Last year, I read Liz Williams’ lovely novel, Comet Weather. It reminded me of one of my favourite books from my childhood, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk. It had that same sense of a rural life where history can emerge unexpectedly and where life is not predictable. A little sharp, a little edgy, but very comforting. The Midnight Folk and Comet Weather both fit this description.
Then there’s another book by John Masefield that I love to hate. A Book of Discoveries. I adored everything by him at that point. I went to my favourite secondhand bookshop with Masefield’s work in my mind. The shop was just down the road from where my grandfather’s offices had been in my early childhood. Every time I visited the bookshop, I carefully walked past the old office and waved a little ‘hello.’ This little walk was my favourite form of history emerging (my life experience related to the books I read): I could call on the emotions and remember a decade before whenever I wanted. I could leave out all the sharp edges. My childhood had more sharp edges than I enjoyed, and I had decided that books were the best place to encounter them.
In Berry’s I found my dream copy of Sheridan’s plays. I may introduce you to them one day, along with their erstwhile owner. I also found A Book of Discoveries. I don’t know anything about previous owners of A Book of Discoveries, except that one of them was called Mathieson. Given the date of the volume and the style of the handwriting, Mathieson might have owned the novel when it was new, but they didn’t give a first name, or a date. There were only sixty years between my purchase and the edition (it was from 1910) and it’s a gilded illustrated hardback edition. The book even has the protective paper on its frontispiece and I’ve owned it for about forty-five years: I don’t think it’s had many owners. I nearly gave it away, decades ago, when I felt impossibly guilty about it.
I loved the book when I first read it. It was a prized possession. It feels substantial and adventurous and contained safe adventures for young boys. It wasn’t anything like The Midnight Folk, but it had a certain feel in common with Rudyard Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies. In my mind, I classified it alongside Puck of Pook’s Hill. (That all these books were favourites, and that I read every work of Arthur Ransome I could find over and over again says a lot about my childhood, I suspect.) I spent every cent I had on buying the book, because it fitted so well into my deep desires of what books should be at that point.
A few years later, I studied first year archaeology at university. That was when I discovered the horrid truth: these adventures consisted of private destruction of landscapes. Landscapes and I have a very long association. I myself contributed to the destruction of a tiny bit of 1920s market garden when I did a test archaeological dig in my backyard. When I was eleven, you see, I wanted to be a museum curator, and for that, I needed to understand archaeology. I found some china and a child’s shoe. I was the only member of my family who was excited.
This was just before I read A Book of Discoveries. With that first reading, Masefield validated my personal exploration. I was worried about what the characters did in the novel (my mother taught geology when I was a child and rocks and where they came from coloured so much of my childhood – I was very surprised when none of the other children at school could read landscapes and when only my BFF wanted to) but it wasn’t until I was given concepts to describe how ownership works that I began to worry about the stories I read.
One day I’ll find a new home for The Book of Discoveries. It deserves an owner who covets it as much as I covet my 1967 paperback of The Midnight Folk. I bought The Midnight Folk for 60c, probably in 1969 or 1970. Since my pocket money back then was my age plus 2c, it was quite a big buy. I have never regretted owning it and it’s surprisingly untattered considering how many times I’ve read it. Just looking at the cover takes me into the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t hints of The Midnight Folk in my own writing, just as there are in Williams’. My suspicion is that these hints are in Ms Cellophane or The Art of Effective Dreaming, but that they are half-memories, nothing more.