It begins with Kathryn Jackson, whose Spring Tales was the first book I remember loving. My sister gave it to me for my birthday when I was five or six (when books were still priced, as this one is, in shillings and pence): I believe it may have been the first book I ever actually owned. Small enough to be held nicely in any child’s hand, it’s a collection of some fifty tiny stories and poems with titles such as ‘Tag-Along Lamb’, ‘The Strange Case of Mr. Camel’ and ‘Snowshoes the Second’. One poem still knocks around my head from time to time. It begins:
Grown-ups have sayings
That, plain to be seen,
Mean something much different
From what they should mean.
It was an early clue that what language said and what it meant could be different entities. Did I, aged five, come to appreciate the possibilities of irony? I doubt it. But I remember loving the fact that the pieces were seldom longer than two pages, and that they somehow managed, within that space, to tell full stories with children in them I would have liked to have for friends, and that, despite the hint buried in the poem above, I could understand the words. Brevity, transparency, familiarity: that’s how it started, if not quite how it transpired. Best of all, Spring Tales was illustrated (by Richard Scarry) with bunnies in dungarees, mice in bonnets and ganders on bicycles. This was a cheerful world: everything there was brighter, more animated, than in so-called ‘real life’.
As a reader, some forty years on, I still hope this will be the case when I enter a new book. I value a pleasant magic, characters doing what they ought not to, and all to the good. I think I may have taken to poetry because it had inbuilt short-cuts to the flip side of reality and didn’t need to explain itself quite so much as prose. It had something of the power of illustration to present a competing version of the way things are. Fowl on a bicycle? A talking giraffe? That’s just how it is, for this moment anyway; as for the next, who knows? Nothing about a single poem can predict the next. I liked the white space to either side of writing that has kicked away its scaffolding and struts. I learned to like small boxes. With care, I noticed, you could fit so much in them.
It’s not such a big step, maybe, from a child’s picture book to Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which was for me, in my mid-teens, the epitome of cool. It was great fun, being both playful and wayward and it took a story and knotted it tighter and oftener than any other prose epic I’d read. The digressions, asides and narrative curlicues; the ribaldry, Latin, asterisks and dashes, the famous marbled page—if this was how prose could be ruffled, then why, I wondered, would anyone settle for a straightforward, linear approach? In its entirety, Chapter VII of Book VIII reads: ‘But for heaven’s sake, let us not talk of quarts or gallons—let us take the story straight before us; it is so nice and intricate a one, it will scarce bear the transportation of a single tittle; and, somehow or other, you have got me thrust almost into the middle of it—I beg we may take more care.’ Tristram Shandy cured me of any urge to write fiction. Stories struck me, in my generous way, as only so much tittle. I began to formulate a desire for writing that wasn’t about forward momentum, but was still and dark as lakewater, and possibly as cold.
‘My old quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property… The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.’ So wrote Nabokov in Speak, Memory, a book that opened to me a view of language that had been engineered so that the grace of the words and phrases was at least as important as the thrust of the narrative which they were put to serve. It was like looking at a building of extraordinarily complicated architecture and seeing, first and foremost, that its beauty derived from the quality of its materials. I was, and am, stricken by the capacity of the mind that can perceive in a lost inheritance of a white-pillared mansion and two thousand acres, a more significant, and resonant, loss of that which we all must lose: childhood. And I was, and am, stricken by a language that walks, head high, into its own melancholic graces.
When I read the book in my late teens, I recognized almost nothing of a childhood of valets and governesses, holidays in Weisbaden and Biarritz, pre-breakfast fencing and his wilderness of snow. By then, I didn’t want familiarity. I’d already been in, and somewhat out of, love with the stately, poised and piercing prose of Brideshead Revisited, Thomas Mann and much of Henry James. I wanted new worlds of language in which nothing of my own childhood could possibly bed down. I wanted to convert my own inheritance, such as it was, into words it wouldn’t have recognized and places it never had been.
‘A large, alabaster-based kerosene lamp is steered into the gloaming. Gently it floats and comes down; the hand of memory, now in a footman’s white glove, places it in the centre of a round table.’ I was in awe of writing that could shift the ground from under me like this; that could work a metaphor so swiftly and neatly, I could hardly see how the trick had been accomplished, and how what is speculative, imagined or construed is made for the reader unflinchingly real. By then, I was turning towards poetry, but already I’d learned from Speak, Memory that shape-shifting and sleight of hand were integral to good writing; that beauty—indeed luxury—of image was permissible and that language could untether itself from its predictable and utilitarian inheritance with surprising and revelatory stealth.
There had to have been collections of poetry, but what I remember is the full force gale of individual poems. ‘Oxymandias’; Hopkins’ ‘Terrible Sonnets’; ‘Cuba’; Marvell’s ‘The Garden’; Bishop’s ‘The Bight’; ‘The Whitsun Weddings’; ‘I Died for Beauty’; ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’; Mahon’s ‘The Woods’; Donne’s ‘A Lecture Upon the Shadow’, and ‘The Gutteral Muse’. It was later before I could recognize what made a book of poems (occasionally) more than the sum of its parts. By then, I realised how hard it is to make even a single half-good poem. I’m still learning, still reading and re-reading, still practicing. And still hoping to come across words that will mean what they say, and then some.