The first time I ever felt romantic was when I spotted some Point Romance books in the Parcmarket at Center Parcs in Elveden Forest. Yes, that's a very long time ago - I must have been about 9, perhaps, maybe even younger. My family had been going to Center Parcs for a while, but I probably hadn't spotted the Point Romance books first time around. (For those US readers or further afield, "Point" is a brand of books marketed for early-to-mid-teen readers. I've been reading Point Fantasy since the age of eightish.) But on a book spiral in the corner of the Parcmarket, there were some. I approached them.
Well aware that they were written for girls, I attempted to look as if I was interested in something else. There were other books on the spiral, but they were so uninteresting I've forgotten what they were about, never mind what they were. What I noticed, more than anything, about the Point Romance books was the combination of front cover picture and strapline. The front cover pictures, drawn lavishly in pencils by Derek Brazell, always depicted a moderately attractive girl, often partnered with an outrageously attractive, yet wet-looking, boy. But the straplines were what stayed with me. "Do single girls really have more fun?" asked Kiss Me, Stupid. "Language is no barrier to love," declared French Kiss. And the one I remember most... Two-Timer, which posed the brain-wrangling question: "Double the fun... or double the heartache?"
I was a mixture of intrigued and appalled. Despite having known about sex since the age of about two, here was an outright depiction of human affection, in literary form. I was convinced, at that point, that I was celibate or even asexual (but that's a bigger story, and deserves another post on its own, so I won't go into it here), so I was shocked at how interested I was. I kept sneaking glances at the books' covers, and reading the straplines over and over and over again. Every time, the slightly squiffy, wrenching feeling in my stomach returned. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling, so I kept glancing. Two-Timer intrigued me more than all... could someone be romatically involved with more than one person? I hadn't considered that before!
I returned to Center Parcs a year later, and they were still there. Once more, I looked. Once more, I felt the wrench. But again, I failed to make the leap to actually physically picking them up and reading the blurb, never mind buying one. My money went on fudge from the sweet shop (Treats), which was probably more fulfilling for a boy of 10 to buy. But I would always remember them, those books - which seemed to hold some sort of hidden treasure: something I couldn't quite grasp, but wanted to. Or thought I wanted to.
I'll always remember them - their sight, the scent of the shop, where they were in it. And yet I never read them.
So I bought them from Amazon. All of them - well, six. There are a lot. But six is a sizeable number. And guess what? They are fantastic! Formulaic, yes - unassuming, unattractive but studious girl (with attached best friend as unswervingly helpful sidekick) versus devastatingly pretty, man-eating slut vying for affections of brainless but very handsome new boy on the block, who's either a rock musician, foreigner or older college student (or all three), plot kept helpfully ticking over via telephone calls, unexpected liaisons, implied sex (yes, I know - I was surprised too, but the protagonists are all sixteen, so that's okay, right?) and a happy resolution. It's all one narrative, but it's a very malleable one. And the (female) authors are surprisingly adept at shaping said narrative to both suit their own ends... and cover enough pages to be considered a novel. Fantastic!
I'm currently working my way through Summer Dreams, Winter Love (strapline: "Everyone warned her to be careful..."). Yes, I could probably read it in half an hour. Hell, I probably will when it comes to the next two on my list. No, I'm pacing myself - a couple of chapters at a time, mever mind how gripping this harmless piece of fluff is. And no, I'm not planning to write one myself, Mother. I don't think I could... I'd be too unorthodox. And too explicit, I'd wager.
But it's pleasing inside to think that, just maybe, somehow, these Point Romance books, in a corner, in the Parcmarket, in Center Parcs, flicked a switch in me somewhere. They are, perhaps, the seedlings that grew into the roots of what we know as ILB.
Now isn't that a scary thought?