Did you read the Hardy Boys books when you were growing up? If you did, would you consider it a “good” or bad” thing?
I did something weird last night.
I reread one of my aged Hardy Boys books. No. 82. The Blackwing Puzzle.
Oh, no big story over why I did it. What merely happened was, I was moping about the Internet, hopping from site to site. While searching for classic Disney movies after watching Hellraiser clips, I chanced upon Swiss Family Robinson 1960, and from the trailers, I remembered Tommy Kirk (who played Ernst) having a most unhappy younger life.
Further searching on Wikipedia reminded me that Kirk’s earliest major role was that of Joe Hardy in a black and white series. One thing then led to another. Before long, I was scourging YouTube for old Hardy Boys TV clips. And then I was heading back to my mother’s place i.e. my old home. There, I dug out one of my old Hardy Boys books from the 80s. After returning to my own den, I spent the rest of the evening binge reading it.
The book wasn’t as juvenile as I expected it to be. Yes, the prose was simple. Honestly, the plot was rather … too. Still, it was a pleasant and nostalgic way to wrap up a weekday. Nostalgic not only because I was reacquainting myself with my favourite book series when young, but because of some of my “accomplishments.” To save you the exasperation of reading through all of these, and to save me the finger-ache of typing a few thousand words, here are some of those memories in pointy form:
- My English used to suck BIG TIME in Primary 4. So did my other subjects. I came in 25 or 26, I think, for for Primary 4 year-end exams.
- I’ve been obsessive and indulgent since young. After discovering the joys of (American) teenage detective fiction, I gorged on it. I finished 70++ Hardy Boys books in Primary 5. My English, incidentally, dramatically improved. I topped the class.
- In Primary 6, I made my first formal declaration of support for gender equality. By gorging on Nancy Drew books and being a fanboy! Again, I topped the class that year. Actually, I nearly topped the school too. Losing out by ONE POINT in PSLE to the winning girl. (Bleah)
- In secondary school, my results were somewhat … wavy. WAVY. But, English was always my pet subject. On my part, I maintained my “strength” by continuing to gorge on books. Christie, Fleming, Lewis, King, Sheldon, Steel. About the last two, well, for the moment I’d leave that in the air. Let me just humbly say I received the English prize several times.
- In junior college, my results went from wavy to … let’s leave that in the air too. But I never had difficulties with GP a.k.a. General Paper. Not at all. My J2 tutor once commented I “should aim for an A2” during A Levels. Duh? I got A1. Without even trying very hard?
- By the way, did I mention what I wrote for the “compo” part of O Levels English? I spun a tragic little tale about a nun harbouring a dissident during the Velvet Revolution. I sauntered out of the examination hall half an hour before completion time too, utterly confident I was going to raise many eyebrows in Cambridge. (Or wherever the paper is actually graded)
All these, the result of me borrowing a Hardy Boys book from the school library one afternoon in January 1985. Because I was so, so intrigued by what was on the dcover.
All these, the result of me borrowing a Hardy Boys book from the school library one afternoon in January 1985.
Yeah. And in case it’s not obvious, I’m “grateful” to Franklin W. Dixon. I developed one of my better skills thank of him. Incidentally, I didn’t know FWD was a pseudonym till I was in my 30s.
Anyway, at this point, you must be wondering. What the hell is this guy bragging about? Is he promoting writing services? Tutoring, editing services?
June school holiday English enrichment classes?
I’m not. Believe me, I’m not. Presenting this resume-of-sorts is me lying out the necessary premise for what’s comes next. You see, something happened in July 1991. A certain writing seminar which I applied for because, hmm, I was drunk on my presumed writing abilities (I started writing creatively in Secondary One, aspiring to someday be the next Sidney Sheldon).
In advance, let me clarify that this seminar didn’t exactly traumatise or humiliate me. What it was, instead, was a sting. A graze not too unlike an orc nicked by Bilbo’s legendary sword.
To jump slightly ahead, I eventually stopped writing stories for many years because of this incident. For over ten years thereafter, I also abandoned English literature, reading only Chinese Wuxia novels. While that improved my ancestral tongue, well, you can guess, it did no miracles for my English. To an extent, it probably capped my English skills for good. This is something you must have already noticed, had you been reading my mistake-ridden posts.
What happened was this.
Somewhere in April or May 1991, I read about a creative writing seminar organised by the Ministry of Education for junior college students. I can’t remember how I found out and so to cut this part of the story short, I applied, I also submitted a truly trashy piece of work as writing sample, a few weeks later, a teacher told me I was in.
As for the seminar, it was to be conducted over a few days in July 1991 at the National University of Singapore. Throughout the event, established writers would play the roles of moderators during discussions. Thereafter, student participants would also be assigned to respective writers who would then act as our creative writing mentors
In retrospect, silly me ought to have realised right away I was WAY OUT OF MY LEAGUE the moment I reached NUS. The whole party was full of whites. Not as in skin colour but school uniforms. Pure white for the dudes, white and green for the gals i.e. students from the top college, the one named after that East India Company department head.
Oh, there were dashes of other colours and combinations, some white-blues, a peppering of light yellow, different shades of lighter green. But take one look and you’d know it was in and out a white affair. My prose group itself was half full of whites. At times, it felt almost as if Raffles JC was hosting the seminar. Not MOE. Not NUS.
