a friendly librarian had given Christopher. The youngster curled up, but it was with books, any books. These were practically illegal in his part of south London, so he stuffed them down his jumper or behind the wardrobe.

His aim was to read every work in English and he was a hunter-gatherer of discarded volumes: "My bedroom was the Battersea Dogs Home of books." He began his day by devouring the blurb on the cornflake packet and then read at every possible moment, even when walking down the street or having a pee. He read War and Peace to the tortoise.

Now he is an author himself, in particular of the Bryant & May mysteries. Apart from some oddly flat discussions with his mother about the craft of writing, his sentences zip along, wonderfully funny or moving – sometimes both. Even in the direst of family discords, the laughter lurked.

Despite a deathbed reconciliation with his father, there was still unfinished business. The same was true of his father's DIY projects, one of which involved removing floorboards and replacing them with sheets of paper. His mother's cuisine wasn't much better. She cooked meat until leathery, "after which she would pour elasticated Bisto filled with tumorous lumps over it." Tinned peaches in "nasal-slime" syrup followed. They generally did, in the Fifties.