Week 15: a la recherche du lost childhood

In a rare fit of continuity, this week follows on from last week.  I would say that it segues, but I am still so disappointed to have found out that what I thought was pronounced seegs – a word I rather liked, with an implied glissando into the next topic that made it rather pleasingly onomatopoeic – is in fact pronounced the infinitely duller seg-ways, which sounds like a moving pavement in Wisconsin (and indeed may be for all I know) – that I have sworn off it and cancelled my subscription to its fan-club.  So let us agree that this week picks up where last week left off, considering childcare, and moves on to consider the victim.  Which books successfully recreate the highs and lows of childhood?

The infant Gwen Raverat, her dog Sancho, and a bun

The infant Gwen Raverat, her dog Sancho, and a bun

First onto the podium has to be Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece.  Gwen Raverat was Charles Darwin’s grand-daughter, and therefore daughter or niece to a host of breath-takingly clever Cambridge academics who would probably have known normal if they saw it, but only under a microscope.  Her memoir of a Cambridge childhood in the late nineteenth century is a joy: witty, acutely observed and perfectly capturing a child’s-eye view of a very particular world.  She handles her cast of eccentrics with a scientific accuracy, and is also rather good on the uncomfortable metamorphosis from child to young adult.

Her natural companion is Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels.  I know that the whole Mitford thing has been achingly over-milked, and that all the self-consciously outlandish nicknames and behaviour can be a trifle wearing.  But she is so awfully good on loneliness and a child’s sense, unexpressed even to itself, of not fitting in properly with the world.  She is also ruthlessly honest, which is brave when it comes to discussing the foibles of your own sisters and particularly when she sticks to her affection for her extremely difficult sister Unity.  I realise that ‘extremely difficult’ is both a bit of an under-statement and a hotly-contested title in the Mitford household, but Hons and Rebels makes it clear that they were in many ways a two-generation sibling group, with the elders seeming as remote and exotic as distant galaxies, with the chillingly serene and ardently Fascist Diana as unknowable as Jupiter.

We could add Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit to the pile at this point.  Fabulous and rightly now regarded as a classic, it absolutely nails that child’s-eye view of events that the adult reader understands better than the heroine, while also allowing young readers or listeners to understand a refugee’s bewildered sense of displacement. You know, of course, that she very cleverly wrote each part of her trilogy of remembering – When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away – for a readership of the same age as she is in the story.  This makes the Out of the Hitler Time books a perfect present from an aunt or uncle or a godparent, as the reader can grow with them.

Children have a surprising gift for inhabiting a completely different planet from grown-ups while seeming to share the same space (ask Calvin’s parents: Calvin and Hobbes, you understand, not the great Protestant reformer, about whose inner life as a child we can only speculate). Arthur Ransome’s great achievement is to let us inhabit that world in a completely matter-of-fact way and (the acid test for readability in the NorthernReader household) without tweeness. He patronises neither his characters nor his readers and you cannot imagine him ruffling a child’s hair (note to younger readers: in the long-ago days before paedophiles were presumed to lurk between the cracks in the pavements, adults were wont to show how avuncular they were/cover their sense of embarrassment at being in the presence of children and having absolutely nothing to say by a whole range of ritual gestures worthy of anthropological study.  Children could expect to have their heads patted and their hair ruffled.  This was not seen as odd on the part of the ruffler and presumably built character in the rufflee).  Children who could detect something phoney in Enid Blyton’s cardboard children (you see? I never said she was perfect) could relax when they encountered the Blacketts, the Walkers and the Callums, because these are characters that are treated with respect by their author and whose friendships, family relationships and dealings with the mostly alien adult world feel faithfully chronicled.  It is perfectly logical, after all, that the children should presume that Timothy, being sent by Captain Flint from South America  (Pigeon Post if you don’t know and what a treat you have in store), is an armadillo: which, as it turns out, he is not.

Too many autobiographies are of the intimations, if not of immortality, then of destined greatness tendency.  Is it unkind to point out the relationship between the claimed racketiness of childhood and the pompous boredom of the fully-fledged adult?  Biographies can have the same cloud of foreknowledge hanging over them: what distinguished one public schoolboy with appalling school reports from another is that one of them grew up to be Winston Churchill (though actually, if you want a story of school reports that is practically cinema verité in its wincing authenticity, stick with Just William). Perhaps more memoirs should take a leaf from Mrs May’s book, and transport us back to a remembered world of childhood which slipped through the cracks of reality.  Mrs May?  She’s the narrator of Mary Norton’s truly fabulous – in every sense of the word – Borrowers.  Lonely children, it seems, make the best story-tellers. But we avid readers were never lonely, were we?  We had all those people (and bears, and fauns, and mad hatters, dormice and march hares) to keep us company.  And, it turns out, to fuel our memories.  Why say goodbye to childhood when you can keep it with you?


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