I remember reading Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons and imagining the book’s setting as a vaguely-defined territory inside me. I’d never heard of The Lake District so I invented the location as I read, ignoring the references to farmers and charcoal burners and other aspects of Lakeland life. I was entranced by the children’s freedom, so I set their adventures in the only place that felt the same – around sand dunes beside the sea. In my mind, the Walker children were desert island castaways and a lake the size of Windermere could only be equalled by the sea.
I acted out my version of Swallows and Amazons when we went to stay with my grandparents at the seaside. Behind the dunes there were clumps of sea buckthorn with hidden tunnels where I crawled, casting myself as a pirate. I sneaked along the back alleyway between the houses to outflank The Amazons. And when I walked the front I followed strangers who I suspected were in league with Captain Flint.
So I wrote my favourite story into the world. It was a reversal of the ‘notebook approach’ where an author uses and adapts personal experience. This was the book reworking life.
I was similarly entranced by the articles and pictures in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia. Reading its jumble of scientific inventions, myths, epic journeys and tipping points in history (with a considerable bias towards the British Empire) I formed a patchwork picture of an imaginary zone full of strange events and surprising information. It was a country of the mind with full-colour plates of dinosaurs, pyramids, knights in armour and rockets taking off. In this case the delights of reading were superior to anything life could offer. This was a documentary introduction to the wonders of the world.
Reading Alice in Wonderland brought craziness into my life. This was the land of upside-down and topsy-turvy. An impossible out-of-kilter adventure which could turn anything into its polar opposite. So as I walked the streets a hole could open up, a cat on a fence might wink at me, I could be suddenly taller than the sky, or shrunken to the size of a mouse. The laws of physics were suspended and, for a moment, anything was possible. This was my imagination taking flight into the realm of the Puer Eternis – the Peter Pan boy who soared over the heads of everyone.
Later still, when I read the M L James ghost story Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad, the unreal became an ever-present threat. In the story the malevolent force never fully shows itself but attacks inside sheets. As a result I came to question everything I could see. If sheets could become hideouts for dark forces then my protected life was suddenly a sham. Ordinary objects had a dangerous inner nature which couldn’t be predicted. Nothing was as it seemed.
To me, these books seem to illustrate four different types of reading experience. The first approach reshapes the world, the second uses a documentary framework, the third puts the reader’s mind at the centre of the action and the fourth asks disturbing questions.
Thinking about these tendencies, I came up with a few examples of how they seem to work in adult literature:
- Reshaping the world through instantly memorable characters who start popping up in real life once you’ve read about them. So the novel pinpoints patterns in social behaviour that the reader might miss – and as a result these patterns become inscribed in real life. A book is a template.
- Documentary-style descriptions of societies where the place shapes the story. So each location has characteristics that resemble a human personality. In fact I believe that all settings in books imply a living subject behind them – an animal, person or god – otherwise they tend to lack interest.
- The mind’s eye view, like poetry, can rearrange the ordinary laws of language and alter psychological perception. I call this the Van Gogh approach.
- The questioning approach which uses ambiguity and multi-layered meaning to frame moments of heightened importance. So the writer aims, unlike the lawyer, at words that carry more than one meaning, contradictory feelings and moral dilemmas. Complexity through truth to life.
In some ways these four examples resemble what John Ruskin called the pathetic fallacy – they ascribe feelings to the world around. But Ruskin was attacking the artificial personification of nature in 18th century writing, whereas I’m thinking of the deliberate foregrounding of subjective, expressive experience in modern writing and art – a technique used by Turner in his painting of the Ariel in a snow storm, and vigorously defended by Ruskin against its Victorian critics.
As a young reader I lived my books. I didn’t think much about them, I simply picked up the next one and read it. This seems to point to a fifth principle – the integration of all these tendencies into a holistic experience. What I call flow, a one-way movement like the arrow of time, where digressions and reversals are possible as long as the psychological line holds. That, to me, is the essence of an exciting book.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here