Tuesday, 14 April 2015

William books by Richmal Crompton, who is a woman, won out over Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, who is not a woman, in an unfamiliar room in Bristol with a bookshelf filled by a departed daughter.

A William book is a good bet for sleep in unfamiliar rooms. All the language is used up, there's nothing left over, this is all there is, once you've read it you've consumed it, each chapter leaves you épuisée, that is, ready for sleep. The drawings by Thomas Henry show a scowling boy – even his socks look defiant – who is waiting for the freedom that is surely his and already yours. The childhood you can read now, on this fluent chalky paper, rather than the one you had, should take care of your dreams.

I first read William as an adult, ill in bed. As a child I was too much of a snob for William's chopped-off English, his grubby adventures; I was already moving towards the middle of the library where the foreign section was. Swallows and Amazons I also came to as an adult. Less snobbery than discomfort, here, what with homemade tents and a girl called Titty. What to do with these? It was the foreign section all over again: English life and camaraderie in the mudflats of East Anglia, where, as it happened, I grew up. Swallows and Amazons forever.

I didn't experience camaraderie in the mudflats, I experienced solitude.

Swallows and Amazons are 1930s. William is a boy of the 1920s. I was a girl of the 1950s. There we all are in our towns, our woods, our boats, our mudflats, our languages. William's joys and woes are in Richmal Crompton's language. By the end of each chapter William has escaped, from her language as from his family, he has nothing more to say, he's gone down the road with Jumble his dog and a new whistle he finally learned how to make.

I dreamed, those nights in the unfamiliar room, as it turned out, of a black mongrel dog swimming underwater comme si de rien n'était, and then, the night before I left, of an airport that turned into a hospital where, having missed the plane I was tested, I was mad, thick noise came out of my mouth. The hens will need feeding, I was trying to say.

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