The Folio Society has sent me a book to have a look at: its letterpress edition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.I have to give it back when I’m done writing this. I’m tempted to write very slowly; it’s a beautiful book of hand-bound pages and gold leaf, and costs more than I could pay without wincing (£295). I find myself wondering whose shelf it will eventually grace; whether it will be alone amongst Ludlums or shoulder to shoulder with its brethren (the entire collection would set you back more than £11,000). I am very curious about who will own these books. Part of the pleasure of a second-hand book, of course, is to reflect on who might have held it previously, where, and in what frame of mind. It is less often that I question whom a book will go on to. I have left bags of books with charity shops, but seldom dwelt on what would become of them. This was probably a stoic reaction to the trauma of parting with so many bound pages. And then I left a copy of Hokkaido Highway Bluesby Will Ferguson on a train once. I got off at Ely, or Peterborough, and the book went on to Cambridge. I hadn’t finished it but was almost out of patience with it anyway. I do remember wondering whether it would get on better with its finder.
My review copy of The Tempest is in fact a lettered edition (R) and not for sale, but let’s not allow that to stop us from imagining where it might one day end up. The Folio Society won’t be around for ever, hoarding its lettered editions on Eagle Street, and certainly society will one day crumble: perhaps HG Wells’ time traveller will find this edition of The Tempestmouldering amongst the unread books of the Eloi. Then there are the numbered editions, which will find their way into the hands of eager buyers — will they be bought as a treasured item or as a by-the-metre order placed by a personal shopper? Will the sheer size of these editions take them aback? In its solander box my copy is more or less thirty centimetres by forty. How many of these books will be lifted from their case? How many owners will bend to sniff the ripe aroma of the leather? The Folio Society tells me that the goatskin for the binding came from the Sahel region of Nigeria, which is an extraordinary detail, really, like knowing the name of the cow your brisket came from. I sniff the book again, stupidly seeking a suggestion of the savanna, although I know the leather was actually tanned in Northamptonshire. The case sides of the volume were marbled by an artist in Kent. The paper, showing the deckle edge of its manufacture, was made in Hürtgenwald, and the type was set by a firm in Germany. The Folio Society has neglected to mention whence the place-holding ribbon came, but some things must be left to the imagination.
The mysterious future owner of this book is not the only faceless figure crowding around the volume as I read; the goatherd, the tanner and the binder are present too. The marbler and the printers of certain editions (not mine) need not remain faceless — two of them have been interviewed for the Folio Society’s website. Jemma Lewis talks winningly about the marbling process, which is carried out on the surface of a solution of carrageen moss (which sounds more like the base for a Yotam Ottolenghi soup to me but what do I know). The paper itself is treated with alum before being applied to the pre-swirled paint. With details like this a book can communicate through much more than words alone. Take alum,which I find a particularly redolent word, summoning images of the mine-pocked North Yorkshire coast, rocky shores criss-crossed by the trackways of narrow-gauge cart rails from which waiting barquentines could be loaded with their chemical cargo.
Of course a book generally needs to communicate something with its words as well, and those in The Tempestare famously pretty good. Here, I am told, these words are set in ‘monotype’ Baskerville and Caslon. I know Baskerville from the dropdown menu in Word but have never thought to use it. It looks good here, and I bought a font for the first time earlier this year (Halis Rounded, as you ask) so feel qualified to say so. The book’s large format shows off the type beautifully, with wide margins that beg to be scribbled in (although of course you wouldn’t dare). Of all the work that has gone into making these books, the type is probably the most captivating. The thought that every single letter came from an individual metal body that was set into place by hand is almost too much to take in, and yet this process has been carried out millions of times over hundreds of years. The type is melted down, which strikes me as an act of almost medieval violence. As far as I know, only the type suffered; all those involved in the production of these books were allowed to keep their heads. Except for the goats. They were skinned, dismembered, made use of.
