When does it start, with love? And is it different for girls? In fact, does the divide begin as early as language, or even before?
From an early age I was more interested in love than anything else. I was tuned in to relationships, not just my own (considering which relatives and friends I loved more and most) but those of people around me, and soon concluded that some of the adults in my world didn’t really love each other. I could tell because I lived with parents who were in love. They touched a lot and used the L word daily, to each other and to me. When they looked at each other, at home or out in the world, they smiled.
I knew I was loved and it was years before I started to wish that love was less protective and invasive; now I’m just grateful. But I never stopped looking out for love all around me. And although I enjoyed Thomas the Tank Engine and Enid Blyton, it was the love stories I liked best, from the romantic Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty through to The Snow Queen and The Secret Garden, where characters with stony or damaged hearts learn to love. In my teens I discovered Romeo and Juliet’s doomed love, Sydney Carton’s sacrificial love – oh joy! – and the mistaken love that destroyed Bathsheba Everdene and Tess, and just about everyone in Hardy’s world. I was madly in love myself, of course, with my English teacher, who inspired me and illuminated great writing – mainly about love. My chat was peppered with it. I believed in passions so I loved many things: my lion troll and Georgie Best, Morecambe and Wise (who loved each other, by the way) and briefly, Carly Simon and Steve in Follyfoot (who didn’t, as far as I know).
Maybe there are men whose childhood was like mine, who drew up a top ten of people they loved most and evaluated adult relationships on a love dial. Certainly there are boys who cuddle a dog, real or toy, for comfort or with love. There may be boys who inwardly swoon with delight when a film ends in a kiss – even if they groan with embarrassment. Maybe you don’t accept that girls grow up with a different vocabulary, books and music, conversation, focus and way of framing the world around them.
I’m willing to concede that as a female reader I may be at the far end of the spectrum. I avoid the crime fiction, sci-fi and distant post-modern writing enjoyed by many women but I should add that I shun ‘chick-lit’ almost as actively. There are no rules, and expectations can of course be self-fulfilling prophecies. But I taught hundreds of primary school children and believe me, they write different kinds of stories themselves. When I visit Y5 – 8 classes as an author, I sometimes give students an (evil) character in the first scene of THE DREAMER, and ask them to present the next. They almost invariably respond in two different ways. Boys conceive an action hero or dark enemy, leading to vengeance, fights, imprisonment, escape, chases and more fights. Girls introduce a female who, as my villain’s future wife, estranged sister, dying mother or long-lost daughter will redeem him. You might argue that this has less to do with the psyche than with diet, that we are still a sexist society branding stories along with clothes and toys as blue or pink. But do girls grow up with a ‘love consciousness’ that overrides, or a ‘love lens’ through which the world is interpreted? And where does that leave boys? There’s another subject here, about a male childhood, love denial/deprivation, conflicting role expectations in different contexts, leadership and war…!
I write about love. Even when my central characters are Frank the monster boy and Splat the little red dough monster he creates, underlying the cartoon mayhem is the love-hate relationship. For Frank, it becomes tenderness and remorse when he tries to get rid of the friend-enemy that drives him insane, only to realise that he couldn’t bear to see it hurt, that he misses it and wants to say sorry. Love in my novels may be defined by the darkness around it, as in HUE AND CRY, but it’s always powerful. I admire writers like Alan Gibbons and Dave Cousins who succeed in writing dramatic stories centring on teenage males in dark and violent real-world circumstances, because in a sense that’s discreet but will be felt all the same, love – fragile, fractured, struggling – is there underpinning everything. If a teenage boy buys TRACES, THINNER THAN WATER or THE WATERHOUSE GIRL, I’m secretly jubilant, and in signing his book give him enormous credit for choosing a book with a female character at the centre and the L word in the blurb. The boys I create myself almost always have emotional intelligence; they’re caring when that takes courage. They know at an early age what some men focused on action, status and success, only recognise at the end of life: love matters most.
P.S. In the last year or so, which novel compelled, moved and stirred me most deeply? Sarah Butler’s debut, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About (…) Love.
PPS Watch a film about the love that matters most, and can be shared by all, courtesy of the Climate Coalition and my hero Michael Morpurgo.