I was looking through some children’s book reviews in the bookshop, when a particular title leapt out at me – The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper. I was instantly transported to being eleven-years-old, when I was utterly immersed in Will’s quest to fight The Dark.
For those of you who missed out on this particular episode of childhood fantasy adventure, the series of books boils down to Good versus Evil, with the main character discovering that essentially it’s all down to him.
Several fantasy plots reduce down to this Manichean scheme. It’s very appealing, especially to a child. It’s a world in which everything is completely black and white – the goodies and the baddies – and the reader fiercely empathises with the main character, who goes on the quest to make sure that goodness prevails. Like Will in The Dark is Rising, or Ged (aka Sparrowhawk) in Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, or Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
I read a lot of books when I was a child. And I loved all those questy fantasy adventures. And spending so much time with my head in between the pages, I emerged believing that I too had a Quest. Of course, I soon realised that I couldn’t do actual magic. But for a long time I thought I was psychic.
I used to play a game with my mother in which I’d tell her to think very very strongly of a particular letter. Then I’d sit down next to her – sometimes I’d have to place a hand on her forehead – and I’d imagine brightly-coloured letters of the alphabet jumping over a fence. There would always be one particular letter which wouldn’t make it over the fence and that was the one.
‘It’s P, isn’t it?’ I’d declare, confident of my psychic prowess.
‘No, darling, it’s not.’
‘Then you’re not thinking of it strongly enough. Let’s try again.’
The process would be repeated.
‘I’ve got it, is it R?’
‘No, darling. Getting warmer though.’
‘Hmm… oh, is it T?’
‘Um, yes, that’s right.’
I don’t think she ever let me guess too many times – it can’t have been the funnest game for a grown-up, after all. And sometimes, quite understandably, she said yes straightaway. Because I was psychic.
I really truly believed that I had these special psychic powers. It was a bit confusing when I didn’t have the same hit rate practising on my friends. But I assumed that either they didn’t have sufficient concentration for the letter to be communicated, or that perhaps it was a special psychic bond between my mother and me. I think it wasn’t until I was seventeen or so that it occurred to me she might not have been telling the truth.
My psychic powers would be key to saving the world in the battle of Good versus Evil. I was genuinely very worried about the fact that I couldn’t ride a horse properly (unlike my cousins), because I would probably need to for the adventures that were going to come my way. But at least I was good at reading signs.
I remember sitting by a tree in our garden and suddenly being absolutely certain that I had to cut off a twig of that tree and keep it somewhere safe (in a shoebox) because when the whole world was blown up, it would be the only surviving piece of nature and I’d have to plant it somewhere in order for life to continue on our planet.
I just knew.
I also knew that I was incredibly special and gifted and important, and one day I would have to save the world. Perhaps it was because, as my brothers are so much older, attention was lavished upon me as though I were an only child.
I remember telling my mother one night before I went to sleep:
‘Mum, I know this sounds funny, but I think I’m a prophet.’
‘Now darling why do you think that?’
‘Because I feel I’m going to do really important things.’
‘Well darling, I’m sure you will do really important things.’
‘I know I will.’
‘Perhaps when you’re older you might be Prime Minister like Margaret Thatcher.’
‘No, I don’t want to be Prime Minister, I’m going to be a prophet.’
In my eleven-plus interview for a rather precocious North London school, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up:
‘I think I’m going to be a bit like the Pope.’
The lady tried to smother a laugh. ‘The Pope? Now, why do you want to be like the Pope?’
‘I think he leads a very peaceful and important life. Isn’t he on some island at the moment?’
I’m not sure why they offered me a place. I didn’t even say I wanted to be a Rabbi. Mind you, when one of my brothers was trying to get into Eton, he said he wanted to be a professional snooker player when he grew up. He ended up going to Harrow instead.
I did eventually realise that I wasn’t going to be a prophet. I thought for a while about being a poet – it was another way of channelling these very important thoughts that occurred to me into words for the masses. And, as I entered teenagerhood, I gave more thought to being Prime Minister. The problem was, try as I might, I couldn’t find politics all that interesting. The highlight of History GCSE was learning the exotic words Perestroika and Glasnost.
It must have been when it came to choosing A-levels that my belief that I was going to save the world really began to waver. It was suddenly clear that the four subjects I had to pick were going to define not just what I would learn for the next two years, but also at university and then my job and then the rest of my life. Suddenly Good versus Evil and exciting Quests to Save the World were completely out of the picture.
And I was reading books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, which don’t particularly inspire one on to epic adventures.
As I grew older still, horizons got narrower and less and less intrepid. Even becoming Prime Minister became out of the question, as I never went to debates, or bothered with the hacks at the Oxford Union.
It was after my first year at Oxford that I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. This was after a year of reading Dickens and Eliot and Joyce and trying to think very seriously about what these important pieces of literature meant. So it was extraordinary to read these books that reminded me of being a child. The books are partly set in Oxford and yet it’s not really Oxford at all. In Oxford nobody has adventures and goes on quests; they’re too busy thinking about poststructuralism and having essay crises, or dressing up in black tie so they can vomit their way through an induction to some society or rugby team.
I cried at the end of those books. It was in part due to the ending, but it was also because they plucked at a delicate strand of nostalgia. I remembered the little girl who was determined to save the world, who had been buried under years of sobering, boring real life.
When I gave up my office job in publishing in order to write, that little girl was peeping out again, telling me ‘Yes, it is fun helping to make books, but you never wanted to grow up just to sit at a desk in a sterile office all day in which your main form of communication is email (which isn’t psychic at all).’
It can make me feel sad when I look at what some people do for a living. Did anyone really say, aged seven, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a banker’? There are exceptions, of course. There was one girl at school, who said from the age of eleven that she wanted to be a media lawyer; of course she became one. And I doubt she read particularly imaginative books.
But where are all the astronauts and the firemen? Where are the adventurers and the polar explorers? Some people do it. Some become doctors, having felt the calling as nine-year-olds, some become journalists and directors and other things that they’ve always dreamt of. My brother may not have become a professional snooker player, but he has become a concert pianist, which was his other dream.
And no I’m not a prophet, I’m not off on a Quest, and I’m not even Prime Minister. Perhaps it was because I never properly learnt to ride a horse. Like everyone else, I have to live in a real world filled with boring bureaucratic hassles of paying council tax and registering with a local GP. I’m not a writer whose books have been translated into several different languages, who gives talks to packed auditoriums, who anyone’s even remotely heard of. But I haven’t yet given up on the hope that while my writing might not save the world, one day it might make its own little impact.