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:
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir and a collection of lyrical essays. In brief: ‘Heaven’s Rage is an imaginative autobiography. Reporting on feelings people don’t usually own up to, Leslie Tate explores addiction, cross-dressing and the hidden sides of families. Writing lyrically, he brings together stories of bullying, childhood dreams, thwarted creativity and late-life illness, 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.
- Purple is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of modern love and a family saga. Set in the North of England, it follows the story of shy ingénue Matthew Lavender living through the wildness of the 60s and his grandmother Mary, born into a traditional working-class family. Both are innocents who have to learn more about long-term love and commitment, earning their independence through a series of revealing and closely-observed relationships. Purple is the first part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Purple here.
- Blue tells the story of Richard and Vanessa Lavender, who join a 90s feminist collective sharing childcare, political activism and open relationships. Boosted by their ‘wider network’ they take secondary partners, throw parties and observe the dance of relationships amongst their friends. But finding a balance between power and restraint, and handling shared love, proves difficult… Blue is the second part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Blue here.