Back when I was 10 my dad was reading the Sunday paper over breakfast. It was the News of the World (long before it shrunk down from a broadsheet with delusions of grandeur to a tabloid size more fitting its trivial populist ravings, and even longer before it got itself wrapped up in the scandal of phone hacking and other reprehensible activities) and it was a huge paper to a kid like me.
We were staying at Uncle Roy and Auntie Clare’s house — not a familial aunt and uncle, btw, but rather friends of my parents that somehow gained uncle/aunt status for a brief time, I think they may even have owned a house we rented for a while — and suddenly my dad looked up and held up a page from the paper.
That’s probably not the exact ad, but it’s close enough to sub in for the purposes of this dramatic reconstruction of a pivotal moment in my life. Just picture it to scale – a full page in a broadsheet.
It looked massive to me.
‘We’re going to see this, boys.’ Dad said, my older brother was there too.
On retrospect it was the best thing my dad ever said to me.
There was silence as I took in the image. It was a sublime moment in the truest sense of the word: made up, as it was, of equal parts awe, terror and excitement. Of course I didn’t know the word ‘sublime’ at that point in my life, but looking back it’s the only word that really fits.
Now, a person would have had to have been living underneath a rock to remain untouched by Jawsmania. I mean in terms of cultural penetration of a Hollywood product, Jaws had no precedents. It was everywhere, it seemed. And I’d read enough about it to know that it was going to be as scary as hell. I’d wanted to see it, even though a part of me shrivelled in terror at the sheer thought of it.
Well, long story short, we took a trip out and saw Jaws.
It changed me forever. It was the perfect film at the perfect time. Watching Jaws did a lot of things.
It scared me, sure, but it did a heck of a lot more than that,
It concretised my already-dawning love of the macabre, of the weird, of the horrific. It made me fall in love with monsters – because that’s what Bruce the shark looked like to me: a monster – and it’s a love that abides to this very day.
It also filled a bit of me in; provided cogs and gears that had been missing in my brain before I saw it, like my brain hadn’t been functioning quite right up until that moment. I know that may sound a little weird, or pretentious, but I’ll try to explain. I was a quiet, brooding kid, who had imaginary friends. When the imaginary friends went, it was like my imagination didn’t have a focussed place to go. Jaws helped me put my first, tiny, footprint onto the path that I would follow for the rest of my life.
To dream out loud, to dream big and in colour.
At this point I have to confess that I feel sorry for Mrs Small, my english teacher at the time, who had to suffer through so many Jaws knock-off stories (including the truly awful ‘Fin of Death’ which took up a couple of exercise books), but by way of apology to her I can say this: shark stories were the way I learned to craft stories. Through emulation, then, as I got more confident, innovation.
Hone the essential, discard the padding.
My shark stories got better. I could feel them getting better.
Just like the streamlined fish in Jaws, a story must swim without fat, without anything to slow its progress through water.
Jaws let the writer inside me out.
Sure, the inputs that fuel my stories may have changed over time. Sure I discovered sf and horror fiction. Sure, the ticking time bomb of my breathless first encounter with the works of H P Lovecraft was still awaiting me in my near future. But Jaws was the moment that things fell into place for me.
I still watch it.
Ask my wife.
But what could have precipitated this rambling reminiscence? It’s not a bad question. The answer is pretty simple.
I got my first copy of the novel ‘Jaws’ when I was 11. It was the UK Pan paperback, with a cover that has some similarity to the poster that launched a thousand summer blockbusters.
It’s a great cover, better by far than the original US 1st edition that I now also own.
(Is that a picture of a shark done by someone who’d never seen so much as a PICTURE of a shark?)
I’ve seen re-release covers and anniversary covers, but I always thought that the original paperback cover was the perfect wrapping for Peter Benchley’s book.
Until I saw this the other day.
Now that is the perfect Jaws cover.