Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

Island Summers

July 1, 2013

Swallows and AmazonsWhen 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?

Island SummersWell, 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.)

juvenaliaAmongst 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.

When I grow up, I want to be …

June 18, 2010

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.

Tonsils tonsils tonsils

March 11, 2010

I’m sorry not to have posted anything for a while. I had my tonsils removed a week ago and, as a rather unfortunate side-effect, my brain has been turned into mashed potato thanks to the horrid combination of pain and very strong painkillers.

I will post something just as soon as I have something to say again. In fact it will before I can actually say it properly because my voice now sounds a bit like the Elephant Man’s.

Among the various DVDs I’ve been watching and children’s books I’ve been reading, I noticed that by strange coincidence the evil, dreaded TONSILLITIS is mentioned in both Wes Anderson’s film of Fantastic Mr Fox, and in the beautifully eccentric children’s book A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam.  It was almost the best bit of both of them for me, in my rather enfeebled state. ‘Ha,’ I thought. ‘At least there will be none of that for me ever, ever again.’

I do hope my brain gets better soon.

Enron and Peter Pan

January 31, 2010

I went to see Enron the other night at its new West End venue. There can’t have been such excitement, more energy, buzzing around the Noel Coward Theatre since its opening in 1903. Enron is a play that thrives off energy. A play in which the actors don’t stand around talking, but jump, dance, sing, play with lightsabers, sprint on imaginary running machines. The electricity rippled through the audience, who were all entranced, gawping at the display of power, longing to be part of it.

And yet, I was bored. I felt completely disconnected from the charade that was taking place in front of me.

I could see that it was a very slick production. And well acted. Sam West was fantastic as Enron’s president Jeff Skilling – transforming himself from an overweight geek to a magnetically arrogant, glisteningly intelligent stud. But I simply wasn’t interested.

It wasn’t that it was inaccessible. Indeed, I felt like I’d been given a remarkably lucid crash course in accountancy and financial lingo, from ‘black box’ companies to ‘mark to market’. But I didn’t really care.

I couldn’t understand why I was giving up three hours of my life to watch people pretending to be corporate whores, prancing around a trading floor, throwing wads of money in the air, backlit by the fluorescent glare of increasing share prices. I nearly left in the interval, but decided that would be churlish. Besides, I usually enjoy the second half of plays more than the first.

And I’m pleased that I stayed, because that’s when I had a minor epiphany.

Apologies to those of you who are reading this from the City, to whom this next bit might seem terribly obvious. It became clearer and clearer in the second half that what mattered, for Enron, was for people to believe in it, to believe in whatever Jeff Skilling told them. I was astonished that Enron’s share price kept on rising purely because of this belief, because Jeff Skilling went around saying naf catchphrases like, ‘we’re not just an energy company, we’re a powerhouse for ideas’. Enron wasn’t making money; it had mountains of debt. Skilling and his sidekick, Fastow, realised they needed to keep people believing in Enron. They proceeded to hide the toxic debt in a pretend company – a ‘black box’ – which did nothing except leech all the poisonous debt away from squeaky-clean Enron. And then, when a journalist begins to unpick the corporation’s façade, and panic begins to set in, all that matters to Skilling is keeping up the pretence, trying as hard as he can to stop people from losing their belief.

My epiphany, during the second half, was that I was really watching Peter Pan. Where else is make-believe so all-consumingly important?

When I then sat down to re-read the children’s classic, it became clear, by page 2, that Peter Pan warrants a post-financial-collapse reading.

First of all Barrie introduces us to the Darlings – Mr and Mrs, Wendy, John and Michael. And, of course, their lovable dog/nurse, Nana. But, what I’d forgotten, is that Mr Darling is defined as someone who:

was one of those deep ones who know about stocks and shares. Of course no one really knows, but he quite seemed to know, and he often said stocks were up and shares were down in a way that would have made any woman respect him.

Straight away we are told that ‘deep’ men know about stocks and shares, only to have this negated by the admission that ‘no one really knows’ about them. This important, manly, characteristic of understanding the stock market is just pretence. If a man plays that game correctly, he wins respect from women.