Once discussions began, things headed south too. And I mean, Antarctica kind of south. The classic icebreaker question of “so who do you rrreadddddd …” was thrown, and with that, these folks started brandishing names I couldn’t even pronounce.
From the way they spoke, it was also obvious that they had all read these masterpieces before puberty, and finished analysing all themes by the midst of. When it was my turn, I foolishly attempted some BS about wanting to try a Kundera, before realising I was not going to get anywhere with that lie because I couldn’t even remember whether Kundera was Czech or Polish or, I don’t know, Brazilian? Surrendering, I then launched into some giggly rant about Sidney Sheldon and how I aspire to be Singapore’s version of him, make big bucks and have a dedicated (leggy) typist and all that. Again, it didn’t take long for me to realise I wasn’t going to get anywhere with this lame humour. To use a cliché, a stuffy silence blanketed us. People, the whites especially, were not impressed.
They were not impressed. At all.
That was not all. Merely the preamble, I should say. In the afternoon, or was it the day after, we split into smaller groups for “interaction.” Knowing better than to humiliate myself again, I clammed up and resigned myself to just listening to the articulate diatribes. It was during this vocabulary juku that it came, entirely without warning. One of the whites, a lanky girl, unapologetically shared her heartfelt opinion about reading trends for the young. I can’t remember her exact words, of course. But her message would forever be imprinted on me.
The worst are those (kids) who read (only) Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Aren’t there better things to read?
Cringe. Cringe! And there I was, right beside her.
Have you ever read any of those books? The kind of writing they use? The worst is that they then grow up thinking that’s the only type of writing there is. When there’s so much more.
You know, right there and then, I wanted to remind her that books like the HB and ND series are launce pads to higher literature. They are also particularly important for children without any natural inclination for writing or language. In my case, I came from “neighbourhood schools,” which in the Singaporean context, at least back then, meant ahem (insert your own politically correct adjective for the academically sub-par). My lower secondary school teachers would positively convulse in ecstasy had every student been reading a Hardy Boys book. And here you have someone espousing how Singaporean students should instead be reading Conrad and Collins. When in neighbourhood schools, threat of punishment often couldn’t even get kids to pick up a storybook.
“What’s so wrong with it?” I did ultimately protest. Meekly.
I can’t remember the rest. Or maybe I blocked everything else out because of shame, insecurity, etc. Anyhow, to be fair to her, we ended up as friends for a while, during which I learned she was motivated and energetic, on top of having fantastic English and being very outspoken. (She was also familiar with Duke Ellington, so we at least had something to talk about)
The point is, I went to that seminar to “grow” but ended up firmly put in my place. I woefully realised that as well as I did for English in primary and secondary school, I was downright terrible when shifted to a higher tier. In addition to being ignorant, unsophisticated, and quite the naïve bumpkin.
Worse, I didn’t react to this in a feel-good movie way. Instead of being inspired to “work harder,” I embraced the experience in the worst possible way.
Largely because of this experience, I deliberately applied for university courses unrelated to creative writing when the time came. In turn, the course I got into began another big bag of grievances in my life. In short, the great tragedy is that I now have buckets of life experiences I could write endless short stories with, but no formal career to do it with. In fact, I likely wouldn’t even be thinking about writing, about stories, or even about Hardy Boys, had I not needed to churn out a post for this blog.
A Bronze Saint of Athena
The above incident happened in 1991. That year, I was still obsessed with the Saint Seiya manga series.
For the uninitiated, Saint Seiya was a shonen manga hugely popular in the 80s, with the story revolving around the warriors a.k.a. Saints of Athena. These Saints were divided into three tiers: Bronze, Silver, and Gold. Within the story, Bronze Saints are said to be insects when compared to the godly Gold Saints.
During the seminar, I was, at best, a Bronze Saint. A forgettable one too.
I was also humbled by the glorious (white) shine of the Gold Saints. Actually, I should use the word, squashed.
What to make of this? I don’t know. Maybe I was given a taste of social classes in Singapore back then. (To use a recent catchphrase, SES) Maybe it’s also proof that social mobility isn’t as easy as it’s said to be in Singapore, especially when money isn’t the primary indicator of class differences.
Or maybe I’m just needed this rant because I’m still so bruised by the experience, by my own simplicity. To the extent that near 30 years later, I’m still sore from it.
I don’t know.
But what I do know is this. Whatever the reality behind my experience at CAP, it’s something that stops people from communicating. From connecting.
To use the same analogy again, my secondary school language teachers would weep in joy had every student in our school been reading a Hardy Boys book. Suggest to them to aim for Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, and they would laugh their heads off.
On the other hand, Ms. No-Hardy-Boys’ English teacher would weep in sorrow, had even one student in their class be wielding an HB adventure. Suggest to him or her to discuss Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, and the answer would be that they have already done so the previous year.
Down the road, this becomes a wall between people like me and Ms. No-Hardy-Boys, doesn’t it? Out of need or curiosity, or courtesy, we might try to climb over the wall once in a while, high-five at the top too. But before long, we give up and retreat to our respective social circles. We retreat, because the effort to surmount that wall is too tiring. It is also far more comfortable to be in the social circles we are brought up in.
Worse, it’s really nobody’s fault. It’s just the way a structured society is. Or should I say, the way a meritocratic society would inevitably be.
I end by saying, with no surprise, Ms. No-Hardy-Boys and I drifted apart within months.