A Childhood In Scotland, by Christian Miller (1981, John Murray Limited, reprinted by Canongate Books)
AS THE SUN finally shines again over the rain drenched Lothians, summer seems to have returned, albeit momentarily; and thoughts of happy, lazy holidays drift back to mind.
Some books about childhood, as well as certain children’s books when revisited in adulthood, work magic on the memory and imagination; and recall to mind a world of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations which, as adults, we have painted over many times like kitchen walls – but what if we could gently remove those layers, back through cornfield yellow, candy stripes, silver (what were they thinking?) and 1970s brown sunflower prints; and what if we could travel back through the years and return to the original patterns: what might we remember then? In the words of English writer Leslie Poles Hartley, in the first line of his own childhood memoir The Go Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
There are many classics of this kind of course, such as Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, or my own favourite from childhood, Denys Watkins-Pitchford’s Brendon Chase written under his pseudonym ‘B.B.’– which I have only just discovered was made into a children’s television drama in the early 1980s, and can be viewed on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTj6kzE20cg&feature=related
In this admittedly rather mixed genre I would also include Stevenson’s Treasure Island, his prolific fellow Scots writer and artist Robert M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, and Laurie Lee’s magisterial Cider with Rosie, which contains the fabulous encapsulation of his reasons for recording childhood memories, for fear that otherwise looking back, all that he might recall would be a ‘salt caked mud flat’.
There is much of the summer in these books of course: rock pools, sand between the toes, camp fires, thirsty gulps of lemonade and going home tired but happy; and no doubt much that is pure nostalgia. Written as these all were, however, in different times and places, they can remind us that childhood is always going on all around us and that we, just like children of today, are shaped by our snatched freedoms and imaginative experiences. Has North Berwick really changed that much from Stevenson’s description of his own summers there in The Lantern-Bearers?
“…you might climb the Law, where the whale’s jawbone stood landmark in the buzzing wind, and behold the face of many counties, and the smoke and spires of many towns, and the sails of distant ships. You might bathe, now in the flaws of fine weather, that we pathetically call our summer, now in a gale of wind, with the sand scouring your bare hide, your clothes thrashing abroad from underneath their guardian stone, the froth of the great breakers casting you headlong ere it had drowned your knees. Or you might explore the tidal rocks, above all in the ebb of springs, when the very roots of the hills were for the nonce discovered; following my leader from one group to another, groping in slippery tangle for the wreck of ships, wading in pools after the abominable creatures of the sea, and ever with an eye cast backward on the march of the tide and the menaced line of your retreat…”
And again, like Stevenson, is it not the free and idle times of our youth that we savoured the most, as in his essay An Apology for Idlers? www.library.wisc.edu/projects/glsdo/feraca/idlers.html
Christian Miller’s ‘A Childhood In Scotland’ (1981), a part of which first appeared in the New Yorker but has been reprinted and is now available from Birlinn: www.birlinn.co.uk/author/details/Christian-Miller-1375/, is a short classic about childhood from the point of view of a girl, the youngest of six, growing up in her father’s Highland castle in the 1920s. I tracked down one of the original copies, read it the same day and found it utterly absorbing. Better than Downton Abbey, this is a genuine and beautifully written account of the vanished life of a thriving Highland community, at the centre of which is the author’s family and their ancient ancestral home.
Christian Miller’s book paints a portrait of her childhood, describing the interiors of the castle, the ghosts, her noble parents and wild siblings, the serried ranks of maids, gillies and gamekeepers, the animals both domestic and wild: but most importantly, she does it all with an immediacy and poignancy that brings her lost world not only to her own mind but also to the reader’s. There’s no sentimentality, only an honest and fascinating picture.
This book is ideal for a deckchair, possibly after cutting the grass or trimming the hedge; and if you get the chance to read it (or even if you don’t), you might ask yourself what books and stories shaped your own youth? Why not share them here?
Stephen O'Rourke can also be read at www.stephenorourke.org/