19 April 2003

Susan Cooper And The Worlds That Books Build

I felt somewhat tender this morning, despite not having overindulged by any stretch of the imagination when I was out last night. There are times when I feel rather shortchanged on the alcohol-hangover exchange mechanism. If I have a mad night, I expect to suffer. Fair enough. But not when I just have a couple of beers. I mean, come on. Where's the justice in that?

Late in the afternoon I went into town on a brief shopping blitz to buy presents for my nephews and niece. I was pretty clear on what I wanted to get one of them, but I hadn't the faintest idea what to do for the other two.

I checked the theatre to see was Stuart in, just to say hello, but it was closed so I made a direct line for Waterstones. Crossing Saint Anne's Square I met a friend of a friend, who'd been out on the tear with a couple of my mates the previous evening. She too was on a present-buying mission, so we had a root around Waterstones together.

She's a historian like myself, albeit quite a bit more modern than me, working on American slavery, and so naturally suggested a children's history book for the elder of my nephews. I was tempted by Terry Deary's Horrible Histories, but I'm fairly sure the lads have a few of them and I'd worry that I'd wind up getting them something they'd already have. I tentatively settled on a big book about Rome, and then Laura and I went our separate ways, she going into the history section while I went up another floor to the children's section.

I'd wanted to get The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper, a book I had read repeatedly and loved dearly as a child and young teenager. Brother the Elder gave it to me, for my ninth birthday, if I remember rightly.

Unfortunately, although the shop computer was convinced there were two copies in stock, neither was anywhere to be found. Since that was the only present I had planned, I decided to go back to the chocolate egg option for all, and left the Roman book back on the shelf.

Strolling back across Saint Anne's Square I thought I'd chance my arm in the smaller Waterstones there, and found three copies of the Cooper book. 'Back of the net!' I thought, and set about getting something for the other two. I spotted Neil Gaiman's Coraline there and thought that would be an ideal gift for the eldest of the three - it's a fine book, wonderful and scary - so decided to buy that. And after ringing my sister to check, I picked up Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch for my niece.

Happy with my purchases I came home, and then opened Coraline, for no particular reason, and made a rather pleasant discovery.

Neil Gaiman had signed it. 

By the pleasant lake the sleepers lie...
So why was I so keen on getting the Susan Cooper book at this point? Couldn't it wait?

Well, yes, it could have. But this weekend is quite special.

I'm going to Wales in the morning. Sister the Eldest has hired a house for herself, her husband, and the kids for a few days, and Mam and Dad are coming over from Ireland. Well, I suppose they're already there, more or less; they're staying over in Bangor tonight.

I've never been to north Wales before, though I've been through it dozens of times. Other than journeys by road and rail through Anglesea and along the north coast, my only real experience of Wales is of a day in Swansea at a University Open Day, and a rainy day in Cardiff, spent in profitable conversation about different aspects of ancient warfare.

But I've always wanted to go to north Wales, mainly because the Grey King and Silver on the Tree, the last two books in the Dark is Rising Sequence are set there. I'm probably one of the few Irish people who finds Welsh reasonably easy to pronounce, due to having carefully studied the lesson in Welsh pronunciation Bran gives Will in The Grey King, and Cader Idris has drawn me since I was eight.

Cader Idris and Tal y Llyn are only a few miles south of where we'll be staying. I'll finally get to see them.

And if the kids read Cooper's books, these places might someday have the same magical meaning for them that they do for me.

Parochial, but not provincial...
In some respects, when I was growing up in Dublin, England and Wales were more real to me than Ireland.

That sounds odd, but while I knew every inch of my parish as a child, and even now it seems soaked in a deeply personal mythology of place, my knowledge of places further away was limited. Ballyfermot was a frightening place across the field, populated, or so it seemed, by savage shaven-headed men on horseback -- it was only safe to go there, to the Library, or to the Church, when accompanied by an adult. Lucan and Clondalkin were exotic faraway lands where older brothers and sisters went to school, while Ashtown and Baldoyle were where my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived. The Phoenix Park I knew well, as I did Montpellier Hill, site of the notorious Hellfire Club, and the City Centre began to gain familiarity once my friends and I began sneaking in on the bus, at the rather precocious ages of eight and nine.

But aside from that? Outside Dublin?

I knew Offaly quite well, and spent plenty of Sundays in Wicklow and the odd spot in Kildare, but other than that, the country was a blur to me. I knew of plenty of places, but with very few exceptions, they were no more than names on a map.

A Bookworm's Atlas...
On the other hand, I read a lot as a child. Too much, perhaps. And from the age of eight on, I think I lived almost in a world that books built, protecting myself from the world with stories. And most of those stories - at least most of those that weren't set in outer space, Narnia, Prydain, Oz, Middle Earth, or southern California -- were set in England.

Malcolm Saville's 'Lone Piner' books have long left me with a wish to visit Rye, and Winchelsea, and Romney Marsh, and to wander throughtout Shropshire. Richard Adams made no secret of the fact that if anyone wanted to they could visit Watership Down. Wimbledon Common is still the home of the Wombles for me, thanks to Elisabeth Beresford's books at least as much as the television series. And Roger Lancelyn Green's phenomenal retelling of the tale of Sir Gawaine has ensured that whenever people mention the Wirral to me I don't think of shrill scousers, but rather of the inhospitable wilderness that was the home of the Green Knight.

Thanks to Susan Cooper's books, I've long had a desire to visit not just North Wales, but Cornwall too, the setting for Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch. I've made a point of avoiding Alderley Edge since coming to Manchester, even though Cheshire is really only a short drive away, because I suspect that the reality of middle England would destroy the mystique conjured up by Alan Garner in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

Other writers, rather than locating their books in any particular location, instead conjured up a flavour of a fictional England that had more reality to me than any anecdotal Ireland, however vague their writings were. I could never figure out where Michelle Magorian had set Goodnight Mr Tom, but its Englishness, at least on paper, was beyond doubt. E. Nesbit, with books like The Enchanted Castle and Five Children and It, filled this world with magic, as if it were needed, while Hugh Lofting's Doctor Doolittle merrily plied his trade across the land. And surely it was on the Thames that Ratty persuaded Mole that there was nothing more enjoyable than messing about in boats? Even if it wasn't the Thames, it was blatantly England. It could hardly have been anywhere else.

Quarries and Smugglers
Enid Blyton hardly ever located her books anywhere in particular -- though they're blatantly all set in the West Country -- but through them I became enamoured with this strange land of moors, coves, and islands. The villains in Blyton stories were almost invariably smugglers. As a child I had a severe dislike of the dictionary, and tended to believe that if a word was important its meaning would be clear soon enough. This generally worked, but, sadly, Enid never saw fit to explain what exactly smugglers did. I must have read at least fifty Blyton books without any idea what the bad guys were up to. 

Quarries were another regular feature of her books, and a great place to find prehistoric arrowheads in. I was particularly excited when I was about nine and saw on a map that there was a quarry only a few miles from my house. Diarmait and myself plotted at length to go there, but never did. I've no idea what he wanted to go there for, but for me, arrowheads were crying out to be found. Despite having also read dozens of Doctor Who novels, far too many of which were set in and around English quarries, I never expected to find any Cybermen tramping about. There were, after all, limits to my credulity. 

In hindset, a somewhat inaccurate view of British education...
That said, the consensus of my childhood reading did lead me to think all English children went to boarding school. Roald Dahl talked about his own experiences there in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, but most of the fictional characters in whose exploits I revelled were clearly public-school sorts; they came home for the holidays, after all.

I didn't read any 'Billy Bunter' or 'William' books, but I read my fair share of books set in public schools.  Blyton's 'Malory Towers' and 'Saint Clare's' books being engaging but inferior sisters of Anthony Buckeridge's marvellous 'Jennings' books. Buckeridge was a true comic genius, a Wodehouse for children, and his books enamoured me of this odd land where people lived in their schools, and played cricket, and learned Latin. True, the school at the start of C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader didn't sound like much fun, but that was clearly an anomaly.

The idea of midnight feasts always intrigued me, and I was fascinated by this odd game called 'lacrosse' that the girls played. It all seemed so exotic.

I suspect that I would have loved Harry Potter, had he been around then. He would have fitted right in.

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