Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Who Stole My Childhood? by Steve Gladwin

Many years ago I attended a psychosynthesis course in Glastonbury in Somerset. It was an intense introduction over a week to what is essentially the only psychotherapy with a spiritual dimension. At one point we were all asked to do an exercise where we met with our much younger selves. I was taken immediately to the bedroom of my childhood at 29, Gloucester Avenue, Grimsby - all there as I remembered it with its bright striped curtains, Thunderbirds wallpaper and the shelves of books behind my bed.

Thunderbirds are go!

My younger self was sitting on my bed in his signature brown and white t shirt and brown shorts. Feeling very grown up I tried to talk to him. What soon became apparent was that it was he who wanted to talk to me. He was far more confident than I’d expected and wanted to be called Stephen rather than Steve. He was also a bit annoyed that I believed him to be shy, upset or miserable. He told me he was the opposite.  

It was a strangely unsettling experience to meet my younger self. However one of the things I remember with most delight was being reconnected with my eight years old book collection. There they all were - the adventures of Jennings and Derbyshire at Linbury Court Preparatory School, (thank you Charney quiz!) and Billy Bunter, the ‘fat owl’ of the remove at Greyfriars. Further down were a great many Enid Blytons including the Seven, The Five, The Five and Dog and my favourites  - the ‘of Adventure series.’ It was still some time before many of these would be edged out by a huge inpouring of Dennis Wheatley books which a kind former baby sitter would later pass on when she invested in the official leather bound edition!

Like most people I can remember my adventures with books beginning with particular favourites. It was our other baby sitter Olwen - a rather old fashioned head mistress of a local school who went to church dressed in an array of formidable looking flower pot hats - who first introduced my sister and I to the chronicles of Narnia when she read us The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The snow enchanted kingdom forever in the thrall of the white queen quickly entranced me, along with a wardrobe full of fur coats, an overburdened fawn with an umbrella, and the haunting beauty of that name, Caer Paravel.

Harry Potter long before he was ever invented!

Similarly it was landscape which first grabbed me when my mum gave me the first of her collection of Enid Blytons - “If you like it you can have more’, she assured me. It was a hardback copy of Five Go To Smugglers Top’. Although by then it had lost its colourful jacket, there was something equally thrilling about its dark red brick hardness. Within no time at all I was lost deep in a tale of smugglers and hidden passages.

A few years ago I asked my partner to buy me a second hand copy for Christmas. I struggled with its awkward old fashioned style, and to my surprise, there was little of the excitement of the sea I remembered. I must have combined it with the Kirrin Island books in my memory, but I always preferred the Island of Adventure anyway!

After that I remember it all - the thrill of the books we were read at school and the adaptations of Rosemary Sutclifffe and Alan Garner we watched on that huge TV. There were books as gifts, books from the library and those we chose to buy. There was plenty of children’s TV too like my all time favourite The Flashing Blade with its terrible dubbing that I never noticed in those days, There was Captain Zepos, The White Horses Belle and Sebastian but my favourite were Tales from Europe with their oddly compelling and even more oddly tinted adaptations of Snow White and the Tinder Box. Years later I can still hum along to the dwarves song and see that witch in the oak tree. Don’t trust her soldier!

The most famous of all the Tales From Europe was of course The Singing Ringing Tree - one of the oddest ever imports from eastern Europe and worth a blog all on its own!

Portrait of the author as a young geek!

Yet somehow we are led to believe that all of this stops - that we are no longer allowed to enjoy these things of childhood and should somehow put them away as it we are merely awaiting the moment when we pass these hidden away treasures to our own children. Perhaps it is because I have never had children that my own inner child remains so strong, and insists on being regularly exercised. I remember how annoyed I was when the Harry Potter books were given their two covers with a ‘let’s save your embarrassment’ one for the adults. I have always read and enjoyed children’s books, (although the unfortunate few on last year's Charney and Folly Farm quiz teams might wish to dispute that). I also realise that I am both preaching to the converted and that I live in an age where books for children are no longer minimised and where one of them can win the Costa of Costas.

There is a strange figure in Celtic myth called the Mabon. In the old Welsh tale of Culwch and Olwen, one of the hero’s impossible tasks is to rescue a prisoner - this Mabon son of Modron, who was stolen from his mother when only a few nights old. His lamentation can be heard, we are told, coming from the walls of Gloucester Castle, (Caer Lowy). A similar wailing song is also mentioned in one of the strangest and most impenetrable of ancient poems, the Preiddeu Annwn, (Spoils of Annwn), attributed to Taliesin.

If you dig deep you will find variants of this figure of the magical child/prisoner throughout world myth. However there may be more in celtic myth than anywhere else, for not only Mabon but Gwri, Gwion/Taliesin, Amairgen, and most significantly King Arthur himself, are taken away and educated before being returned from the otherworld. There may of course be no connection - Maybe Mabon is an ancient sun deity and therefore his going away is a seasonal myth in the same manner as Balder or Persephone.

But is there something else they’re missing? Is there a point in life as well as myth where the child is supposed to go away and return ‘changed’? Are their then magics and skills that we have forgotten, or even whole senses we no longer know how to use?

One thing’s for certain - no-one’s taking the rest of it away from me without a struggle. How about you? 


'It dances beautifully between the solidly real and the otherworldly, wakefulness and dream, practicality and magic, belief and disbelief. In the best manner of British storytelling since history began.'

Professor Ronald Hutton
Bristol University


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading your blog. Thank you. Reminded me of the delightful pile of books I received at Christmas throughout my childhood.
I too love to read children's books and recently read 'Dear Nobody' by Berlie Doherty. It was the most compelling book I've read in a long time. Beautifully written. Thanks again.

Susan Price said...

I've still got my Jungle Books and Just So Stories from when I was 7 - and my Hans Andersen. Nobody's having them.
Mabon reminds me a little of the Russian Koshka the Undying, who is a prisoner in the dungeons of Maraya Marevna - until he's found and released by Prince Ivan (who was told not to open that door!) But Koshka is a distinctly sinister figure.

Sue Purkiss said...

I don't have any of the books I read at that age - I borrowed them all from the school and public libraries. Though I do remember buying Enid Blyton's Shadow the Sheepdog with my pocket money and being very proud of it. Oh, the lemonade and the thick slices of fruit cake.

Steve Gladwin said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the blog. I don't have mine now either Sue - like so many people I suspect. Clearly t'other Sue has the right idea and they would need to be wrenched away from you Sue. Yes Enid Blyton was a bit of a foodie. With serviettes though I'd imagine! I will seek out the Russian Mabon as well - thanks!

Susan Price said...

Wrenched away from me? - They'd have to be taken from my cold, dead hand. I was raised by people who never willingly parted with a book, not even 'Masonic Speech Making, 1912.'