Friday, 15 July 2016

In Praise of Jan Carson

Jan Carson is a very good writer (the stories in Children’s Children are quirky, funny, macabre and poignant) but what I want to congratulate her on are her wonderfully pithy travel updates on Facebook: ‘Hamburg…it’s very German.’ ‘Now we’re in Sweden.’ No unnecessary information there. I just wish she had time to train the nation’s tour guides, and in particular those of the National Trust.

I have a complicated relationship with the National Trust but Prof Gloom has just rejoined us, so I’m getting my money’s worth. And what I want is to wander around houses and gardens in PEACE. I don’t mind someone saying ‘That way to library’ or being there to answer a query I might have about a painting. What I don’t want is to be button-holed the moment I walk in and subjected to lengthy descriptions of every last Chippendale cabinet or Victorian moustache-curler, along with titbits of personal information. ‘What isn’t generally known is that Lady Ethel was a keen jam-maker'. Give me strength.

(I recall a glorious moment at Mount Stewart some years ago when we were asked to ‘Just stand very quietly to one side, please – Lady Mary is passing by.’ I very nearly tugged my forelock.)

With books, of course, it’s different: you expect a bit of information, but it needs to be lightly done. There are books where the historical detail is so painstaking and laboured that you feel as though you are slowly drowning in porridge, and there are books that draw you into the past so subtly that you find yourself enchanted, caught in the shifting shadows of history before you even know it. Some of the best of these were written for children – on the male side there’s T H White, Michael Morpurgo, Alan Garner, but a lot of my favourites are women: Rosemary Sutcliffe, L M Boston, Philippa Pearce. ‘Catherine Called Birdy’ by Karen Cushman. And Penelope Lively’s wonderful, hilarious ‘Ghost of Thomas Kempe’, where a seventeenth century apothecary causes trouble in the present.

As a teenager I devoured historical novels, everything from Georgette Heyer to Rosemary Hawley Jarman - the distant past was a refuge from the present. Later, I became interested in our different perspectives on the more immediate past, in the tricks that memory plays. I read Jennifer Johnston, Pat Barker, Nadine Gordimer, Rose Tremain; Penelope Fitzgerald's masterpiece, The Blue Flower, the wonderful novels of JG Farrell, and more recently, Tan Twan Eng’s haunting, unforgettable ‘Garden of Evening Mists', and Kate Atkinson's Time After Time.

The book I'm working on at the moment deals with events in my own lifetime, here, and in the South Africa that I grew up in – at the time a country with seemingly even less hope of change than Northern Ireland. And time plays havoc with all our recollections: I keep having to go back, check facts and dates. It’s like darning holes in my memory. Jan Carson knows about holes in the memory -she also knows about dealing kindly. And that is what the past should be there for: to sift through, to question, and to learn from; to laugh and sometimes to cry over – and please god to make us kinder to each other. But not to venerate, or endlessly relive. Leave that to the National Trust, and to books.

No comments:

Post a Comment