It’s a morning in May 1993, I’m 16 years old. I step out into our garden after breakfast. Beyond the garden fence, there is an orchard and then a steep, treed slope down to the river Thames. It is spring; I can hear skylarks and boats chugging lazily up the river. There is still dew on the grass. Somewhere between the flowerbeds of giant poppies, Love in a Mist, and Borage, I am struck by a feeling of “at-one-ness” that I have never forgotten – everything seems stitched together. There have been several moments like this in my life (another one was in a pool of light under a streetlamp in Reading one rainy night), and I often feel closer to them at this time of year … Spring.
Quite soon after this intimation, I stitched together a naive poem that I still don’t really understand but which seemed to fix that moment in the garden like a photograph for me. I grew Nigella damascena (Love in a Mist) in my flowerbed when I was a youngster, and it is probably my favourite cultivated flower.
Here is an audio of the poem, “Love in a Mist” by my 16 year-old self, read by my 20-years-later self. This is followed by “A Daydream”, written the following year while I was travelling in Africa – somehow the two always seem to have come from the same stable in my psyche. Both seem to be haunted by a mermaid of some sort …
One of the highlights of my week is hanging out with the 14-17 year olds in our Church youth group on Sunday evenings. The little glimpses I get into the world of young people today are worth their weight in platinum. For instance, I learned from them that it is entirely unnecessary to tie your shoelaces – you can just tuck the trailing ends into the shoe. I have also had the opportunity to familiarise myself with Harry Potter fan-fiction lingo (do you know for instance, what “headcanon accepted” means?).
This week’s insight bore down on me on the back of a couple of comments, overheard. Here’s a fact: a significant number of teenagers have an agonising, unrequited crush on Mister Darcy. This is definitely headcanon non-accepted stuff but it is real enough to invoke quite strong emotions.
I remember it well.
Yes, before I was old enough to have real girlfriends (and for a while after that, too), I confess I had a few romantic attachments to literary characters – never to more than one at a time, which suggests that these were fairly serious relationships. So this blog post is a tribute to those unreal beauties I loved between the ages of 9 and … er … about 17 if I’m honest!
Wow, this must have been the first cut; it still smarts to think about it. Arrietty was about 14, brave, redheaded with plaits and freckles. She kept a diary, she was an avid reader. She drove her parents crazy but I admired her adventurous spirit and she wasn’t judgemental about people. We spent hours together. I think it was awfully handy that she was small enough to fit in my pocket and knowing she was there sometimes gave me the chutzpah to scare my own parents by being adventurous – although I think my headcanon made a magical allowance for me to shrink down to her size sometimes too. I actually hit it off quite well with her parents, which was just as well.
I’m not sure how any of these “ended”, or even who came next, but at some point my heart moved on to …
Although not strictly a “literary” character, Kira deserves a mention. I grew up without television and we went to the cinema about once a year so I never saw the “Dark Crystal”. In fact, I met Kira in 3D, on a set of view-master slides (that’s a thing I’ll bet the youth group have never heard of). I fell for her pale complexion, rosy cheeks and elfish ears, and her sense of adventure. I watched the Dark Crystal for the first time a few years ago and was amazed to discover that my gelfling childhood sweetheart also had wings! She kept that a secret. In fact I think there was always a distance in our relationship. As much as I admired and adored her, the gelfling-human thing was never going to work out, and there was always that scruffy “Jen” lurking in the background.
Perhaps I grew up a little at this point and realised I needed to date more human girls. But I couldn’t resist at least a little magic. Perhaps that’s why I gave my heart to …
She was a young witch, as vividly illustrated in the books, with a crooked hat and unmatched stockings. It was her endearing clumsiness that won me over. Dorrie and I hit it off because we were both misfits who always ended up doing things differently to everyone else. In fact, she was a proper disaster area! Being with her was so exciting, I never knew what was going to happen next. She always meant well but her spells hardly ever did what they were intended to. In spite of this she always came out on top of the day. I seem to remember she had a spell that made my bicycle fly, and she used to ride on the back of my bike with her cat, Gink. It was flipping romantic (headcanon non-accepted)!
We were pretty inseparable, but we must have grown apart eventually. I suppose, these literary characters never age with us so, at some point we outgrow them and find more age-appropriate sweethearts such as …
Polly was a humble maid who served Mrs Peabody, the wife of Mr Peabody, the watchmaker. I wanted, so very badly, to be Mr Peabody’s apprentice, “Job” and to whittle beautiful birds from scraps of wood to give to her as gifts. I wanted to sit in the pew across from her at church and catch her eye, like he did. I became extremely interested in horology and wood carving, and possibly even in going to church, on the strength of my fascination for Polly. She was brightly optimistic, in spite of Mrs Peabody being pretty harsh (as I recall) and she was simply kind in her thoughts towards those whom others were inclined to mock or ignore. There is no doubt that the time I spent with Polly made me a better person.
