When I was a child, I adored the Swallows and Amazons books. I read them all once and then, discovering that I had been given them in the wrong order, read them all over again. How I longed to be like John, Susan, Titty and Roger, adventuring on an island and commandeering a boat. The Lake District became a Mecca for me, and my parents very sweetly agreed to take me up there on holiday and even gave me a sailing lesson. Needless to say, I was acutely disappointed with the unavoidable life jacket, grown-up sailing instructor and decidedly unromantic modern dinghy.
In spite of my best Lake District efforts, my childhood wasn’t remotely like Swallows and Amazons. But what I didn’t have by way of sea-faring quests, I made up for with imagination, transporting myself to all sorts of adventures between the covers of a book, or in a corner of the garden. I suspect that books and games are as close to adventure as most children get. I mean, growing up in suburban middle-class North-West London, what were the chances of really opening a cupboard door and finding Narnia, or having a whole island to explore with a band of siblings?
Well, perhaps I had to rely on books and a lively imagination, but Tilly Culme-Seymour did actually have an island to maraud around when she was a child. Island Summers is her beautiful memoir of a Norwegian island, which – as family legend has it – her grandmother bought in exchange for a mink coat. Her grandmother made it a summer home for her family, and so Tilly grew up relishing its wild freedom, roaming around with a million sisters and one brother – swimming, crabbing, fishing, enjoying faintingly-hot saunas and long lazy ‘dyne’ (duvet) breakfasts out on the rocks.
In Island Summers, Tilly Culme-Seymour explores her family’s connection with the island. She imagines her pioneering grandmother Mor-mor, who used to frolic naked on the island, then her Mamma’s childhood, before looking back at her own memories of the island. The book closes after Tilly’s time at university, when, struggling to settle in London, she returned to the island with her boyfriend to survive the island’s isolation for the inhospitable end of winter.
Island Summers is like The Hare with Amber Eyes in that it pretends to be a family memoir but is in fact far more. It is in part a lesson on Norway, as glossed Norwegian words pepper the text – my favourite is Døgnvild, the ‘wild twenty-four hours’ created by the summer short nights – as well as descriptions of Norwegian Christmas rituals and Constitution Day celebrations.
Tilly Culme-Seymour is also a food writer, and much of what I loved about her book are the memories of food, the passed-down recipes and recollections of island-inspired dishes. It left me immensely hungry as I devoured descriptions of delights such as sukkerkake made with island raspberries and whipped cream, chocolate-chip bøller and endless hot pots of coffee. Many of the ingredients are sourced on the island – such as wild raspberries, or mussels ingeniously snared on the brush of a broom, or freshly-caught cod. She thrives on a paradoxically wild domesticity, that is inspiring and also surprisingly comforting to read.
What really comes to the fore in Island Summers is childhood. It’s clear that both Mor-mor and Mamma made this island a paradise for children, a marooned wildness where imaginations could take root. Going back to the island after university, Culme-Seymour reflects:
Being in a place well known, with little in the way of novelty or distraction to capture the mind, allowed old memories to stir, sometimes resurfacing in bizarre and rambling dreams … I discovered it was not only I, but Paddy too, who in the solitude of the island roved through his past, and through childhood.
What a contrast to day-to-day life! Usually, we’re so busy getting on with things, rushing about, constantly surrounded by people. It’s so rare to have any time without little daily distractions, existential worries, or lack of sleep. We’re always so busy pushing forwards, that we don’t stop to dip into the store-cupboard of the past, pulling out old jars and bottles and inhaling the memories stopped up inside.
I often wonder what happens to all those years of experience – such a huge wealth of time – which dissolve into the present moment. If someone were to ask me for ten memories from when I was eight, for instance, I’d be hard pushed. It was consoling, reading the memory-thick Island Summers, to think that all those memories might be still there somewhere. It made me wish that I could have a month or so off, to go somewhere isolated and let them all float to the surface again.
Strangely, just as I’ve been reading this beautiful evocation of childhood, my mother made me remove a huge box of stuff from home, filled with old school reports and a few kept birthday cards and letters. I had rather a nostalgic evening as I read bits out to the husband, who thought I was a total swot. (Best not to dwell on the ones for P.E.)
Amongst the reports, I also found what I think must be my first book – When I climbed Mount Everest with Hillary – a story written when I was about nine, complete with a not-so-beautifully-hand-drawn jacket. To summarise the plot: one day a letter arrives saying that Edmund Hillary is inviting boys and girls to climb Everest with him. Needless to say, I am one of the lucky chosen few, and dress very warmly, set off on the expedition, have lots of tea, take some photos and then return home. It is essentially what was to happen in my Gap Year, minus the dead celebrity mountaineer. Who knew I had such a prescient imagination? In this piece of what I will now pretentiously call juvenilia, I display a keenness to make detailed lists
I put on a balaclava, a vest, a teashirt, a jumper, thick knickers, some warm jeans, three pairs of woolly socks and a pair of sneakers
And then, in comparison:
Hillary was wearing a wooly hat 6 pairs of socks 2 vests 3 jumpers.
This extended to food too:
For my food I had yogart, chips, bacon, toast and eggs.
And then, revealingly, the last line:
Mummy was very pleased to see me again and gave me my best tea. (It was chocolate cake and sweets.)
Nice use of parenthesis.
I loved reading Island Summers, and found it transported me to the barren beauty of the island, and also to an accompanying luxurious spaciousness of time. Tilly Culme-Seymour captures a wonderful childhood of games and adventure. How special to have your own real treasure island, rather than just an imaginary one, and how lucky we are to be able to read about it, let it take shape in our own heads, with extra details no doubt supplied by our own childhood dreams.
Looking back through this box of stuff and reminded of other fantasies I had and games I used to play, I realised that what is so very special about childhood is that it doesn’t really matter where you have it or what you do. Yes, roving about wildly on an island sounds incredibly special, but hanging out in North-West London needn’t stop one from climbing the odd mountain. If only we kept hold of this wonderful land of the imagination as we grew up, life might stay every bit as exciting as it used to be.