Friday, August 10, 2007

Honey, I burnt the heuchera

(I'm blogging by firelight in the garden. I've just singed half the perennials)

Twenty years ago, I went out with a man called Colin. I was 17 and he was 22; I lived in Lancashire and he lived in the New Forest. It was an enormously unlikely and ultimately unsustainable arrangement, but for a good few months it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me.

We didn't see each other very often, what with the 300 miles and my A-levels to contend with, but we wrote to each other in between what used to be called Nooky Runs.

There was so much I blatantly didn't know and couldn't pretend to, in those days, that when there was something I didn't know but felt that possibly I should know, I tended to keep quiet about it and try and work it out. I still do that sometimes. I'm still not sure what the Westland Affair was, for example, but I nod knowledgeably whenever it comes up.

Colin wrote me a letter which contained two song quotes. He didn't attribute either of them, presumably assuming I'd recognise them, and I was too proud to ask where they were from. I thought to myself, 'I'll hear those songs one day, and then I'll know'. There were no lyrics servers in 1987.

And I was right. The first one was
"I see you now and you are so very young, and I've seen battles lost, and I've seen battles won. And I've got this intuition that it's all for your fun."

This is from The Queen and the Soldier by Suzanne Vega, which I heard barely a couple of months later, when my friend N pressed a tape into my hands one Saturday and said 'you need to hear this album'. I already knew Marlene on the Wall, as I practically lost my virginity to it, and the rest of the album had me completely spellbound. The Queen and the Soldier is still one of my favourite songs in the world, though not specifically for that reason.

The second one took a couple of years, but come 1990 I was lying on a beanbag in the bedroom of my Significant Ex, a few spliffs worse for wear, listening to Pink Floyd's The Final Cut for the first time.

"I was just a child then," he sang (Roger Waters, not my Significant Ex). I sat bolt upright and said "Now I'm only a man". Then I said 'wow' a lot.

Patience is a virtue, I have always believed, even if I haven't always practised it. And if you've got this far through this post you clearly have it in spades, so I'll get to the point.

There's a book I've been waiting to find for years and years and years. I read it before I was 10 -- I think one of my primary school teachers lent it to me, I was a fairly precocious reader -- and little bits of it were seared into my mind, but I had no idea what it was called or who the author was. I remembered a lonely girl, Lilliput, bloaters and lots of weirdness. I had one phrase to go on, which was that she had 'eyes the colour of Marmite'.

I've been Googling that phrase since before there was Google, I remember searching Alta Vista for it, full of hopes (dashed), and Asking Jeeves (likewise). I've been waiting for the full text of all books ever to be there for the searching.

I'm still waiting. But I've kept trying (it's been my default search phrase in any new search engine, but it's never taken me anywhere).

Until today. Today I found the book. By pure chance my phrase is part of the first paragraph, and I found it quoted twice: once as part of a first sentence guessing competition, and once by a secondhand bookseller selling an early edition of it.

The book opens:

"Maria was ten years old. She had dark hair in two pigtails, and brown eyes the colour of marmite, but more shiny. She wore spectacles for the time being, though she would not have to wear them always, and her nature was a loving one. ...Unfortunately she was an orphan, which made her difficulties more complicated than they were with other people."

I always knew I'd find that book eventually. It's called Mistress Masham's Repose, and it's by T H White, who coincidentally (or is it?) wrote one of M's favourite childhood books, The Once and Future King. Tomorrow I'm off to get it out of the library.

The internet is a beautiful thing.


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Anonymous jonathan said...

Eyes the colour of marmite. That prase is absolutely beautiful and I can quite see how it is going to become seared on the memory of any precocious and sensitive 10-year-old who happens to come across it. I'll sure as hell never forget it now.

Your first 'grown up' books will always stay with you, won't they? The one that does it for me is Catcher in the Rye which my mam gave me when I was about 12... and there's a much more obscure American novel I devoured around the same time I can remember lots of scenes from but not the name... maybe I should get onto Google and try to find it again...

1:34 am  
Blogger Ben said...

My opinion of M was never low but is now even higher. The Once and Future King is still the only TH White I've read but that may now change.

2:25 pm  
Anonymous cookie said...

When I was 11 & had just started at Queens School in Rheindalen, My new & shiny Geography/English teacher read to the class from a book I recall as being called 'Ask for King Billy'. I was mesmerised. Given that I'm unsure of the title, don't know the author & the teacher turned into the big bad witch who ran away with my father, I've never got any further, but its good to know that its happened to you & that you have your answer.

8:18 pm  
Blogger Jo said...

I will report back on Maria and see if she lives up to the wonder in my memory. But M read me The Once And Future King not long after we got together and I was very taken with it. So I'm optimistic.

Cookie, that's a hell of a story! A bit of Googling reveals that your memory of the title is right, the author was Henry Treece, it was published in 1955, and it is hard, but not impossible, to get hold of. Whether you want to of course is a different issue! jo xx

9:42 pm  
Blogger Tim said...

I don't think I read a book in its entirety until I was nineteen or twenty. I know that sounds preposterous and unlikely - I'd got an English A level by then; wer-hoo me! - but I honestly don't think I did.

I'm always very jealous of the "I read Such and Such as a child and it left a profound mark on me" conversations people have. I don't remember reading anything. I also don't remember my parents reading anything to me, though its possible they might have.

Cookie - that's a Bestseller waiting to happen, a whole new genre perhaps. I want to know what happens next! Hopefully not too badly for you, obviously.

Lovely post, Jo.

8:26 pm  
Anonymous cookie said...

Jo- Thank you so much for the info,I'm not sure yet whether I'll do anything with it yet, but its now written down in a safe place.

Tim- maybe after the witch is dead. In the meantime, the child lived bitterly ever after, --but the adult is just fine.

9:07 pm  

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