Last week-end in Birmingham I had free time on the Saturday afternoon and I walked into Bourneville and visited Selly Manor, a Tudor manor house. There was hardly anyone else in the house and I had the charming garden completely to myself. I remembered another expedition over thirty years ago in my Birmingham days. On a sleepy summer Sunday we set out from Moseley to visit Sarehole Mill, an eighteenth century watermill, best known for its literary associations. Tolkien spent part of his childhood nearby and used the site of the mill and its surroundings as the inspiration for the Shire in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It has now been swallowed up by Birmingham suburbs.
When I say ‘we’ I don’t actually recall who went with me. I just know that I wasn’t on my own. I have a hazy memory of clambering about in the mill, but the thing I mainly remember is that we caught two buses to get there. In my memory it was a real expedition and what what comes back most strongly is a sense impression of waiting for the bus in the sun, as we came home from a pleasant outing. But when I looked up the distance just now on Google maps, it was only two miles from Moseley where I lived to Sarehole! Two miles, and we bothered to catch two buses! I find that puzzling. Did we really do that? And yet it is fixed so firmly in my memory. Perhaps we had my mother with us and she didn’t want to walk. Or perhaps it was too hot to walk. What we remember and what we don’t remember is a source of fascination to me and is such a fruitful area for a novelist.
Sarehole Mill (pictured above) is still open to the public and you can find out more about it here: http://www.bmag.org.uk/sarehole-mill
One of the pleasures of parenthood is the excuse to buy children’s books. There are wonderful picture books for children these days, and I loved reading and looking at them with my daughter. It’s strange, looking back, that I don’t remember any picture books from my own childhood. Of course there were far fewer books around generally and, relatively speaking, they were more expensive and we didn’t have a lot of money. Yet, both my parents were readers, so I can’t believe there weren’t any. It’s even stranger that I can recall so few books at my little village primary school. The only one is The Hobbit, which was read out to us in class: the description of Smaug asleep on a vast mountain of golden treasure has lodged in my memory.
I learned to read quickly after I had started school at five and I read everything I could get my hands on. Those were mainly from two sources. One was the local library in Helmsley. My mother used to take my brother and I there on the bus, a journey which took us past the neo-Gothic splendour of Ampleforth College, so romantic to my child’s eyes. I was enthralled by the Norse legends and frustrated by being able to take out so few books. I had usually read mine by the day after the visit and there would be nearly a week to wait until the next time. My other resource was a collection of my mother’s books from her own childhood and these were often read and much loved: Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School, Alice in Wonderland (not so much loved, that one: I found it rather sinister). And there was Dumas’s The Count of Monte-Cristo. I still have that and inside it is a book plate recording that it was awarded to my mother in her second year at Staveley Netherthorpe Grammar School in 1938. I was reading it at the age of eight or nine and I have never forgotten the thrill and the terror of hero’s escape from the Château d’If. Most of my reading was of books meant for older children or even adults, but that didn’t deter me. I just read whatever was to hand and made the most of it.
I don’t want to read Catcher in the Rye again – or Salinger’s short stories – though I was impressed by them when I was around twenty. Nor am I tempted to reread Wuthering Heights (though Jane Eyre is another matter). I won’t be returning to The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, all cult novels when I was a teenager (taking the Peake trilogy down from the shelf I see that they were given to me for my 21st birthday – and I haven’t opened it for, ooh, I’d rather not say how many years). Are there novels that it is best to read when you’re young as I did with all these? And conversely are there novels that one should keep for middle-age or old age?
The Great Gatsby strikes me as a young person’s novel, yet I could happily reread that. And it’s the same with To Kill a Mocking Bird. In fact I didn’t read that until I was middle-aged and loved it, but I think the optimum age for reading it is probably mid teens. On the other hand Proust is surely a writer for later life. You need to have been through the mill a bit yourself really to appreciate Swann in Love.
There are some writers who have something new to offer as you return to them through life. Tolstoy is one. As a young woman I thrilled to Anna Karenina’s tragic love story, but it wasn’t until I reread it as a mother that I understood Anna’s anguish at being parted from her son. Jane Austen I can always go back to, though it’s more often Mansfield Park or Persuasion now, rather than Pride and Prejudice. Dickens was often pushed onto the young reader when I was young, but I think that was a mistake. You should be an adult to read him. Trollope with his generous sympathies and his understanding of human relationships is evergreen. And Middlemarch is the perfect novel for any age. We have chosen that for our book group’s annual big read and I am looking forward to.
Are there books that you loved when you were young, but couldn’t bear to reread? Is there anything that you are saving for old age?