For years, like many people I suppose, visiting my parents has also been revisiting childhood landscapes, dreams, hopes – and books.
In one specific way, these are all the same thing. I grew up in Alan Garner country. From the field above our house you could see Shuttlingsloe, Shining Tor, Mow Cop. These were simultaneously the hills my parents dragged me to for boring walks (boring because I’d much rather have been at home reading books) and perilous places of terror and enchantment where the Morrigan rode and Roman legionaries went native far from home – all inside those same Garner books.
These days I’d rather stomp over the hills than read even a fantastic book. But it’s a tradition that, when visiting my parents, I’ll follow a walk through those semi-mythical landscapes by curling up with the books of my childhood, which my parents have kept in a wonderful library collected over the years. Alongside Alan Garner there’s Diana Wynne Jones, Rosemary Sutcliff, Peter Dickinson, Joan Aiken, Leon Garfield, Susan Cooper, Noel Streatfeild, Elizabeth Goudge, Robert Westall… It is partly a retreat into the voracious reading of childhood, when the world of the book is more real than the real world (Tom and Jan on Mow Cop in Red Shift more immediate and vital than any boring walk there with my parents), partly a salute to these authors who inspired me to start writing myself (when those walks ceased to be boring, as I dreamed up my own stories to fit the landscapes) and partly an investigation as a writer, always learning, always hoping, always marvelling at how the masters manage it.
Now my parents are downsizing (isn’t everybody?). There isn’t room for everything, so I spent last week packing up the children’s library to send off to its new home with my brother, in a different county, far from the landscapes of childhood.
I also sorted through a drawer of my own childhood and adolescent writings. Most of them are awful. I can read them now and identify, paragraph by paragraph, here is Rosemary Sutcliff, here is Diana Wynne Jones, here is Ursula le Guin, Sutcliff again, Dickinson, again Sutcliff…
But in among the styles and stories lifted wholesale from other authors and legends and fairytales and films, the one thing that rings at all true is the landscape. I knew from Garner that stories as deep as myth could be written about an everyday real place. I took Narnia and Dalemark and Camelot and transposed them to the field above our house, to the hills and moors you can see from there. And in the process, I think I started to find myself as a writer.
I moved away from my parents years ago, and I’ve never written about that landscape since. I don’t know if I ever will again; I can’t lay claim to Alderley Edge or Shuttlingsloe the way Alan Garner can; though I grew up with them, the roots go no further back. Yet the roots do run deep. I’ll miss the children’s library; in a way it was what made my parents’ house still home. But the landscape, informed as it is by that library, is even more important to me. Those fields and hills are full not only of the dreams and truths I read in The Moon of Gomrath or Red Shift, but of my own dreams of stories and hopes to be a writer.
This post also appears on ABBA today