I am happy for the Folio Society. In a period when the very form of the book is being questioned, they are more relevant than ever. This letterpress edition of Shakespeare is beautiful in a way books seldom are, and almost compels me to throw my e-reader from the window of a train. But if I were to do that I would have to throw away my Penguin paperbacks too, for every method of printing that followed the letterpress could be seen as a diminishing of the form. The painstaking process of achieving such exquisite regularity by hand must be exhausting (each book in this series took about six weeks to print) and it is impossible not to value the result. The letterpress Shakespeare is an expensive line of books — one percentexpensive, really — but I can’t object. Somehow we must keep finding the means to let skilled people make beautiful things. These objects must exist so the rest of us can dream about them.
Where to Start a Fire
When a kite is flown underwater it is called a drogue. A drogue is a device that can be attached to the stern of a boat, giving extra stability in rough seas. Billowing socks of nylon, great woven baskets, chains or tyres are used with varying degrees of success to create drag and prevent vessels from rushing headlong into the well of a wave. Used in such a way they are something between an anchor and a parachute. Some variations work better than others; tyres and all but the longest lengths of chain are pretty ineffective as drogues, though their usage persists. At high speed, tyres scud on the surface of the water without catching, as anybody who’s ridden one in the wake of a speedboat knows. Chains, though weighty, flay the water with no appreciable drag. Such drogues are no more than talismans dragged in the wake of faithful but foolhardy ocean-goers.
A bucket tied to a nylon rope can be used to steer a yacht in a desperate moment. Swung from port to starboard and back again, the drogue becomes navigator-saviour. In all these forms—parachute, talisman, saviour—the drogue is tethered, a bound object. It exists to be a drag. It was made to be in conflict with its surroundings. But to set a drogue free, to redefine it, all you need to do is tie it to something smaller—not a boat or even a rowboat, but a fisherman’s buoy, say. Something small enough to let the drogue exist on its own terms. In this liberated state, a drogue will read the ocean rather than fight it. It will drift with currents and reveal their subtleties. Such a drogue, laden with scientific equipment, transliterates the movement of the seas. It is a balloon let go. We have satellites now that detail the ocean from a hundred miles up. Their data can be bound up and extrapolated with mathematics, but drogues are still invaluable for mapping the world’s currents.
The broadcaster Jonathan Meades once said he was “forever bewitched by objects carried on the wind” and, for some of us, things that drift have a similar allure. In 1992 a shipping container plunged into the sea, disgorging its cargo of 29,000 plastic ducks. In the two decades since, enthusiasts and scientists have tracked the ducks as they have washed up on the shores of Hawaii, Alaska, Scotland. Plastic ducks have been frozen in the Arctic ice and plastic ducks have revealed the three-year cycle of the Bering Sea. Plastic ducks have contributed more to the pool of human knowledge than you will, probably.
The desperate search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has once again brought into focus how much stuff is drifting in the world’s oceans. The flotillas of shoes, plastic detritus, cargo crates—lost in storms or jettisoned empty—as well as, yes, ducks, are a disaster for the environment and a hindrance to search and rescue teams. Dead whales are cut open to reveal bellies full like rubbish trucks. Satellites take the whorls of junk to be the fuselage of a downed aircraft. And yet there is something about this scrap that delights, that fascinates, because our trash reveals the invisible. A plastic bag on the wind delineates the force that carries it and a shoe washing up in Argentina can explicate the very ocean.
I know what I can hold in my hands, though, so in the liminal zone between sea and sand dunes I can rediscover something of what my laptop understands (but it comes to me as intuition, not knowledge). I can turn things over and glean something of their origins, or I can fictionalise them altogether. It doesn’t matter as long as the thoughts stay in my head. I have words such as flotsam and jetsam, and I can try to apply them, though two words are not enough for all the ways that things end up in the sea. I would like a word for something that has been swept off the land and deposited elsewhere and I’d like a word for things that were released into the water with purpose only to be lost.
There is an island called Lindisfarne that sits on England’s shoulder as if even it had been dropped there in a winter storm. It is an island of driftwood and detritus and to stand on one of its beaches is to get a sense of the forces that form currents and let only shipwrecks and whale carcasses lie still for any length of time. The beaches between Lindisfarne and the mainland—which at low tide become a causeway, allowing temporary access—have such a high ratio of pottery to shells and pebbles that they seem to have been curated. Pieces of pottery, with their birthplace baked into them, reveal that those beaches gather centuries of junk from Berwick-upon-Tweed and Aberdeen. I used to think it strange to live on such a small island awash with the waste of great northern towns and cities.
