Tag Archives: The Monkey Wrench Gang

Life-Changing Books

There are moments in life when we chance upon a song, poem, film or book that chimes with something within us. Pithy quotes resonate—we remember them—they influence how we act. I’ve been collecting quotes, anecdotes, aphorisms and poems for twenty years, which I refer to for inspiration.

Sometimes a book, poem or song lyric can be life-changing. It might make us see things in a different way, or confirm what we were already thinking—an ego-boosting fillip that proves we’re not alone in the world. How what we read affects what we write is hard to say, but as Pam Allyn of the International Literacy Agency said: Reading Is Like Breathing In; Writing Is Like Breathing Out.”

I grew up in the 1950s-1960s, a time of great social change with the rise of consumerism and the building of so-called New Towns within commuting distance of London; these were designed to take the capital’s population overflow housing them in modern developments to replace WW2 bomb damaged buildings. My hometown of Stevenage, Hertfordshire went from being a sleepy 6,000 in population, when I was born, to have tens of thousands of residents

I was a real lover of nature, so adored The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame, which taught me some early lessons about conservation, how small is beautiful, loyalty and opposing property developers. It was galling to realise that I lived in a town that had expanded onto green spaces. The idyllic quality of life which Mole and Ratty sought in The Wind In The Willows eventually led me, after much wandering, to move to Cornwall.

Image result for The Wind In The Willows mole ratty

My attitude towards opposing the destruction of the environment was cemented by reading Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang.

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I learned about the dark side of war by reading Lord Russell of Liverpool’s books on Nazi and Japanese war crimes. The Scourge of the Swastika and The Knights of Bushido were harrowing reading matter for 10-year-old me, but they were formative in making me realise that fascism has to be opposed.

Image result for The Scourge of the Swastika and The Knights of Bushido

Image result for The Scourge of the Swastika and The Knights of Bushido

On a lighter note, a few years ago, a friend introduced me to the writing of Pema ChödrönI’ve long had an interest in philosophy and her Buddhist beliefs chimed with what I’d been wondering about, particularly what she says about ‘attachment’ which hooks a person into a long-standing cycle of negative thinking. ‘Start Where You Are’ are ideal watchwords for any writer embarking on the telling of a story.

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I love poetry and recall being struck by the chilling forthrightness of Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse when I first read it as a teenager. It started me thinking that I shouldn’t have children…and I never have.

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   

    They may not mean to, but they do.   

They fill you with the faults they had

    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   

Who half the time were soppy-stern

    And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

    It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

    And don’t have any kids yourself.

Philip Larkin

More recently, I was delighted by the honest and sensual verse of Sharon Olds.

She writes fearlessly about ageing, including making love. Her frankness and good humour affected my poetry and prose. Hard to dislike somebody who writes a poem called Celibate’s Ode To Balls.

Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds

Writing by Peter Cox, literary agent, author and founder of Litopia, with its writers’ forum The Colony, made me reconsider what I was eating. I read You Don’t Need Meat which opened my eyes to a lot of issues I’d been ignoring about the food industry. I eat a lot more pulses, grains, fruit and vegetables these days. I could have done without the nightmare I had after reading the book, in which I was pursued through a forest by giant pork chops spitting applesauce at me! I’d rather not think about the Freudian aspects of that… I certainly woke more terrified than turned on.

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It’s not just the books we read, but also the books we write that change our lives. Returning to creative writing in 2013 transformed my self-belief and I’m more optimistic about life. Whether my words will ever change a reader’s life remains to be seen.

What books do you remember as influential from your childhood?

Has a book ever changed how you think about something?

What have you read recently that blew your mind?

Has being a writer changed your life?

Edward Abbey

I grew up in a market town called Stevenage. It’s in the county of Hertfordshire, about 30 miles north of London. The New Towns Act of 1946 designated several towns to become so-called ‘New Towns’ and Stevenage was one of them. These were to take the overflow of population from London, whose housing stock was dilapidated and which had been decimated by German bombing in the Blitz.

When I was born, in 1954, the population of Stevenage was about 7,000. Today it stands at 85,000. The old town is an ancient settlement, situated on a long straight Roman road known as The Great North Road. It has the widest high street in Hertfordshire, with a medieval row of shops called Middle Row.

I attended Alleyne’s Grammar School, one of the oldest in the country as it was founded in 1558. I walked the fields with my dog, feeling myself to be more of a country lad than a town dweller. I was a young naturalist, so seeing wide open spaces turned into housing estates broke my heart. A pasture that we called ‘Skylark Field’, where I once counted a dozen larks in the sky at one time, became a sterile development of 400 little boxy houses.

I knew that people needed somewhere to live, but I also felt, even at that young age, that there were way too many people. A distaste for the incomers saw them labelled as ‘New Towners’, with the older inhabitants clinging to their ‘Old Towner’ status. A modern pedestrianised shopping centre harmed the old-fashioned shops in the high street, with many closing and being taken over by fast-food chains.

Seeing all of this desecration coloured by attitude to modern housing and shopping developments. I left home as soon as I could, rarely returning. I last visited twenty-four years ago, and got lost – in my own home town!

I’d done some minor disruption of the stakes and lines laid out by a surveyor, for houses to be built on an old orchard which was my childhood refuge, so it was easy to take to the writing of Edward Abbey. His best-known novel is ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’, a title that comes from ‘throwing a spanner in the works’ – that is, deliberately sabotaging machinery being used to destroy wild places.

Edward Abbey

Cover of the first edition

His work spawned the term ‘monkeywrenching’, and his disparate gang of malcontents take on industrialists who are despoiling the landscape. Abbey worked as a park ranger for the United States National Park Service and was passionate about protecting the environment. A prickly character, he riled many people and was considered sufficient a threat to warrant the attention of the F.B.I.

The work that he did, along with his writing proved inspirational for those who tired of the wishy-washy, compromised campaigns of early environmental protection groups. He was deliberately outspoken in his views, mainly to keep people aware of the threat posed by those who would rape the land for profit.

Abbey’s early death at only 62 was probably a relief to some. Awkward to the end, he ensured that he was buried in the way that he wanted and where he chose. His friends put him in the ground of the Cabeza Pieta Desert in Arizona so that he could rejoin the circle of life by becoming fertiliser for cactus.

He remained true to his beliefs, and I think that he would have got on well with some of the other outsider, rebellious writers that I’ve written postings about on this blog. It’s easy to imagine him sitting around a campfire and sharing some beers with Charles Bukowski, Richard Brautigan, John Kennedy Toole and Tomi Ungerer.