For me, some books act like a time machine, leading me back into my past, reminding me of how it felt to be young. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, the effect is intense. Sensations that I had forgotten arise afresh, and the world seems new again.
Hugh Falkus’s The Stolen Years (1965) is one of those books, evoking for me the simplicity and innocence of boyhood. Not that his upbringing was anything like mine: far from it. He was a child of the inter-war period, inhabiting first a converted Thames barge on the Essex coast, and later an old sixty-ton, straight-stemmed cutter, moored in a Devon estuary; I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, in a house in West London. Nevertheless, his reminiscences stir my own.
Falkus’s childhood was spent among mudflats, reed-beds and shorelines. He caught his first fish at the age of 4, learned to shoot when he was 6, and became an expert helmsman while still in short trousers. He passed many contented hours afloat, messing about in boats, sometimes with an adult, sometimes alone. Most of these boats had rotting boards, unreliable engines or ancient sails, liable to tear in a strong wind; heading out to sea in one of these was always a risk. What is especially striking to the modern reader is the freedom the young Falkus was allowed to roam unaccompanied, on land or water. No fuss then about handing a shotgun to a boy and letting him venture out on the marshes before dawn in pursuit of wildfowl. The Stolen Years is a memoir of this happy time. There is no continuous narrative; each chapter forms a separate episode, and by the end of the book the small boy met at the outset has become a young man. An early chapter extols the qualities of Sally, in the same class as Hugh at infant school, who for a modest consideration would lift her skirts and ‘show you my bum’; the penultimate chapter is an elegy to a dark, slim girl in a green dress, glimpsed standing in the lamplight in the do
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