You seldom find driftwood on the beaches of crockery, which are located on the western shore, near the island’s only village. The crockery beaches are good for an idle afternoon of littoral archaeology before vacating the island ahead of the incoming tide, or fleeing its atmosphere of isolation as soon as the tide draws back. Head to the northern shores for the driftwood beaches, where you will not find a single piece of stoneware, although you might find the ribs of a lobster pot or a yellow plastic crate from the deck of a fishing boat. The island sorts the sea, separating objects carried along the seabed from those borne on the waves. Pot and china for one side, wood for the other. I am an archaeologist by training but I much prefer the driftwood. You can burn driftwood.
The first fire I lit on Lindisfarne was in the lee of a huge tree trunk caught on rocks. I had taken the day’s newspaper for tinder and a book to read. My shift had finished late so the night was drawing in as I scoured the beach for kindling and fuel to last an hour or two. I built the fire clumsily and had even bought some firelighters from the village shop, having no faith in my own abilities. It felt wrong but I sent the whole box up in flames. The book I had with me was a history of blood feuds in medieval Northumberland. Red wedding stuff. I didn’t read much of it. I could see two castles without turning my head: Lindisfarne Castle up on Beblowe Craig and, five miles south, Bamburgh. Majestic and seemingly ancient as this skyline was, I knew that both castles had been heavily augmented by Victorians and Edwardians chasing visions of Camelot. And yet from where I sat they looked battle-ready. Cheap orange floodlights, by a trick of distance, seemed to flicker like torches.
I tried to focus on the sea and summon images of incoming longboats. At that latitude the North Sea is almost as wide as it gets. On the coast of Kent you can almost feel France, just over the horizon. On Lindisfarne I stretched out my mind for Denmark and felt nothing. Maybe it was a night-time thing because, conversely, during the day I could never shake the impression that ships lining the horizon could see amazing things hidden from me. In the end my thoughts fell and settled—no idea why—on the myth of big cats roaming free in England. My mind worked a grain of fear into a hard little pearl. In the long grass beyond the beach I could see the tapetum lucidum—the eye shine—of approaching predators. I fled without even dousing the fire, which I felt shabby about even though it posed no danger from its position below a lip of rock. When I turned back to see the fire’s glow, I was sure I could make out the shapes of creatures moving around it. Exploring the island in the following weeks I realised I’d been lucky to find a fire’s worth of driftwood on the shore by the castle. Most of it was to the north, combed out of the water by the rocks of Castlehead and Back Skerrs into Sandon Bay and Coves Haven where I lit fire after fire, alone or with friends, and could always count on finding more.
Every piece of driftwood is a stroke of luck. Wood can’t float forever — depending on the size and the grain even the biggest trunk will likely sink within two years. Two years adrift! I think of all the things I have done in two years but it doesn’t seem to compare. Most of the driftwood washing up on Lindisfarne was probably younger, of course. The inundation of that shore with broken limbs and boles summoned images of devastated coastlines elsewhere. Something was tearing up whole trees and throwing them into the sea. Trees aren’t stamped with their origins like stoneware so I could only guess where they came from. I supposed the debris was washing down from Scotland, spewed from the Tay and the Forth, Orkney and the Shetlands. From the tip of Castlehead Rocks looking north—and just a little east to skirt Peterhead—there is nothing until you come to the Shetlands, and I wanted communion with those distant islands. Had the Fair Isle current also gathered in offscourings from Lewis and Skye? I hoped so. I would burn that, too.
I became better organised and stockpiled wood, according to type and size, in a shallow alcove at the foot of some cliffs. From beard-fine twigs I could build a fire meticulously, stage by stage. Little finger, middle finger, thumb, wrist, arm, thigh; every piece was graded by width. This is against the nature of driftwood, of course, but sensible for firewood. On daytime walks I would bury beers in the sand to be dug out at later firelightings. Jacobite. Old Tom. Bede’s Chalice. Strong ales, appropriate ales. St Aidan’s Winery at the centre of the village was magnificently well stocked. I couldn’t always find them all when I returned to the beach. Perhaps sand also has deep currents.
