Paul Magrs was born in Jarrow in 1969. He is a novelist and teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has published fiction for both adults and younger people. His most recent teen novel is Exchange - shortlisted for the Booktrust Teenage Prize for 2006 - and his most recent novel for adults is Never the Bride. Below, Paul remembers the effect on him of Eric Houghton's Steps out of Time.
Paul Magrs on Steps out of Time by Eric Houghton
Some books stay with you and nothing can shake them out of your head. This novel - out of print now, of course - was something read to our class at school when I was 10. Miss Booth, who was thin, elegant, sometimes caustically witty, read us a chapter before home time and we never quite reached the end before the end of the last summer term of junior school.
It's a novel about a boy who moves to a new town and, because he doesn't fit in, magically travels to another time and another situation, much happier than his chilly, Novembery, motherless own. Any other novel would have him transported to a magical land full of adventure and derring-do and that would be how he finds his outlets and his escape. Instead, he goes somewhere that looks like home and to all intents and purposes still is home: it's just sideways and a little further forward in time. When the brown mist comes down over the bleak little town during his friendless walks home from school, he finds himself at a front door that should be his and should lead to the damp house where he lives alone with his father. But he finds a happy family who recognize him as their own: mystifyingly, they think he is someone else. Someone happier, someone more fortunate, someone who looks just like him.
It's a delicious mystery, this one - full of that aching heimweh and spooky gloom that I adored at 10 and still do, if I'm honest. All novels that are any cop are somehow about homesickness and love, I think. In them, we're all - readers and writers alike - looking for that fogbound walk in the dark back from school, hoping to be transported. That's what I was figuring out then, anyway... that it's all about heading home somehow, blindly and trustingly.
At school we never quite reached the end of the novel. Summer holidays came up and, after that, there was the comp across town to attend. Autumn and lots of literal walks through leafy mulch and misty building sites. Real homesickness and dread, and I think at one point I managed to borrow Eric Houghton's novel from the town library. Put an order form in and waited. Found out what happened at the end and, of course, it was quite a simple solution to the boy's time-travel mystery. I was a huge Doctor Who novelization fan: temporal paradoxes were a doddle to me. But the plot of Steps out of Time was beside the point. The real stuff was in its atmosphere. The emotional stuff, the realism of its details. It just seemed right, the mood it conjured. Going home, getting there and it's not home, but it makes you feel like you belong.
Only bits of certain books stay in my memory. Brain like an Etch-a-Sketch - a toy from the same era as Eric Houghton's book. Give it a shake and the sand under the screen sweeps the pictures clean. Sometimes you can see traces of the drawn lines - clear enough to guess what was there. I read so much through all the years after that, the books got piled and jostled up in my memory. Steps out of time was pretty vivid still, even though I didn't have my own copy. I'd never seen it in Smiths or anywhere in paperback. Just Miss Booth's, just the library's. I'm a reader who likes to own everything he's ever read. Daft, I know, and our house is chockablock. Steps... was something I always wanted to recover.
It was years and years and years later - the rest of life had happened in between, loads of things - and I discovered online bookshops and Abe books and Amazon used-and-new... all those things. After years and years of second-hand-book shopping and rummaging treasure from grimy corners - this was a revelation.
Weird, though. The book hounder and haunter of boot sales and charity shops isn't sure at first what to make of such precision tools, with their 'advanced searches' and 'next day delivery'. Something about ease and certainty takes the fun out of the breathless hunt for half-forgotten novels. Anyway, I'd forgotten the author's name, but I remembered the title. And within 10 minutes I was in touch with someone in a bookshop in Wales, with an ex-library copy of the book I'd last seen 20 years before. It came return of post - rather expensively, of course. But that's the price you pay for having The Exact Thing.
And Houghton's book was certainly that. It was still definitely that. It was the precise edition - with the same cover: the green sitting room and the boy haunted by the image of his futuristic ghost self. The clock on the mantlepiece – the jagged flash of lightning. And I read and it was like there was a ghost-me reading just ahead of me, too – one that was reading the sentences aloud from the past. I remembered almost everything about it. The way the prose felt. The easy, realistic dialogue. That weight of sadness underlying almost everything in the book. The chill off the river and the descriptions of the boy drawing with charcoal on creamy paper. Of course! He discovered that he could draw. A big plot point has the boy discover that he has this talent and that's one of the things - besides time travel - that wakes him up emotionally and gives the book its sense of hopefulness. Art and love and going backwards and forwards in time – that's what it was about. I was glad I got the chance to remember.
As I say, it's not in print now, and that's a shocker.