So money is in the male domain, from when Mr Darling does ridiculous sums to work out if they can afford to have another baby, to when one of the lost boys, Nibs, says, ‘All I remember about my mother … is that she often said to my father, “Oh how I wish I had a cheque-book of my own.” ’ Without wanting to be too feminist, what is implied is that when a boy has to do the dreaded thing and grow up, he will become in charge of the money, allowed to play this grown-up game of pretence about stocks and shares.

But let’s not think about grown-ups for a little while. After all, not wanting to grow up is Peter’s most memorable characteristic; this is what the more recent versions of Peter Pan seem to focus on. But what becomes more of a defining feature, when re-reading the original, is how hideously arrogant he is. As soon as Wendy sows his shadow back on to his foot, Peter assumes he has done it himself: ‘ “How clever I am,” he crowed rapturously, “oh, the cleverness of me!” ’ Barrie really spells it out: ‘To put it with brutal frankness, there never was a cockier boy.’ Throughout the book, Peter’s arrogance is highlighted, such as the many times when he ‘crows’ like a cock. It is this conceitedness that so drives Hook’s hatred of him. When Hook comes across Peter, asleep and defenceless, Barrie states that he would have turned away, he ‘was not wholly evil’, but ‘what stayed him was Peter’s impertinent appearance as he slept’, that his posture, even when asleep, was ‘such a personification of cockiness’. It is this which makes Hook poison Peter’s medicine bottle.

Peter Pan may be arrogant but he is also brave and intelligent. Coming up with the plan to pretend to be the ticking crocodile is a stroke of genius. And he is a leader; the Lost Boys unquestioningly obey his commands and so do the Redskins, once he’s rescued Tiger Lilly.

Another of Peter’s key traits is his love of make-believe. When it comes to food, ‘you never exactly knew whether there would be a real meal or just a make-believe, it all depended upon Peter’s whim … Make-believe was so real to him that during a meal of it you could see him getting rounder.’

Barrie goes along with this make-believe. The Neverland is a space where pretending, under Peter’s command, rules. He sets up Peter, Wendy and the Lost Boys as a pretend family. Wendy is referred to as ‘Mother’, Peter as ‘Father’, and the boys are their children. Michael even has to pretend to be the baby and sleeps in a basket. This pretence is so effective that when the Darling children do eventually return home, Michael, confused as to why John and Wendy have cried out ‘Mother’ on seeing Mrs Darling, asks his sister, ‘Then you’re not really our mother, Wendy?’

Is Barrie asking us to draw parallels between the two ‘families’ in the book? Wendy happily fits into her role as mother/house-wife: mending, cooking, administering medicine, insisting on bedtime – just like Mrs Darling. But what about Peter Pan and Mr Darling? I’m certain Peter would hate to admit to having anything in common with a grown-up. However, they are both arrogant – think of Mr Darling’s insisting on putting Nana in a kennel outside and refusing to admit his mistake until it’s too late. And, more importantly, they are both good at make-believe. Peter’s realm of make-believe is the Neverland; Mr Darling’s is stocks and shares.

Towards the end of the book, we are invited to imagine what would happen to Peter Pan, if he were to grow up. We are privy to the fate of the Lost Boys, adopted by the Darlings: ‘You may see the twins and Nibs and Curly any day going to an office, each carrying a little bag and an umbrella …’ But what about Peter? What if he were to accept Mrs Darling’s invitation to adopt him?

‘Would you send me to a school?’ he inquired craftily.

‘Yes.’

‘And then to an office?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Soon I should be a man?’

‘Very soon.’

Of course, he doesn’t stay in ‘the Mainland’. He returns to the Neverland and is a boy forever. But, what if? What if he’d agreed to stay behind? Would Peter Pan grow up to be an, admittedly more successful, version of Mr Darling? Like the twins and Nibs and Curly? Surely Peter would excel at the stocks and shares game of make-believe?

To bring us back to Enron, doesn’t Jeff Skilling, with his arrogance, intelligence, leadership qualities and remarkable aptitude for making people believe, really have very similar characteristics to those of Peter Pan? Perhaps all those boys who wanted to be Peter Pan cultivated those characteristics, and then, when they did inevitably grow up, they became very successful in the City. For arrogance, intelligence, leadership, and pretending – convincingly – to know about stocks and shares is a winning combination.