If grading by size is against the nature of driftwood then beach art is the very antithesis of the sea’s haphazard arrangements of lumber. Once, rounding Emmanuel Head, a friend and I came across a huge pyramid of driftwood, ten feet high, made gaudy with plastic buckets, turquoise nylon rope, litter, yellow crates, pinwheels. My friend, a resident of the island, was riled by the imposition of ego on the landscape, and I goaded him on a little. It wasn’t enough for him to dismantle the structure. That was far too much effort. We cleared the plastic junk and began to pack the sculpture with lighter wood, with tinder, with kindling. With beard-fine twigs. As we stood back to admire our revisions, it began to rain.
It rained for a week. My friend and I moved from one island pub to another, watching skeins of rainwater run confluent down the windowpanes. I found a reading room, lined with books. I stashed a radio there and finished the book on Northumbrian blood feuds. All the time I worried that we would return to find the pyre gone—swept away in a storm surge—or that the artist would return and recognise the transformation for which we had primed the work. By Friday the rain cleared. We let the pyre have Saturday to dry out, to get its affairs in order, and lit it that night.
Could passing ships make out two men on the foreshore, tending a fire that burned three times their own height? We could not get within five feet of it. We had sausages to cook, but the sticks I’d sharpened with my uncle’s penknife were too short. In the end we resorted to wrapping them up in tinfoil parcels, extra foil fashioned into a swan-neck which we could gingerly hook out with a stick. We called them sausage swans. We shouted out folk songs such as Sovay and Lord Ronald, and laughed at our own ingenuity. We drank mead, actual mead. Behind us the sea continued to disgorge weary relics at the end of their voyage. Just shy of waterlogging, just short of becoming lagan. Some pieces would be covered by sand and find peace. Dark, dull peace. Others would be fixed in furniture or wall hangings and sold in shops smelling of incense, or on Etsy. The lucky junk would go up in smoke to continue to drift, to rise, to mingle with other airborne particles, bacteria, Saharan sand—particulate drogues mapping infinite permutations—to come down on our cities and towns, to raise alarm, to be breathed in, and coughed out.
Book Review: Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins
At seventeen I went to Northumberland to help pull a Roman bridge from the ground. There was a deep navel dug into the riverbank when I arrived, knotted at the bottom with lumps of stone. The site was below river level, so a bulwark of sandbags was slumped against the Tyne and every few hours a phlegmy petrol four-stroke was woken up to pump out the water that seeped in. The Roman world puddled at our feet and I daydreamed about the bridge we were uncovering, the people that trudged over it, the road they walked. If you were to plant your feet as in a tug-of-war, take the road in your hands and pull, would those ancient streets tighten like a drawstring, causing the land of modern Britain to ruck and pleat? Or would the country just come apart at the seams?
Charlotte Higgins has spent a couple of years pulling on such threads and the result is Under Another Sky, a winning patchwork of history, historiography, literature and anecdote that takes the reader from Roman Britain’s troubled birth to its ragtag dissolution, as well as exploring the Roman legacy in Britain. The book doesn’t really get to grips with truly modern attitudes to this legacy but as an exploration of mostly 18th & 19th century antiquarianism it is wonderful.
“How do we read all this? Whose side are we on? Who are “we”? Are we to applaud Boudica’s patriotism and bravery, or condemn her atrocities? Is Britain to be redeemed from her barbarity by the civilizing force of the Romans – or enslaved?”
The span of Roman rule was well documented by its inhabitants (especially compared with the sketchiness of the abutting centuries) and Higgins makes good use of what was written down, drawing on myriad sources with infectious enthusiasm. Lives, now dwarfed by history, reassume their largeness through wooden tablets and lead scrolls conveying sisterly affection or bitter enmity. She tells how alder and oak “postcards” at Vindolanda contain expressions of familial devotion, the poignancy of which has only been sharpened by the intervening centuries. In York a tombstone in a museum shows the loving dedication of a wealthy Syrian to his British-born wife, a freed slave. The “curse scrolls” of Bath are written in a conniving sort of Roman legalese scrawled with the intention of roping one deity or another into exacting revenge for wrongs done to the petitioner. It’s hard not to picture Minerva rolling her eyes at another plea to avenge a stolen cloak.
