Friday, March 20, 2015

The last...

At the end of January my father and I were both keen to read Antonia Fraser's memoir of childhood, My History; it's not properly published in the US, i.e. unavailable for Kindle, so he kindly ordered us each a copy from the Book Depository in the UK. Thus leading to my painful awareness, as I read the book this week with considerable pleasure, that this is the last book my father will ever send me....

A passage that I know would have caught his eye, as Enid Blyton was also famously banned by the librarian in the Kirkcaldy of my father's childhood:
One author was never allowed to pollute our imaginations and that was Enid Blyton. In an excess of Thirties moralistic disapproval - the only example of such that I can remember - my mother banned her works. Unusually for me, I took no steps to get hold of the books in question later from the library. Indeed, I followed my mother when dealing with my own family, more for reasons of intellectual snobbery, I suspect, rather than anything else. My daughters, however, showed more spirit: it was not long before a stockpile of the dread works came tumbling out of their wardrobe. 'Jane' - a lively schoolfriend - 'gave them to us' was the explanation. 'She felt sorry for us not being able to read them. It was so exciting reading them in secret.' (A lesson, surely, in the dangers of censorship.)
To a curious degree, I share some of Fraser's influences in the matter of childhood reading: I suppose these were my English grandmother's books rather than even my mother's (Our Island Story and the unforgettably good Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies). When it came to Our Island Story, I was particularly fascinated by the story of the coming of Hengist and Horsa, which Fraser doesn't single out here but which I cannot resist quoting:
Then Hengist said, "You have indeed given us lands and houses, but as we have helped you so much I think you should give me a castle and make me a prince."

"I cannot do that," replied Vortigern. "Only Britons are allowed to be princes in this land. You are strangers and you are heathen. My people would be very angry if I made any one but a Christian a prince."

At that Hengist made a low bow, pretending to be very humble. "Give your servant then just so much land as can be surrounded by a leather thong," he said.

Vortigern thought there could be no harm in doing that, so he said, "Yes, you may have so much." But he did not know what a cunning fellow Hengist was.

As soon as Vortigern had given his consent, Hengist and Horsa killed the largest bullock they could find. Then they took its skin and cut it round and round into one long narrow strip of leather. This they stretched out and laid upon the ground in a large circle, enclosing a piece of land big enough upon which to build a fortress.

If you do not quite understand how Hengist and Horsa managed to cut the skin of a bullock into one long strip, get a piece of paper and a pair of scissors. Begin at the edge and cut the paper round and round in circles till you come to the middle. You will then find that you have a string of paper quite long enough to surround a brick castle. If you are not allowed to use scissors, ask some kind person to do it for you.

Vortigern was very angry when he learned how he had been cheated by Hengist and Horsa. But he was beginning to be rather afraid of them, so he said nothing, but allowed them to build their fortress. It was called Thong Castle, and stood not far from Lincoln, at a place now called Caistor.
It's a very interesting memoir, but shallow rather than deep: you only get glimpses into more complicated ideas and states of feeling (I liked the aside where Fraser notes of her father that his trait of marking a book with a strong pencil as he read was so characteristic and ingrained that "after his death, I was able to identify a copy of the New Testament left behind in the House of Lords library, without an owner's name, but full of those ritual stabbings"). And here are a few of the passages that most resonated with me:
It is a fact that, being a quick reader, apart from enabling a person to study good books such as Macaulay and Gibbon, enables a person to read a lot of bad books as well. It would however be ungrateful to pick out the titles that gave me such pleasure and stigmatize them as bad books; besides, I would maintain that such books can teach you narrative skill, which certainly never comes amiss in writing History.
And again:
It was now for the first time that the pleasure of what for tax purposes I came to term (perfectly accurately) Optical Research was revealed to me. It also could be called Going to Places and Looking at Them. But what an essential process it is in the making of a historical biography! With the respectful handling of the original documents, it ranks as one of the major ways of reaching what G. M. Trevelyan in his Autobiography called 'the poetry of history': 'the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another . . .'
(Note to self: you must write that little book about Gibbon's Rome!)

Other appealing details concern the "Fish Furniture" at Admiralty House and Cecil Beaton's pedantic habit of preferring the plural "gins-and-tonic": a life of privilege needless to say, which has irked some readers I think, but I couldn't put it down.

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