But Enron shows that make-believe doesn’t work as well outside the Neverland. There, you just have to believe in fairies and clap your hands for Tinker Bell to be saved from death; everyone can gorge on enormous make-believe feasts. But that is in the Neverland. In the City, however glitzily it is portrayed, excelling at make-believe isn’t quite good enough. The truth will out, and then Skilling, Enron, and all its investors and shareholders, come crashing down. And if the make-believe goes far enough, the global economy comes crashing down too.

So why is it that now we see bankers going to work, clapping their hands with glee at their bonuses, thinking, ‘yes, I believe’? Belief isn’t enough here. They are not in the Neverland; they grew up. And, as is clear in Enron, playing games of make-believe with stocks and shares doesn’t really work. And Peter Pan is also terribly forgetful. It would be awfully sad if bankers were already forgetting the horrific crash, the enormous wave of redundancy, the crippling consequences of corporate greed.

Anachronistic paranoia?

January 27, 2010

So I didn’t give you the full story, when I said I went to a friend’s for dinner in South London on Saturday night. We didn’t just have dinner. We also played a game called ‘Germans in the Dark’.

Germans in the Dark is a game that I used to play when I was a child, whenever our family went and stayed with my grandparents, who lived in the countryside and had a very big garden. My brothers, cousins, occasionally a grudging parent, and I would excitedly charge up Grandpa’s practically antiquarian torch, longing for it to be dark enough outside to play. The game is essentially a version of 40 40. Everyone runs off and hides, while one remaining person – the German – counts to a hundred before coming to look for them, with aforementioned torch. Everyone who is hiding has to try to get back to the home base – which was a large metal gate – without being caught by the German. If the German sees you, there then ensues a race back to the base; if you touch it first then you’re safe, if the German does then you’re caught. But, even if you are caught, there’s still the hope that someone else will reach the base safely, and in so doing, automatically free you.

I grew up thinking this was a game that everyone played. Like 40 40, or It, or Stuck in the Mud. It was only very recently, when I suggested to some friends that we should play – we’d got bored of Sardines – that I realised it was unique to my family.

On Saturday night, after dinner, I explained the rules. It wasn’t quite as seamless an explanation as the one above, because there were several interjections. In fact it went a bit like this:

Me: Everyone goes and hides and then the person left behind – the German – comes looking.

Others: What? That’s mad. So we’re all the Jews, hiding from the Nazis?

Me: Well, yes, I suppose so. But, well, you could be black, or gay, or just English, or anyone else who Hitler didn’t like.

Others: So what happens when the Nazis find you? Do you get sent to a concentration camp?

Me: No. Then you race back to the home base – that can be the sofa – and you’ve got to try to get there first or —-

Others: The home base? So is that Israel?

Others again: No Israel wasn’t around then. It should be Switzerland.

Others: Ok, I see. So we all have to hide in the attic and then try to get to Switzerland.

You get the picture. Essentially, it became clear to me that I’d spent years of my life playing a game that was a sort of make-believe-fleeing-the-holocaust drama. Of course, when I was a child, I didn’t really process all of that. It was just an exciting game. In the dark. With a really big torch.

Rules eventually explained, the game, on Saturday, began. I raced upstairs and hid in a wardrobe, making myself as small as I could and covering myself with clothes. There was a lovely smell of washing powder. To start with, it reminded me of that bit in Midnight’s Children, where Salaam is hiding in his mother’s laundry basket. Then I heard my friend coming up the stairs hunting for everyone. He was shouting out, ‘I’m coming to get you! Where are you hiding? Where are you all, my little Jews?’ And he put on a German accent.

I heard him enter the room where I was hiding. And then a rather unexpected thing happened: I felt scared. I could hear him pacing around the room, calling things out, looking under the bed, opening the doors of the other wardrobe. Any second now, I thought, he’ll open this one, and then he’ll have found me. I could feel my heart drum inside me – almost down to my feet.