For Higgins, Roman Britain is not just about vicarious time travel through primary sources — she is equally interested in the antiquaries who scribbled in the margins. As such, a succession of academic eccentrics spring into inky life at her touch. William Stukeley, a hapless antiquarian, confounds the legitimate naming of British landmarks by gullibly reprinting a forged “ancient” manuscript of supposedly Roman derivation — just as the nascent Ordnance Survey is scrabbling around for names to give to tracts of Britain that previously had none (such as the Pennines). In the early 1800s an elderly William Hutton strides forth, against the protestations of his daughter, to claim Hadrian’s Wall for himself, musing that he may well be the last man to walk its full length. In 1904 Edward Nicholson finds what seems to be a sensationally early Christian prayer in one of Bath’s scrolls. A century later it transpires that the tablet gives no such sign; in fact, it appears that Nicholson may have been reading it upside down.
“The end of Roman Britain is a shadowy, half-understood borderland, the explorers of which are apt to see phantoms and conjure ghosts.”
Though Higgins relates these exploits charmingly, as if talking about favourite uncles, she has a serious point to make about the appropriation of Britain’s Roman heritage to support an imperial agenda or subvert it, to bolster notions of rebellious individualism and to explore multiculturalism. These broader concerns give Under Another Sky a thoughtful undercurrent but Higgins does not force any conclusions; she is as happy to spread out a picnic blanket in the lee of a ruined wall as she is to pick over the whens and what fors of pre-Roman cultists.
In fact, more than anything, as Higgins traverses the country with her dutiful boyfriend Matthew* in tow, Under Another Sky proves a very difficult book to read while sitting still. Higgins visits so many mysterious ruins that you will likely be driven from your home in curiosity. On top of a manor house in Midlothian she finds the replica of an ancient Roman temple perched like a mantelpiece ornament. The buried city of Silchester gives up a secret or two. At Maiden Castle in Dorset she tells how Mortimer Wheeler, newly widowed and troubled by his time in the trenches, conjured nightmarish images of British tribesmen massacred by the Romans. Higgins has a knack for spinning out tales and making sense of complicated lives in a paragraph or two. It is stirring stuff; eminently readable.
“Stare at the pasture long enough and pale stripes in the green become visible – then disappear as you change the angle of view. This is the ancient street plan, revealed like subaqueous hints of a wreck seen from the surface of the sea.”
Higgins’ national survey is not complete, however. The south coast doesn’t get much of a look-in and the Cornish are left—as ever—to their own devices. But Under Another Sky does not strive to be comprehensive. Instead, the reader can lope along after Higgins as she follows her nose or the A1. It’s a great ride but, while Higgins’ itinerary is enviable and her Victorian guide books do a fine job of leading us through it, her own attempts to evoke a sense of place or a quirk of narrative lean towards the prosaic, intruding a little on the grander narrative of an empire’s inward and outward breath. Clouds tend to be “laced” and the air “thick with perfume”. Twice in the book, the jingle of an ice cream van is referred to as “melancholy”.
The thing is, while the antiquarians she adores spent their days executing careful drawings of fortifications, Higgins mostly just ambles around with nephews and nieces. Under Another Skydoes not really analyse the modern heritage industry in Britain (except glancingly) so it is unclear what the reader is supposed to take from these excursions. Higgins’ VW camper van, much touted in the book’s publicity material, appears once or twice with almost as little to contribute as Matthew. It breaks down at some point and is abandoned. These attempts by Higgins to remind us she is there—rightthere—feel unnecessary, though they don’t dispel the book’s immersive sense of historical reverie.
“Here was the entrance to an underground car park, where there is another chunk of the Roman wall, exposed during the bombing and preserved by the Corporation of London. As I entered, the attendant gazed at me glassily, as if, like Charon, he expected a coin.”
