The road to the past
The conversion of the 10 year old’s bedroom continues, I’ve done the painting so I’m now out of the equation aside from lending a hand with the heavy lifting and putting everything back. The arty bits are done, there are clouds around the walls and the ceiling has stars in actual correctly aligned constellations (there was a point when I sourly asked Rick if he was worried an astronomer was going to come round and check their work, it was taking a long time, I felt there were other things that could be usefully done). While the stars were being (ultra-accurately) placed, I was putting the books back on the book case and I began to notice a pattern. Now, many archaeologists will tell you that they had a moment, an epiphany, when they realised that what they wanted to be was an archaeologist. Often it’s visiting an excavation or accidentally uncovering or being given an artefact and this sparked their imagination and interest. I’ve never had that, I would say I drifted into archaeology simply because of my ‘A’ level grades and work opportunities while I was taking a year out. It was only once I’d started being an archaeologist that I realised I’d found something I loved and only when I began studying the history of archaeology that I found my vocation. Looking over the books I’ve kept in the hope my children will read them, however, I’m beginning to question that assumption.
The 10 year old has plenty of modern stuff, but he also has the books I loved and kept from childhood. His books are about ninja cats, goblins, magic, monsters and post-apocalyptic talking animals, mine? Well, we have every single Diana Wynne Jones because I kept buying them even after I’d grown up, they really are that good. If you’ve never read any try them now, start with Hexwood or Archer’s Goon or The Spellcoats. Apart from those, my books seem mainly to be about the past. I’ve mentioned before that in 70s Britain there was a writing for children genre, evidenced by television and books, that Rick and I refer to as ’round the corner and into the olden days’, several of the books certainly belong to that category: Tom’s Midnight Garden, Charlotte Sometimes, A Traveller in Time and Earthfasts.
There are a number of books that are straightforwardly set in the past, books by Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Renault and Henry Treece, and some that are set in a past, even if not one that historians would recognise The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, The Once a Future King and Elidor are ones I remember very fondly. But, as a child, my absolute favourites were the books where the past invaded/ interacted with the present, there are several Penelope Lively books in this category – The Driftway, Astercote, The Whispering Knights and The Ghost of Thomas Kempe. Clive King’s Stig of the Dump And, of course, Alan Garner’s books, from the spooky The Owl Service to the anguished young lovers in Red Shift to the Arthurian motifs in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, I loved his work.
I now see the depth of knowledge Garner has about place and cultural history, his sense of the area around Alderley Edge and the people who lived there; but as a child and young adult I just found his work thrilling. I’m not sure that I picked up on his knowledge of the past either, certainly it took conversations with Mark Edmonds to make me realise how deeply Alan Garner has studied archaeology. Mark’s work with Alan Garner – here and here – makes this clear, but really, re-reading Elidor or Red Shift as an adult and an archaeologist makes it blindingly obvious.
There were many other books I loved, school stories by Enid Blyton, Elinor M Brent Dyer, Antonia Forest (none of which bore any resemblance to my schools), fantasy by Tolkien, C S Lewis and Susan Cooper, Arthur Ransome’s books (I’ve kept those, supplemented by Rick’s collection), E Nesbitt, Eleanor Farjeon and other books my parents passed on to me, as well as any amount of dreary 70s social realism of which the best were Brian Glanville’s Goalkeepers are Different and Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave. But, the ones I’ve kept for the kids all seem to have the past as a strong plot motif. It may be a coincidence, it may simply reflect the children’s literature that was available while I was growing up, but looking at these books as I put them back on the bookcase I’m wondering if they worked at some subconscious level to turn me into an archaeologist and historian.
I shall continue to ponder this, maybe. I may also do a review of the past in Alan Garner’s books, or alternatively my butterfly mind may alight on something else entirely.
Do tell me if I’ve forgotten/omitted an obvious or favourite round the corner/past/past in the present book. Or if you had an epiphanic archaeology moment then do share.
In the meantime, have a great weekend