The door opened and I held my breath. A hand came in and ferreted around. It touched a shirt that was covering me, pressed down on it through to my arm hiding behind. You’ve got me, I almost said, almost bursting out of there to try and win the unwinnable race down to the sofa – Switzerland. But I didn’t. Something in me wouldn’t move at all. And then the hand withdrew, the wardrobe door banged close, and he was moving away, running out of the room towards footsteps we could both hear on the floor above.

I inhaled. I couldn’t believe that somehow he’d missed me. I almost thought he might just not have said anything so that he could have a head start in the race to the sofa. Once I was sure I could hear him moving around upstairs, I crept out of the wardrobe, down the stairs and into the living room, where I sank, relieved, into the sofa.

It was just a game. How utterly ridiculous that I was scared! But, now I try to understand that fear, I think the game tapped into a much bigger problem that I have …

The thing is, I am scared of the Holocaust. Still. Despite the fact that it happened over sixty years ago. This is because I am absolutely certain that I wouldn’t have survived.

I am bad at hiding. I have bad luck – it would be typical for me to sneeze when the Nazis were standing under my attic. When I would, inevitably, have been sent to a concentration camp, I would not have lasted more than about a day. A week at most. This is because I am always getting sore throats, I am very weak (my arms are practically concave where the muscles should be), I am hungry all the time, and I need lots of sleep. I am also not very good at being told what to do. And I can be a bit tactless. None of these would have got me out of there alive. And my great-grandfather was worked to the bone, made to dig his own grave, and then was shot. So there is a precedent, in my family, for not making it.

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, the sixty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a day to remember the atrocities which happened, listen to the survivors’ stories, learn from their testimonies. The Guardian has a good article pointing out why this is so important.

One of the most charming (I know that seems inappropriate) stories I’ve heard was retold by Linda Grant, the brilliant writer, at a talk she gave back in October. She related the story of an old Jewish lady she met when researching her latest book The Thoughtful Dresser. I apologise for any inaccuracy, but as far as I remember, the story went like this:

The lady was, and always had been, incredibly fashionable. When she was sent to a concentration camp, she couldn’t bear the sexless striped outfits and compulsory shaving of heads. Determined to do something, she cut a strip off the bottom of her uniform and tied it in a bow around her head. When the guards came to inspect them, one of them said to her something along the lines of, ‘Was ist das?’ And she sweetly, naively, replied, ‘I wanted to look pretty for the inspection.’ Her cheek charmed the guard enough to send her off to help in the kitchens. And so, because of the bow, she survived.

Now that wouldn’t have happened to me. I’m not very good at tying bows. And I would have got the humourless guard who would have spat on me, or far worse.

Every now and then, I think about what would happen if … and I feel utterly panicked. Playing Germans in the Dark just brought on one of those moments. I wasn’t caught that time, but in real life I wouldn’t have been so lucky.

I have termed this worrying ‘anachronistic paranoia’. It is so completely out of place, out of time, to be scared of the Holocaust, sixty-five years after Auschwitz was liberated. There are other instances of anachronistic paranoia too. I remember learning about the First World War at school and being genuinely terrified that my brothers would be called up to fight and would then be killed. And it’s not just me: a friend told me she used be scared of German bombers flying over London.

So why is it that there is this fear about things which happened decades ago? I think we’re scared they might happen again.

Wars still go on. 251 British troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. This war may be on a completely different scale to the First World War, but young men are still going to fight and are being killed. And Holocausts still happen. Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia … all instances of genocide on horrific scales.

I’d like to think that the fact I’m Jewish would never be counted against me, certainly would never be a cause for me to be rounded up and murdered, but anti-semitism, upsettingly, still abounds.

I rarely come across blatant prejudice against Jews – probably because most people know I’m Jewish. Just like most people who are slightly homophobic wouldn’t admit to it to their ‘gay best friend’. It is usually more subtle than that. A wry comment here, a joke in slightly bad taste, a glib criticism of ‘all those Jewish people who are destroying Palestine’.

I was appalled the other day when a perfectly respectable-looking gentleman came into the bookshop, bought two or three reasonably weighty hardbacks, engaged in friendly chit-chat, before picking up a book called Is it Good for the Jews?, laughing and then saying, ‘God how ridiculous. The thing that Jews should really ask themselves, is “why is it always us?” There is a reason, you know.’ It took me a while to process it. I couldn’t believe that a well-educated stranger would make an anti-semitic remark to another stranger while buying a book. I said nothing. My colleague, who was putting all his books in a bag, passed them over and agreed with him. I expect it was just out of politeness. He left before I’d had time to think of a suitable comeback.

