Return to childhood
An anthology brings back painful memories for John Peel.
As a regular reader of literary criticism but, alas, an irregular reader of literature, I have often wondered where critics go to read the books they criticise. I have read the Autumn edition of the quarterly magazine Granta, Children, in an old hotel in Manchester, in a with huge sliding windows that face into a well filled with strange and inexplicable shapes probably related to air-conditioning.
This seems an attractively neutral place in which to read a book in which 14 very different pieces (one of them being the school photographs of the American photographer Judith Joy Ross) varying in length from a few paragraphs to 42 pages. They are united only in the way that a word, a sentence or one of these paragraphs triggers startled recognition, as though a passer-by wordlessly slipped you a photograph of yourself as a baby at your mother's breast.
From Jayne Anne Phillips' "Mother Care," rich in pathology of child birth and as potent a stimulus to male guilt as I have experienced - and these days there are plenty such stimuli about - to Brian Hall's "I am Here," which made me, a father of four, yearn to go back and relive with them the early months of William, Alexandra, Thomas and Florence. There is so much here with which to identify that I emerged from my hotel room feeling that I had, in some spooky way, probably one linked to intelligent life on Mars,been spied upon at almost every moment since I myself issued from the womb.
In the small hours of last night, for example, Todd McEwen's "Arithmetic Town" so accurately caught those terrible hours of utter incomprehension that punctuate schooldays, those moments when exasperated teachers and parents have no remaining tactic other than the spitting of, "Why don't you understand? " that I experienced again the sense of imminent suffocation that goes with the knowledge that you are never, ever going to understand.
With me, it was trigonometry. Term after term there would come a moment when it fell to a member of staff to have another go at getting me to come to terms with trigonometry. In my despair I would beg to be told why it was even necessary for me to know these things. "Because," the answer would come, "you will need trigonometry later in life." In vain I would promise that under no circumstances would I ever do anything whatever that required trigonometry. I was, as it has turned out, being entirely truthful, but can never have the pleasure of shouting, "I told you."
Tony Gould's "Blackmore's Tart" similarly trawled the memory, dredging up even more painful recollections. Hard to believe now, but when I was 14 , I was rather easy on the eye and on the receiving end of the attentions of several older boys in the school.
At first, I was flattered and excited at their protestations of love and lust, but quickly learned that, when rebuffed, they were in a position to make life well nigh unendurable. Possessed of authority associated more with the 1850s than the 1950s and, of course, physically bigger and stronger, my spurned admirers visited humiliation after humiliation upon me. At 57 years of age, I still dream of getting my own back. On the other hand, I like to believe that my experiences make me more sensitive to some of the problems faced by women.
There is almost too much in Children to be absorbed at a sitting. Karen E Bender's "The Case Against Babies," situated near the end of the book, could even compel you to re-read, with new eyes, some of the earlier pieces, thereby locking yourself into circular movement within the book.
The pleasures and pains of recognition here become positively weird for me in Adam Mars-Jones's account of his mother's life, "Blind Bitter Happiness". The Mars-Joneses spent many of their summers in Rhosneigr, Anglesey, in a house called the White House. Our family spent many of our summers in Rhosneigr, Anglesey, in a house called the Red House. The Martians at work again, I think.
There will be a new series of John Peel's Radio 4 programme Offspring in the Spring and a special edition on Christmas Eve.