Sunday, 11 September 2016

So Few Lives Divide Us - Catherine Butler

Here’s a harebrained theory for you. It applies only to the southern half of the country (the North needs a theory of its own), so please draw a line across your imaginary map of Britain, running from the Mersey to the Humber.

The truncated realm before you is a fantasy landscape. Oxford is its symbolic centre, and marks the place where two great tectonic plates meet and clash. (This seismic activity explains why, from Lewis Carroll, through Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Philip Pullman and Frances Hardinge, Oxford has produced so much seminal fantasy.)

Beyond, the country is divided on East-West lines. To the West, fantasy is about myth and the land. Its locus is the standing stone, the ancient well, the cave; its magic is nature magic; its past is the deep past. This is the fantasy I've always felt closest to, and most wished to write.

But I also love the fantasy of the East. Here is the fantasy of time slips and family ghosts. Its locus is the grand house; its magic is memory and dream magic; its past is the historical past. If the West has Alan Garner, Catherine Fisher, Jenny Nimmo and Susan Cooper (albeit she has a foot in both camps, geographically), the East has Lucy M. Boston, Philippa Pearce, Joan G. Robinson, and Rudyard Kipling (although he, too, is an ambiguous case).

In the East, Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe series are not only based around houses and their gardens, but around real houses. Being pilgrim-minded, I’ve long wanted to visit both. Sadly, the mill house at Great Shelford in Cambridgeshire (where Pearce lived as a young child, and which she used as the setting for her famous book) has never as far as I know been open to the public. The closest I ever got to viewing it was when it came up for sale last year, and the estate agent published some nice pictures. Here’s the garden where Tom and Hatty played (can you spot Tricksy?):

I didn’t have the £3,500,000 asking price at the time, or I’d have bought it like a shot.

Hemingford Grey Manor, the model for Green Knowe, is also very much a real place, also in Cambridgeshire. When Lucy Boston was alive she often showed visitors around, but although I lived in Cambridge in the late 1980s I never made the trip. I didn’t have a car then, after all, and there wasn’t a convenient bus service, but I’m not sure whether I’d have had the chutzpah anyway. Boston was in her ‘90s, after all. Who was I to dare disturb her universe?

Since Boston’s death her daughter-in-law Diana has carried on her hospitable tradition.* Even so, I never visited what seemed by now (travelling from my new home in Bristol) an inconveniently distant village, requiring the crossing of London to reach by train and a taxi at the far end to do the last five miles from Huntingdon. The spur to correct this shocking omission actually came when I was in Tokyo last April (a location even further removed from Bristol, critics might complain, but such is human nature), and received an invitation from Diana’s friend (now also mine), Mihoko Tanaka, who mentioned that she’d be staying at Green Knowe – sorry, I mean Hemingford Grey – this summer, and would I like to visit her there?

And so it was that a week or so ago I found myself being picked up at Huntingdon station by Mihoko and Diana, and driven in style to the Manor, where we sat down to tea and cakes in the sunlit garden.

After that I got the tour, much as hundreds before me have done. Even if the Green Knowe books had never been written, this would still be an immensely fascinating building – indeed, it’s said to be the oldest continuously-occupied house in the country to have been built as a private residence (rather than as a castle or a church). Much of it dates from around 1130. In that context one begins to scoff at the new-fangled Tudor additions, let alone the impertinence of an eighteenth-century facade.

Let us walk from the river, past the topiary, towards the house...

... and then inside, with cherubs and birds' nests, as arranged by Lucy Boston:

And room after room of wonders:

And here is Tolly’s room – complete with rocking horse, chest, Tolly's view to the river and, of course, Toby’s mouse. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, then go and read The Children of Green Knowe this instant!)

All this time the sun shone, almost too brightly: my camera was incapable of dealing with the contrast in some of these shots between the bright light and the natural gloom cast by the yard-thick walls' 900-year-old shadows.

I made it back to Bristol before midnight – having enjoyed a pretty much perfect day. East and West touch, as surely as Past and Present: Hemingford Grey really wasn’t so distant after all. But that was always the burden of the Green Knowe books. As a poet once put it:

So few lives divide us; a hundred years
Carry three lives, and when the party's over,
The century drained dry, it yet appears
For patient spade suddenly to uncover,
Frail, and a little chipped, the perfume gone
Of the dead wine. [...]

                                Thirty men at most
Fill out a thousand years, each with his glass,
Laughing at table, no unbodied ghost
But a friend speaking, though the hours pass
So swiftly from the bottle to the tomb;
Their faces shine within my shadowed room.

* If you wish to make an appointment to see Hemingford Grey, follow this link. You won't regret it.


Gillian Polack said...

The house looks very different to the way I dreamed it would, when I was a child. It looks 100% right - it's just that as a child I wanted it to be an extended Federation House, with a giant verandah around the whole house and etc. I wanted the house to be Australia, I suspect.

And is it my imagination, or are all your ambiguous cases living outside Britain for a significant part of their lives?

Catherine Butler said...

They are, Gillian - although I'm not sure whether that has much to do with their ambiguity (at least in Cooper's case). With her, it's just that for all her use of Cornwall and west Wales, The Dark is Rising is set in Buckinghamshire, which she successfully imbues with West British-style old magic. With her, the fact that she wrote the books (well, four out of five) outside the country made her hiraeth-fuelled evocation all the more intense.

Kipling, based in Sussex, attempts to introduce Puck as a being older than the hills - but I never quite bought it as anything but a literary device. I still love the books, though.

catdownunder said...

the screen just turned a shade of bright green with my envy!

Abbeybufo said...

I had the privilege of being shown around 'Tom's Midnight Garden' by Philippa Pearce herself, in the days when the owners of the Mill House didn't mind her taking people there occasionally. Sadly the next owners weren't prepared to allow it, and I think they must have been the ones whose sale brochure details you saw. I think we must have been some of the last people to be able to do this, though we met Philippa several times more, in Cambridge, and at Roehampton IBBY events, before her death. It is all a while ago - getting on for 20 years! - and our select group included Alan and Griselda Garner and a mother and daughter from the US. We had tea with Philippa and her friends Jack and Pat beforehand in her garden, then walked over the road to 'the' garden. A magical afternoon.

Catherine Butler said...

Magical indeed! I'm sorry to say that I never met Philippa Pearce (though I saw her at Roehampton).

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Soon after I moved to the UK, the Soc of Authors CWIG held their conference in Cambridge and one of the outings offered was a visit to the house of Greene Knowe. Having had limited exposure to foreign books in South Africa, I had to admit to never having read the stories. But what an incredible visit of enchantment... the garden as well as the house. I was quite lost in the secret world of Tolly and the dark wet night when he arrived. Did you see the wonderful collection of quilts?

Loved your division of the fantasy world.

Catherine Butler said...

I did indeed see the quilts, and was privileged to fold them over (wearing conservator's gloves, of course) with Diana. Amazing work - but a subject of which I'm too ignorant to say anything sensible.