The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old – and other tales

Books

As you probably could tell from this post, I love being a journalist. I love striving to bring readers truth, justice and the best place to have a cappuccino when you’re stuck up a mountain in Nepal (hey, hipsters read too, you know).

But I’d be lying if there weren’t a few selfish reasons behind loving my job – and they’re the reason I’ve been a bit quiet recently.

You see, instead of indulging my love of writing, I’ve been two-timing the keyboard with the luscious fruits of others’ typing skills after raiding the book cupboard at work.

Yes, we have a book cupboard.

Remember that scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Andy is taking down to the clothes store? That’s what it feels like when I open the doors and stare at all these beautiful creations.

I’ve always loved reading. My earliest memories involve going to the library with my mam and wandering around the shelves, taking home new worlds and adventures that couldn’t be found in the back yard.

It was bliss. I mean, look at this building…

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… and imagine it in the 1970s, when Newcastle’s grand old buildings were being pulled down and replaced by 1970s tower blocks and concrete monstrosities. Is it any wonder I viewed it as a magical, mystical place?

I can still remember the stillness, the quietness; how the dust motes glistened in the sunlight through the huge windows; the musty smell from the books…

The children’s section are the windows at the far right of this photo and the book I desperately want to re-read – A Candle in her Room, by Ruth M Arthur – is in one of the first group of bookcases, slightly to the left. Go behind the case and you’ll find it there, about second row down.

That’s how strong my memories are. So strong, that when I visited the library in the early 2000s, it was like Marty McFly waking up in the new 1985 – I knew the building intimately but it had all changed. Nothing was where I remembered and the beautiful stillness had gone, replaced by noisy playgroups and old people chatting away.

It was horrible. Truly, the end of my childhood.

Now, obviously, I think it’s wonderful that the young and the old were using the facilities and giving them a new life. But for me, the Lady Stephenson Library was a church, hallowed land, and the books within it to be honored.

At junior school, I read so much that they had to start me on the “boys’ books” as I’d gone through the reading list. (Yes, in the 1970s, some books were for boys and some for girls. Utter nonsense. Can you imagine – they kept Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man away from the girls. I mean, what the feisty feck? I was the only girl in my school allowed to read it. It’s a bloody classic. It was even on Jackanory, but oh no, Walkergate Junior School knew what was best for girls and it wasn’t Ted Hughes… Yes, I can rant about this much, much more. And have.)

At one point in my life, I had so many books they were spread over four houses – my mam’s, my sister’s, the flat in Newcastle I was renting out and the flat in Edinburgh I was renting.

Today, I have ten. Sacrifices have to be made when you move from country to country and my babies were it. They went to Amnesty International’s bookshop in Newcastle, or the equivalent depending where I was, so I can rest easy that I didn’t pay the ultimate price in vain.

And no, I won’t have a Kindle. I could go into another rant, but I’ll simply link you to this Ted talk instead. Chip Kidd says this so much better than I ever could:

I like not having lots of things – even books – but only having ten tomes in my life has made me lazy and I’ve been re-reading rather than exploring new works. My local library is also – surprise surprise – rather small and consequently goes for crowd-pleasers rather than anything that can push you.

Which is why I raided the book cupboard the other week and forced myself away from the usual pot-boiler thrillers that will fill a gap rather than truly satisfy – you know, like when you have McDonalds when you really want is steak and chips – to themes I recently have discarded.

Some of them were terrible, but three stood out. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old, Antoine Laurain’s French Rhapsody and The Devil’s Work by Mark Edwards.

Disclaimer alert: The Devil’s Work is a psychological thriller, the type I said I’d tried to get away from, but if you’re going to read one, read this. Nothing McDonaldsy about it at all. I ploughed through it in two days and of course, guessed the twist – only it wasn’t the twist at all. The real twist completely threw me (sent me rocking and rolling, you might say. Boom boom.)

It’s about a young mum, Sophie, who lands the job of her dreams after four years of looking after her daughter. However, it seems her ambitious young assistant is sabotaging her work – and her personal life.

Or is she? Cue dramatic music.

It is, to use a well-deserved cliché, a page-turner and Edwards truly gets into a working woman’s psyche – the feeling of having to prove yourself more (mum or not) and marrying home life with working life (especially when the “traditional” breadwinner scenario gets turned upside down).

A separate timeline shows Sophie’s life at university, contrasting the apparently sharp publishing exec with the shy, impressionable student she was. The difference between our past and present selves is the major theme in French Rhapsody, a lovely dramady featuring an ensemble cast. Tying the different characters together is doctor Alain, who receives a letter from Polydor record label wanting to meet the rock band he is in and discuss an album. Except the letter arrives 33 years late and by that time, the musicians have all moved on and are now living completely different lives.

They’re books that have hit home. Our lives are so long that we don’t notice changes; it’s only when we look back that we realise how different we are now from the person we were five, ten or 30 years ago. But when do these changes start? When do we go from being the girl scribbling Solidarnosc over the blackboards at school (sorry, the ghost of Mr Hoey) and wearing a Soviet badge on a Lenin hat to shaking your head at the current Labour debacle? (“A little bit of politics there” – and that’s a reference only those around in the 80s will get) And are those changes good? Are we older and wiser, or just older?

As far as Hendrik Groen is concerned, it’s definitely just wiser. While I want to read more from Edwards and Laurain, I want to go for a drink with Hendrik – and the rest of his Old-But-Not-Dead Club.

Hendrik is the both author and main character (no one knows who the author truly is) and I love him. He lives in an old people’s home but he’s damned if he’s going to be old. So he and a select group of friends form a club and each month they have days out, which generally end up with a liberal amount of alcohol being taken. In the days between, Hendrik and his friends “fight the man” – the tyranny of institutionalised life. He also falls in love.

It’s impossible not to read this without smiling, but the themes run deep: euthanasia, dementia, community living and how to grow old with dignity (even when you’re back in nappies). It’s Waiting for God without the farce – funny, sad, moving, thought-provoking and wonderful.

I want to be Hendrik when I get older – and it seems I’m not the only one. Some old schoolpals got in touch the other day to discuss a joint 50th and one of them wrote:

I wanna be 86…….
Still havin a laugh…..
Still dyeing me hair !!!
With all me faculties…..
Go to sleep after seeing me family and then just go ……
I wish u could
Put an order in cos that’s what I’d do ……

(I don’t think she’d consider it a poem, but it is. And beautiful poetry at that.)

It is a wish the Old-But-Not-Dead Club would heartily agree with.

And that’s the sign of a good book – you carry it with you forever, like A Candle in her Room and The Iron Man. And yes, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Which is why The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old is now book number 11 on my shelves.

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