Under Another Sky weaves an arresting tale but it doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of its own redolent title. It lacks a strong sense of what it meant to be alive and Romanised. To be fair, Higgins makes clear at the outset that she has no intention of trying to evoke such an ancient outlook: “I was convinced of the irrecoverability of the lives of people from the deep past,” she says. But this feels like a cop-out. We have archaeology with which to investigate the lives of people from the deep past—our modern understanding of Roman Britain is more than a little built on archaeological research. Higgins makes use of archaeological research to flavour a passage or two but she never quite manages to shake a reliance on historical sources or an obsession with celebrities — the ninth legion, Caractacus, Agricola. A frustrating gap opens up between the archaeological reality of the ruins that she explores and the half-mythical figures she lifts from the privileged pages of history.
It is unjust to criticise a book for not being what it never set out to be but, while it is not a critical flaw, this occlusion to archaeology hobbles some of Higgins’ broader analysis; she doesn’t have a lot to say about current attitudes towards Roman Britain, perhaps because so much of it is now rooted in something other than the purely historical. In the book’s conclusion, as evidence that the British have failed to assimilate their Roman heritage, she observes that no mural of Roman Britain was included in the new Palace of Westminster. But it is difficult to see how interior designs by the elite of the 1840s relate to British attitudes on the whole, then or now. All that can be said for sure about the paintings in Parliament is that they are political; nobody would claim they are entirely candid expressions of identity. It is a flimsy and dusty argument on which to end the book, out of step with the present. Midway through the book, however, is a fascinating look at the response of the Daily Mail and its readers to the news that a wealthy black woman appears to have lived in comfort in Roman York (spoiler: some of the comments are terrifying). This up-to-the-minute digression is refreshing and illustrates how archaeology continues to overturn common assumptions made about the past.
Other attempts to engage with modern interpretations of Roman Britain are less successful. When considering the signposted and giftshopped sites of English Heritage, Higgins merely labels them “banal”, which is far from penetrating. This glib rebuttal feels ill-considered when English Heritage’s presentational choices must have a greater impact on a modern Brit’s notion of historical context than murals in Westminster. At another point in the book an archaeologist wonders if a rebellious attitude towards Roman rule is encoded in the refusal of British subjects to align their houses with the grids of town planners. He draws a map to illustrate his point but, frustratingly, Higgins does not feel the need to reprint it. What we get instead is a poorly reproduced photo of the VW camper van. Archaeology can help us read between the lines of written history but it isn’t given sufficient credence here.
That’s not to say I wish the book were greatly different from what it is. As a series of snapshots it is captivating, offering a glimpse of the many different people who have been unable to shake their fascination with this odd period of British history. Ultimately Higgins seems to have a classicist’s disinterest in modern society but then again she makes up for it with a storyteller’s fascination for historical re-enactors conscripted to sell ice cream and local builders compelled against common sense to effect million-pound recreations of ancient mosaics. The silent dead who never wrote a word remain silent but, ultimately, Under Another Sky is warmly written and beguiling. It gently prompts us to think about where we came from and how we should feel about that. Can’t ask for much more, really.
“If it is to medieval literature that we owe the idea of Britain as a busy and productive and domesticated land, then it was the Romans who first made it wild, a land of sudden mists and treacherous marshes, a territory of mountains and impassable rivers. A land as ferocious as its people.”
* Matthew is so weird, seeming to haunt Higgins more than provide company.He gets about fifty mentions but never says a thing. He reminded me of the Hattifatteners who silently tag along with Moominpappa as he grapples with depression in Tales from Moominvalley. I almost want to reread the whole book in order to come to terms with this spectre.
Under Another Sky was published in paperback in March 2014. Buy it from Foyles.
How to Haunt Yourself
We fanned out into the entrance hall, my sisters and I, like it was a military procedure. We missed nothing: Twin Peaks wood panelling, torn lampshades, musty rush mats. Doors, to be taken later, led to bedrooms with curtains inexplicably drawn. At the end of the hall, wan light peeked round a door left ajar, leading to a living room where a panoramic window framed the rain that drummed on the roof and robbed us of the view. Loch Eck would be revealed in the morning. For now, all we had was a weak afternoon sun that could barely push through the glass, managing to outline the room but not brighten it. While dad unpacked the car, we sat drinking cartons of squash by the window like hunter-gatherers guarding the mouth of a cave. Another holiday, another strange little down-the-back-of-the-sofa cottage. We were terrified, of course. We always were.
