Confronting the myth of the sensitive child

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The Independent Culture
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.