Again and it seems I’m writing anything but my thesis. Although that’s not quite true – I’ve about double the amount of words I’m allowed for the upgrade hurdle that all PhD candidates must clear to get from MPhil to PhD status.* Until I can sort this out I find I’m bursting with wanting to write and put to paper all sorts of other thoughts. Mostly my head is stuck in the past – it’s both my study and my escape, via re-reading the fiction I loved as a child. E. Nesbitt, L. M. Boston, Dodie Smith, Elyne Mitchell, Dorothy Edwards, Kenneth Graham, Arthur Ransome, John Masefield: all these and more are past treasures I’m plundering.
Some of their excitements endure – Green Knowe, for example, is an escape I shall probably never grow out of, a place I longed for as a child and which inspired the assuredly derivative ‘fan fiction’ with which I filled my schoolbooks (thankfully long ago destroyed). But some of it is now disconcerting – I don’t remember as a child noticing quite how much E. Nesbitt had to say about how different little girls and little boys are. I find myself wondering who the authors who wrote these books were, and tracking down biographies. Elizabeth Goudge, for example, whose ‘The Little White Horse’ is a guilty enough pleasure to merit spending my Christmas book tokens on a folio edition (thank you my sister and Granny).
Her autobiography ‘For the Joy of Snow’ holds the pleasure in identifying the people and places behind the more fictional characters I’ve long loved, and the same authorial voice laced with hot possets and the conviction that bread and jam, if served with love, is proof against childhood malnutrition. An alluring retreat from the hungry-eyed face of reality. Some of what she has to say I find irritating – there really is too much about God and theology for my taste – but to my mind this is a modern problem, that we only really value the thoughts of people who are secular or of a particular religion, depending on our own beliefs.
This makes for some squirmy moments when I’ve strongly disagreed with her, or tried to resist comforting statements that fly in the face of known reality (see above, child nutrition), and in the next I encounter sentiments I very much share, or would like to, e.g. “In our hearts every one of us would like to create a new world, less terrible than this one, a world where there is at least a possibility that things may work out right.” This rings out as some of my despair, looking at all that seems wrong right now – the sucking up of the world’s wealth into too few hands, the annihilation of lives in pursuit of extreme ideologies, the hatred of other people because of where they are from or what they believe – is because I wish that people had better ideas about what sort of a world might be less terrible, and better ideas and some conviction about what might actually help.
It would be banal to say that I don’t read these books as I did as a child; in the trollish misunderstanding that is the internet, such disclaimers seem needed. Yet their enchantment is still there, thread worn in places, but magic carpet enough for an occasional foray into the past.
*Except for Hogwarts. I think things are done differently there.