Yes, well, ahem … This was definitely one of those coming-of-age crushes. I don’t think anyone can read that scene with the cider and the kissing under the hay cart and not fall in love with Rosie. I guess she still haunts my summers, whenever the hedgerows are hot and fragrant and the beech woods are filled with secret green light and the chaff-dust of threshed wheat hangs in the air …
How about you? Did you give your heart away to someone you found in a book? Or is it just me?
I have a folder with maybe an hundred poems in it; most of them were written between 1994 and 1999 and covered the span of time from GCSEs to my final year at University. In the last thirteen years my poetic productivity has died to a trickle. I have lost my way a bit. I feel embarrassed by the panting romanticism of the early stuff and the technicolour emotions and tangible intimations of immortality that fueled my late teens are not as keenly felt as I approach my mid-thirties.
When I was at school, I was surrounded by poetry. There were three of us in my A level English Literature class where poetry was inescapable, there was an annual poetry prize, there was even a Dead Poets Society and there was a library with a well stocked poetry section. With some friends and some support from the English department, I started a small literary magazine called “Apex”. These days I have to fight to make space in my life for reading poetry, let alone writing it, but there has been a modest output. Here’s one I wrote for a friend a few years ago:
there’s a person i know i could be
theres a woodsman and a soldier in me
a weather beaten soul that’s rarely seen
i know he’s there because he’s been in my dreams
there’s a monk called brother somebody
who leaves his cell to cross the sea
he doesn’t fear and he doesn’t flee
but stands on the weatherdeck scorning the lee
i have felt his anger and desire to be free
his feelings and mine always agree
his indian name is strong-man-going-boldly
god’s breath must be in him or he couldn’t breathe
a strong man this woodsman must be
to fell the hulk of my family tree
a bold soldier too and armed to the teeth
gallantry and loyalty stirring beneath
his bayonet gouges mediocrity
and the monk steps out on a distant beach
salt on his lips that are burning to preach
and he speaks of my soul and who i could be
More poetry postings from this blog can be found here.
Finding this reed brought back a whole load of memories. There was a time in my life when I suppose all my dreams were in the 26 inches of black resonite that made up my clarinet – I wanted to play like Artie Shaw so very badly that I used to dream in swing. One evening, in a dream, I took to the stage with Louis Armstrong and we swapped riffs all night. It was amazing.
But this reed stands for everything that stood between me and jamming with Satchmo because the reality is, however much we picture that perfect sound, liquid phrasing and pure tone, it all has to come through this rough piece of wood. Every musician, no matter what their instrument, has had to overcome the brutish and mundane aspects of making a sweet sound.
As much as I would like to romanticise my affair with the clarinet, the battle with reeds and mouthpieces in particular put a dampner on things. A perfect reed would go limp in the days leading up to a performance. My unsatisfactory backup reeds would have to be broken in or painstakingly sanded and trimmed, often to the point of being unusable. A wayward reed would deliver a squeek at the wrong moment and ruin everything. To overcome these trials takes a special sort of perseverance that I am not sure I ever had. It was always easier to transfer my allegiance to another instrument until its particular technical challenges would hold me back. As a result I play a range of instruments to a mediocre standard.
One evening, I took a flute down to the river Thames which flowed about 200 yards from the bottom of our garden. I thought it would be swell to stand in the reeds and play as the sun was going down. But my mouth and fingers were so cold I could barely get a tune and I returned home quite discouraged.
Now I am a bit older I have a better grasp of the fact that the beauty we can imagine in our heads will never be achieved without a lot of perseverance, application, discouragement and messiness along the way. It’s a hard lesson but, once we have learned it, I think we can find that the difficulty has its own sort of beauty.
Try as I might, I can’t dampen my enthusiasm for a handful of writers I like to call the “rugged individualists” of the 19th and early 20th Centuries: Henry Thoreau (1817-1862), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Thomas Paine (1737-1809), Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) and even Jan Smuts (1870-1950). What keeps drawing me back to these figures? I’m not in a position to give a scholarly answer to that. I just find that their philosophy excites me profoundly. None of them were at home in ivory towers and, for them, their ideas were not the intellectual toys that they have become. For good or ill they experimented with life, that is to say they applied their philosophies to the real world and the things they could influence. I admire that and I feel it is difficult to point to equivalent figures in our own time – perhaps that will only be possible for people to do a hundred years from now.
