When I was a little girl, grown-ups were forever telling me that there was 'a war on' and money didn't grow on trees. (Still doesn't, alas.) I had very few books; fewer than a dozen. My favourites were two marvellous nature stories by Lida from the Pere Castor series Wild Animal Books, with coloured lithographs by Rohan, translated by Rose Fyleman, called Martin the Kingfisher and Mischief the Squirrel. Recently, thanks to a book dealer with a nose like a truffle hound, I managed to acquire copies of these two long-vanished treasures. I thought I wanted to show them to my grandchildren, but I was wrong. I bought them for myself.
Reverently, slowly, like a child on the morning of her birthday, I undid the brown paper and string and revealed, first, Mischief the Squirrel. Oh] gasp] the memory, the rapture of seeing again that marvellous picture in which a tiny daredevil Mischief leaps in a breathtaking arc from one branch of a tree to another far below. For an equally vertiginous split second, seeing it, I was six years old again . . . and then middle- aged reality surged back. The book is still charming and my grandchildren quite like having it read to them, but that instant of Wordsworthian or Proustian bliss has never recurred.
Few books can recapture childhood with the same hallucinating vividness. Two adult favourites are Priscilla Napier's memoir of her childhood in Egypt called A Late Beginner, in which she evokes in extraordinary detail the moods and sensations of a clever, secure and happy child; and Vladimir Nabokov's heavenly autobiographical account of his idyllic early years in Russia: Speak Memory. All other autobiographies suffer from the heavy-handed knowingness of the adult, clambering in hobnailed words over the delicate perceptions of the small child they once were.
One way of holding for an instant the sensations of childhood is to gaze, stare, devour with your eyes, the way that children do, the simple objects that filled one's focus then. For example, a dark green or bright yellow hexagonal pencil tipped with a blunt pink rubber. This rubber was held in place by a ribbed metallic tube, from which one could sometimes prise it with a penknife or sharp scissors after several minutes of scowling concentration, although it never quite went back into place with the same rigidity afterwards.
The rubber and its encircling ring of metal were remarkably similar in size and colour to the filter of a cigarette, and perhaps partly account for the comfort derived from smoking. Or perhaps the pencil was comforting because the rubber was exactly like a nipple.
Or think of the satisfaction of sticking the tip of a blunted pencil into the miniature cement-mixer clamped to the teacher's desk and turning the handle at the side. Such powerful sensations were released by such a trivial, everyday activity] First, a rich smell of wood shavings and a tiny smell of ground graphite would tickle one's nostrils. Then one would gaze proudly at the newly sharpened pencil: a miracle of precision and fresh clean wood. Gone was the dirty greyish colour at the tip, to be replaced by a beautiful golden brown. Furthermore, the shaved tip was now edged with a series of looped curves like a skirt or a crown where the square, coloured sides met the fragrant new triangle of wood, culminating in a now needle- sharp point.
Back to the desk, with newly honed concentration. DICTATION, one wrote in one's finest script, underlining it carefully with a golden wooden ruler blackly incised with inches in halves, quarters and eighths.
Photographs of oneself when very small can sometimes create the same effect. I have a black- and-white studio portrait of myself aged perhaps three, a stout, confident little figure with a pudding-basin haircut in a cotton dress printed with little coloured balls. In the picture, of course, they are not coloured but grey. If I scrutinise that print for long enough, I can feel the texture and crispness of the cotton again, and recall my infant pride in wearing my best dress for the photographer.
Why should I, or anyone, struggle to evoke this enclosed world? Why was the brief but overwhelming sensation that blanketed me when I opened the Pere Castor books so rare and precious and fleeting? It must be because my childhood, despite the war and the fact that money didn't grow on trees, was a magic time: the only magic time.Reuse content