I’m not sure why I was so taken aback by that exchange. On reflection, that particular situation seems to be pretty typical of the anti-semitism that I come across. It’s a kind of unstated assumption that a huge number of people have, ‘Oh yes, those Jews. Rich, moneyed, clearly up to no good, but we’re not really supposed to talk about it.’ Instead of overtly stating their prejudice, they veil it in comments like this, said to me when looking at Freefall – the new book by Nobel-prize-winning liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz: ‘Ah Stiglitz. He has the sort of name where you just know he’s going to be stinking rich. A bit like Goldman.’

The worst thing is that I don’t often have the nerve to respond. In that instance, I wish I’d said something like, ‘Aha, yes, of course! Such Jewish names! Well, as we’re all in a conspiracy to take over the world, it’s not surprising they’re minted.’ Instead, I get overcome with a cripplingly English – and not at all Jewish – embarrassment and awkwardness. I go silent, and red, and think, ‘Oh I wish they hadn’t just said that. I’ll sort of pretend not to have heard.’

And it’s that terribly British, terribly polite, embarrassment, the quiet getting on with the conversation and not stamping the prejudice out of people’s minds, that means that anti-semitism, albeit far watered-down from the Nazi version, is still rife in Britain today.

And, with anti-semitism still a presence, how can I help but feel a bit scared when hiding in a cupboard, hearing somebody traipse upstairs shouting German, pretending to look for Jews? How can I not help but worry, if it were to happen again – because it doesn’t feel completely impossible – that I wouldn’t survive? Perhaps what should be just anachronistic paranoia, isn’t that anachronistic or paranoid at all.

Hello

January 23, 2010

Hello and welcome to EmilyBooks, a blog about books and me – Emily. I hope you like it.

I thought I’d begin by writing a bit about where books and me overlap. Perhaps it helps to think of ‘EmilyBooks’ as a kind of graphic. There’s me, ‘Emily’, walking along (by the way, there will be much more about walking to come …) and then, wow, there’s ‘Books’ standing there in the way. And Emily can’t stop in time to just look at Books, say a friendly hello, give a little wave; she can’t keep any distance from it at all – there’s no space, no full stop or dash, not even a hyphen. Instead she goes smack into the side of it, and is now stuck there, unable to disentangle herself.

And that, Best Beloved, is how Emily became attached to books.

I’m not entirely sure when that first moment was. I don’t think, in real life, the collision happened quite like that. Looking back, I can see that my particular attachment to Books changed as I grew older.

I always read a great deal when I was young. I spent a great deal of time on my own when I was growing up – although I have two brothers, they’re much older than me – and I soon became aware of the magic that lay dormant in the pages. As soon as I started reading, I was no longer sitting around in my bedroom, a bit bored, vaguely wondering when it would be dinner, or putting off doing some piano or cello practice (more on cello-playing to come …). No, once the book was open, I would be on my way to Redwall or Deptford or Willoughby Chase; I’d be entering a Secret Garden, or a Midnight Garden, or hiding from German planes in air-raid shelters; or sailing, on an expedition, drawing a map. Who needs a wardrobe with fur coats, when there are books? At that age, books were my brilliant escape routes, ready to transport me from a rather dreary suburban bedroom to far more exciting places.

I have to confess I didn’t read quite as voraciously when I was a teenager. There was lots of homework from my rather pushy London day school, plus cello practice – I’d given up the piano by then as there wasn’t enough time – and meeting friends, and, of course, boys. In fact, when it came to choosing A-levels, I very nearly didn’t study English. I’d become completely fascinated by Biology, so had chosen everything based around that: Chemistry and Maths to back it up, plus Economics, which I’d added on at the end, thinking that it might be useful. However, my parents, in a typically North-London-neurotic manner, sent me to see an educational psychologist, who declared that half of my intelligence was rotting away as I was relying too much on memory, rather than really thinking. He said I had to do something like English, where there was less need to memorise and more scope to think for oneself, in order to get that bit of my brain working again.

So I accordingly did English A-level, instead of Economics. It was very peculiar mixing science and arts subjects. All the science lessons took place in one building, and all the arts in another, which was a good seven-minute walk away. We only had five minutes between lessons, so I was always slightly late for a class, and, as barely anybody else was in the same predicament, I was the only one who was consistently late. Anyway, I shall speed through those years … the only really important thing that happened was that I decided to apply to do English at university, rather than psychology, which had been the original plan.

I managed, despite a horrible interview, to get in to Oxford to read English and I was given a Gap year. That year was when I really started reading again. I emailed my tutor to ask for a reading list before I went off travelling, and I couldn’t believe how long it was. We were expected to cover all the Victorians in just a term, and then the Moderns in another! Not to mention all the cryptic otherworldly lines of Old English …

I took a few of the bigger Victorian tomes away with me – Middlemarch, Bleak House and the like. Luckily the classics are the easiest books to find in paperback exchange bookshops all over Asia, so I managed to get through most of them. It was a very weird experience to be reading Eliot with a torch, during a power-cut, in a village in Nepal. (I expect there will be more about that to come too …) It was a strange reversal of the escapism of reading children’s books. I was no longer leaving England and travelling to far-off lands, this time I was in the far-off land, surrounded with everything strange and unknown, and being transported back to foggy London, or England at its most bucolic.

And then there was Oxford. So much reading, so much thinking, so many hours spent in libraries. Nobody really bothered going to lectures as it seemed as though – in fact I’m pretty sure we were told in the first lecture of the first term – we were there to read, that’s why people say they’re reading English rather than studying it. Every time I went into the Bodleian, right up to the end, I still felt that thrill, an involuntary small sharp intake of breath – complete wonder at being surrounded by them all. Books then weren’t escape routes at all. They were riddled with terribly important meanings, clues to a shiny elusive truth that could only be discovered through long meandering essays.

When I left Oxford, I had absolutely no idea what to do with myself. Eventually, mostly through talking to one of my older brothers, who is rather authoritative about things like jobs and CVs, I decided to go for journalism or publishing. According to him, they’re the only things an English student can really do. I did a few bits of journalism but ended up getting into publishing. I then spent two and a half years working for one of London’s biggest publishing houses.

It felt strange, and rather intrepid, to move from reading books to making them. At once they were no longer merely vessels for stories or information, but became complicated beautiful objects. They had their very own lexicon, and I soon learnt about ‘leading’, ‘endpapers’ and ‘running heads’. Things that had never occurred to me before were suddenly really of great importance – making paragraphs end neatly, not leaving just one word on its own line; being consistent with capital letters and Oxford commas; and not italicising the ‘the’ in a newspaper title, unless it’s The Times. One of the most peculiar things was having to think in sixteens, if possible in thirty-twos, to make sure that there weren’t lots of blank pages left at the end of a book, which is made up of thirty-two-page sections (perhaps with one sixteen if you really need it). One day I was taken to a printing press, to see how a document, last seen as PDF, is transformed into an actual book. Enormous sheets of paper are printed on, then folded, cut and stacked, and then the edges roughed up, glued, covers stuck on … bundles of pages in various stages of manufacture are transported around an enormous warehouse via a conveyor belt. It is a complicated and absolutely astonishing process. The strangest thing is that each book starts its life as a conjoined twin – an identical copy is glued head-to-head with it. It’s only at the very end of the process that they’re neatly spliced in two.

Books took on another transformation when I began to write one. Ideas had been oozing around my brain for a few months and then suddenly, one evening in that peculiar period between Christmas and New Year, I was in the bath (there will definitely be future discussions on the merits of baths) and bang, it had suddenly crystallised. I spent a year waking up very early, writing for an hour or so before going to work, but then, when it came to working on a second draft, I decided I couldn’t keep both things up at once. So I took a deep breath and dove out of the publishing house and into a part-time job at a bookshop, where I’m surrounded by books and have more time to write.

So I am now a bookseller, a writer, and still a reader. And it is as this bookish conglomerate that I will be writing EmilyBooks.