I’m willing to acknowledge that their thought has been so influential on the assumptions that I grew up with that it is not surprising that I should find a sense of spiritual kindred. I would even struggle to name what ties them all together in my mind. They all diverged from the orthodox dogmas of the Church in some respects, they all affirmed some kind of self-reliance based on the divine aspects of human beings and something else about the interconnectedness of all things. They were rugged individualists. I know that our western “individualism” is “bad” but I can’t help feeling these guys had more in mind than the American Dream.
Well, that’s my apology and here’s an excerpt from “Love, Life and Work” by Elbert Hubbard, an influential thinker and practitioner in the Arts and Crafts Movement and a founder of the Roycroft Community. The full text is available from Project Gutenberg and here is an audiofile of me reading this excerpt for the GoingPublic project.
Success is in the blood. There are men whom fate can never keep down—they march forward in a jaunty manner, and take by divine right the best of everything that the earth affords. But their success is not attained by means of the Samuel Smiles-Connecticut policy. They do not lie in wait, nor scheme, nor fawn, nor seek to adapt their sails to catch the breeze of popular favor. Still, they are ever alert and alive to any good that may come their way, and when it comes they simply appropriate it, and tarrying not, move steadily on.
Good health! Whenever you go out of doors, draw the chin in, carry the crown of the head high, and fill the lungs to the utmost; drink in the sunshine; greet your friends with a smile, and put soul into every hand-clasp.
Do not fear being misunderstood; and never waste a moment thinking about your enemies. Try to fix firmly in your own mind what you would like to do, and then without violence of direction you will move straight to the goal.
Fear is the rock on which we split, and hate the shoal on which many a barque is stranded. When we become fearful, the judgment is as unreliable as the compass of a ship whose hold is full of iron ore; when we hate, we have unshipped the rudder; and if ever we stop to meditate on what the gossips say, we have allowed a hawser to foul the screw.
Keep your mind on the great and splendid thing you would like to do; and then, as the days go gliding by, you will find yourself unconsciously seizing the opportunities that are required for the fulfillment of your desire, just as the coral insect takes from the running tide the elements that it needs. Picture in your mind the able, earnest, useful person you desire to be, and the thought that you hold is hourly transforming you into that particular individual you so admire.
Thought is supreme, and to think is often better than to do.
Preserve a right mental attitude—the attitude of courage, frankness and good cheer.
Darwin and Spencer have told us that this is the method of Creation. Each animal has evolved the parts it needed and desired. The horse is fleet because he wishes to be; the bird flies because it desires to; the duck has a web foot because it wants to swim. All things come through desire and every sincere prayer is answered. We become like that on which our hearts are fixed.
Many people know this, but they do not know it thoroughly enough so that it shapes their lives. We want friends, so we scheme and chase ‘cross lots after strong people, and lie in wait for good folks—or alleged good folks—hoping to be able to attach ourselves to them. The only way to secure friends is to be one. And before you are fit for friendship you must be able to do without it. That is to say, you must have sufficient self-reliance to take care of yourself, and then out of the surplus of your energy you can do for others.
The individual who craves friendship, and yet desires a self-centered spirit more, will never lack for friends.
If you would have friends, cultivate solitude instead of society. Drink in the ozone; bathe in the sunshine; and out in the silent night, under the stars, say to yourself again and yet again, “I am a part of all my eyes behold!” And the feeling then will come to you that you are no mere interloper between earth and heaven; but you are a necessary part of the whole. No harm can come to you that does not come to all, and if you shall go down it can only be amid a wreck of worlds.
Like old Job, that which we fear will surely come upon us. By a wrong mental attitude we have set in motion a train of events that ends in disaster. People who die in middle life from disease, almost without exception, are those who have been preparing for death. The acute tragic condition is simply the result of a chronic state of mind—a culmination of a series of events.
Character is the result of two things, mental attitude, and the way we spend our time. It is what we think and what we do that make us what we are.
By laying hold on the forces of the universe, you are strong with them. And when you realize this, all else is easy, for in your arteries will course red corpuscles, and in your heart the determined resolution is born to do and to be. Carry your chin in and the crown of your head high. We are gods in the chrysalis.
What would happen if one day a genuine magician with real magic came to a city of illusionists who live entirely in a world of artifice and sleight of hand?
This is one of the very few books that I have read more than once. It left a very deep impression on me the first time round, aged 13 or so, and not just because I got some sort of fictional-character-crush on the girl in the story. It was my first exposure to Paul Gallico’s profound gift for the allegorical and, with hindsight, I have to acknowledge that it must have shaped my impressionable mind in a very significant way.
The fact that first I read this book at a fairly young age demonstrates the universal appeal and accessibility of the writing, but having the opportunity to re-read it nearly 20 years later I found still more delight and depth in the telling of the tale although it was very much shorter than I remember it being. For a book that looms so large in my memory and imagination, I was surprised to re-read it in a single evening.