Later that day I took a book from the shelf in my bedroom: a Mickey Mouse comic, Topolino. It was in Italian, which startled me, I guess, as I had never before been confronted by a language other than English. Seeing those familiar faces spouting gibberish was dislocating, like having a stroke. At bath-time the taps were a source of horror. They belched the brown water of the mountainside, and even my Lego police boat did little to ease my anxiety about being immersed in that beery liquid. My thoughts ran up the tap and through the pipes, up the slope behind the house. What was to be found there, where this water sprang from the ground? What beasts shared my water before it washed over me?
That night I lay in bed thinking of the brown water in the pipes, the Disney Necronomicon on the shelf, the trees pressing in on the house and the deadly deep loch. All week I was conscious there might be adders in the meadow between the house and the loch-side. Like many children of that age, I was terrified of snakes; each trip to the water put me in danger of death. I had a recurring dream of the Birks of Aberfeldy in which all my family were bitten and killed by purple-and-orange adders. I don’t know what our parents would have thought if they’d even suspected we were so scared. Studies have shown how parents underestimate the deep and pervasive anxiety of their children. On the phone, mum reminds me what a happy time we had in that cottage on the bank of Loch Eck but adds, as if it’s no thing, that my sisters made dad turn every painting in the house to face the wall. What was that about?
Goldilocks had got to us, was the thing. It wasn’t our home, so it must have been somebody else’s. There were raincoats in the cupboard, sweaters in the drawers and fishing gear in the shed. When would someone return to claim them? Would they find us sleeping? We felt that we were being intrusive or, at the very least, we were guests of someone we didn’t know or trust. We were vulnerable, lacking proprietary rights. Such feelings undid what faith we had, especially in our parents. They had made the wrong choice and taken us there in the first place. They’d put us in danger. To be small and uprooted and faithless; how brave we were to keep living as children!
As we grow these fears become numb so gradually that we forget to be grateful. We slough them off. But they don’t go anywhere. They shape us, then they sit back and watch. We can summon them if we want to, and they can be thrust on us with great ease. Kristin Lagattuta at the University of California has shown that, at about the age of five, when children are becoming more adept at discerning the imaginary from the real, all it takes to confuse their judgement is fear. She tells me that adults never become invulnerable to this. I can believe that. I’ve read books.
A writer who understands how the words on a page can become real through fear has a powerful tool. The author is the parent figure of any book; all they have to do is let go of your hand in some unfamiliar place, and you are bereft like a lost child in a mall. Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black seems to be a scary book because it taps into the grown-up fear of losing a child, but that initial fear is what softens you up for scares you thought you’d grown out of: darkness, sudden change, loneliness, ghosts. Such things are innately frightening for children but a story such as The Woman in Black can remind us we’re not so far off being children ourselves.
A year or so ago I was waiting for a friend at a roadside bar in north Italy, reading a ghost story and drinking a Campari spritz. I remember the high sun, the bitter drink… and the fear. I was amazed at my capacity for fear on such a bright day, with Radio DeeJay blasting from inside the bar. I was reading “The Mezzotint”, a 1904 short story by MR James. The narrator witnesses a cyclical haunting recur in a photograph that shifts when he is not looking at it. Distrust of new technology is a grown-up concern, but the irrational fear of looking at something to find it has unexpectedly changed is one of the first we develop as children.
The solitude inherent in the act of reading seems to aid the book-bound reversion to childishness. One of the last fears a child manages to soften is that of being alone and, in a way, this one fear pervades all others. I was alone in that Italian bar, not just waiting for a friend but deep in a book. And books – like charismatic cult leaders – can cut you off from everything around you so that you barely remember where you came from. For the first half of “The Mezzotint” the narrator is alone, unable to establish what is wrong with the photo and then unable to interest anyone in looking at it. Similarly, if you look up from your reading and try to explain to someone nearby what, exactly, is frightening about your book, you will fail unless you hand it over and insist they read the whole thing there and then. The weight of pages is too great to get across in an instant. Empathy fails. You are alone with your fear, like a child whose anxiety is unfathomable to his parents. Everything is worse when you are alone. It is insidious what writers will do to you through your loneliness.
