Confronting the myth of the sensitive child

BY THE time you read this, I shall have returned to the house where I was born. You may have been there with me, for the house is called Shelley Hall and it, or rather its moated island, was the star of last night's edition of the Channel 4 series Lost Gardens. They say that on the island there was once a Tudor garden created by one of Henry VIII's gardeners. The programme's task was to re-create it.

It is probably too much to hope that the cameras will have looked beyond the moat, and wandered up the dark path beside the cowshed to the small, hilly fields where my grandparents' Jersey cows used to graze, to the woods where my brother and I had hide-outs; or headed in the other direction, down to the river and its water-meadows.

Perhaps because I have not visited the place for 25 years or so, Shelley has occupied an increasingly important space in my memory. Living the ambulant life of army children, my brother and I frequently used to spend time there and those school holidays in Suffolk have since taken on a sun-dappled, Blytonesque quality in which the landscape is greener and kinder and the summers are gentler and more English than they are nowadays.

I like to indulge these memories and deploy them at the slightest excuse in my fiction, particularly the children's stories, but I don't trust them. Not only has that landscape taken on the dimensions of an earthly paradise but also, more alarmingly, my place in it has, down the years, become more prominent and intriguing.

An example. I used to kill things a lot in those days, and in a variety of ways that were not particularly kind. I would hunt hares with our whippet Marble, once rather brilliantly killing two in one dash (the first died of a heart attack). I used to pursue rabbits, some suffering from myxomatosis, with a bow and arrow. And I once accidentally took out a swallow while shooting an airgun from one of the first-floor windows.

When I graduated to using a shotgun, my first victim was a teal. One hard winter I pursued a snipe, doubtless weakened by malnourishment, across the frozen fields, until finally and triumphantly I brought it down.

Now not only do I suffer from retrospective guilt, but I have taken to imagining myself as being, even then, a child so sensitive that, as he killed, he was assailed by feelings of remorse.

This must be nonsense. Almost certainly, what I now recall as childish guilt was in fact little more than fear of discovery - although shooting was part of a country childhood, bringing down a swallow would not have been terribly popular, and nor would pursuing blinded rabbits with a bow and arrow.

My childhood has been re-imagined; incidents from it have been selected and edited by a crafty adult sensibility to reveal more anguish, uncertainty and joy than were ever there. Perhaps each of us has his own semi-invented past, in which our own small self is cast as hero.

It is for this reason maybe that the most evocative memoirs, such as the books of Frank McCourt, so often have the smell of fiction to them, and why as John Walsh, author of another memoir, The Falling Angels, has written - so many of those who were witnesses to a childhood remember it differently.

The last time I saw a photographic version of the house where I was born was a few years back, when my parents discovered an old cine-camera film. On the flickering screen, there was little sign of the troubled, sensitive child that over the years I have come to imagine I once was. Instead, a mysteriously jolly, uncomplicated type larks about on a summer's day, no doubt dreaming of the teal, snipe, hare and rabbits he would be killing come the autumn. Shame about that.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea