The Phantom Toolbooth

But just because you can never reach it, doesn’t mean that it’s not worth looking for.
Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

This was my favourite book when I was about seven years old. It was the first book I remember not wanting to finish, so enthralled was I by the world I’d been invited to enter. I rediscovered it years later when I was a Sixth Former and wrote an essay about it for ‘General Studies’. It was submitted alongside an overview of the life and work of H.P. Lovecraft. Both essays were concerned with different aspects of what Clive Barker referred to as ‘the fantastique‘, but whereas one treatise tasted the bittersweet piquancy of nostalgia, the other was a dry list of facts about a physically and psychically damaged individual who died young, miserable and alone. When the teacher – our head of the Sixth form who could have been the primary inspiration of Gerald Scarfe’s nightmare pedagogue from The Wall – handed back the essays, one of them was marked 18/20, the other had an angry red slash through it and the word ‘Drivel’ scarred into the paper as if he were a murdered carving his name on a victim’s torso. The lesson I learned that day was that some teachers are more useful to us by revealing what they don’t know.


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