The narrator of “The Mezzotint” never confronts the monster; he only watches it through the photograph. This, too, is insidious: it means the cycle of the story is unbroken and therefore continues after you’ve thumbed off the eReader. Closure is the new collective dream – if we can’t be happy, we can at least have closure – so stories that rob us of it are brutal and difficult to bear. When cyclical hauntings are written about in children’s literature, the loop is often drawn to a close. In The Ghosts by Antonia Barber, the titular spirits are laid to rest and the book is therefore a comforting read. This is probably for the best; we want to instil joy in our children, not futility and listlessness.
The cycles in books such as The Ghosts help us explore our relationship with our past selves, our past fears. When Marnie Was There, by Joan Robinson, is about Anna, a lonely orphan, who finds a girl, Marnie, in the sand dunes and befriends her. Without Robinson explicitly making a ghost of Marnie, it becomes clear that the two girls come from different points in time: Marnie from the past and Anna the present. It is a cheery novel about the restorative powers of friendship, and has nothing to truly frighten a well-grounded adult reader. For a child, however, it is fraught. The death of Anna’s parents hangs over the entire book, making every joy seem fragile. Marnie is adrift, without provenance, in the dunes, and her uprootedness makes her somehow less human, like a weather pattern. If Anna is alone, how much more alone is Marnie? Is Marnie dead, or have the girls met in some benign time-slip? Very little is explained in the novel, which is satisfying for an adult’s sense of narrative and disconcerting for children. If you are at all connected with your childhood self then the novel can seem sinister.
The Ghosts, When Marnie Was There and, even more explicitly, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden make clear not just that we are haunted by the past but that we haunt the past ourselves. In Carrie’s War, Carrie struggles with the sense that she is responsible for the burning down of a house she knew and loved as an evacuee, which she feels she brought about by casting a “cursed” skull into a lake. The skull is the nexus of childish fears in the novel, but adult fears are distinct in a frame story that brackets the main narrative: a grown-up Carrie returns to the site of the fire with her own children and is almost overwhelmed by the attempt to coexist with her younger self. Alison Waller, in her 2010 article “Revisiting Childhood Landscapes”, describes Carrie as a Freudian revenant, “a figure at once linked to the spectre returning from death that haunts a place or person and to the exile returning to a homeland from which they have been banished”. It is unnerving to revisit the past because of what we might find of ourselves still trapped there; our adult identities are threatened by our child selves, which can emerge unchanged when prompted. In memory we haunt our younger selves; our child selves live alongside our adult selves in the same way Nina Bawden entwines cursed skulls with adult guilt. Charlotte Brontë understood this too; in Jane Eyre, one of the first novels to explore childhood with any complexity, a nameless child haunts Jane’s dreams, hanging round her neck and slowing her progress. It hangs round the neck of Carrie, too. Round your neck and round mine. This is what a good, scary book can remind us.
As adults we indulge in things that frighten us; we choose to live in fear for a moment, for the duration of a movie. We can almost forget what it was like to live in fear when we knew no alternative, when we had no choice but to fear, and still to continue. “We were more open minded, perhaps more gullible, certainly more imaginative, and those were formative times,” Marcus Sedgwick sums up. Sedgwick’s complex and atmospheric children’s books, such as My Swordhand is Singing, show he has not forgotten what it was to be a fearful child; we still had agency, we still had courage. Henry Selick’s adaptation of Coraline, on the other hand, takes the bright, brave and cunning main character of Neil Gaiman’s novel and renders her powerless, without initiative, and easily fooled by the story’s villain. The film critic Lindsay Myers points out that Selick’s movie seems to tap into modern, reactionary, adult fears about predators – stranger danger – whereas Gaiman’s more progressive novel recognises the vitality and wonder of a child. Selick has forgotten how to be a child. Poor lad. From time to time I lie back and time travel, wander my memory as a ghost, and conjure the fear I felt in the cottage on Loch Eck. I read to be scared, to dwell in fear like a child. It’s like I snagged my jumper on a barb long ago, and the thread has been playing out ever since.