A Boy in a Tattered Coat

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The little book didn’t belong to me. I was made aware of this every day by the tight crimson boards, the gold letters clumsily punched on the spine, and above all by the label glued inside, which pro­claimed it the property of Kingston-upon-Thames Public Libraries, Surbiton Branch. The two stags rampant that held the borough arms had a sly but threatening, possibly telltale, look. A long succession of dates of around 1961–2 was stamped on the facing label. They were all my renewals, for I had taken possession of this book, and couldn’t let it go until it had surrendered all the magic I knew it contained.

The name of the author, Henry Williamson, had drawn my 11-year-old eyes to it at first. I already knew his work, for my parents’ two-shelf library – containing The English Counties, Gardening and Home Production, their pharmaceutical textbooks and Three Men in a Boat – also had India-paper wartime editions of three of his ‘Flax of Dream’ novels, The Beautiful Years, Dandelion Days and The Pathway. I had not bothered with the last, because I sensed it was about love and grown-ups; then, as now, I would always rather see the world through the eyes of a child. The other volumes, achingly light and thin in their green covers, I adored with a passion. Willie Maddison, the young hero, was exactly me, suffering through impris­onment in school while longing to roam the North Devon woods and fields. The intensity of the writing, with its loving details of birds, flowers, scenes and weather, was all the more thrilling because I was beginning to understand that I could try to do this myself. Every page added to my store of shining, tactile images and words.

I was very far from North Devon in Surbiton, with its streets of 1930s semis and numbing suburban ways, but I was an inveterate tomboy, my spare time spent much as Willie’s was: wandering alone for hours over the Green Belt, blackberrying, fishing for minnows, climbing trees and trying to ride any bicycle I found abandoned, since I was barred from having one of my own. The heavy inevitabil­ity of being a girl was something I tried to forget. I emerged once from Dandelion Days, which I’d been reading surreptitiously in an upstairs classroom thick with the smell of polished linoleum, to find Susan Pinsent and Paula Ogden excitedly discussing bras and breasts. I was desperate never to have either, and clung to Willie Maddison as my alter ego until, a few years later, I became defiant, dangerous Stephen Daedalus, in my mind at least.

The little crimson-swaddled book I had discovered was not obviously part of the series I knew. It seemed to be a curious offshoot of the same time and place, in the same language and landscape but not in the same mood: a book of puzzlement and disquiet. I learned from the introduction that Williamson did consider it a ‘pendant’ (then a puzzling word) to the other books, and

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About the contributor

Ann Wroe is the Obituaries writer of The Economist and the author of seven books, including Pilate, Being Shelley and, most recently, Six Facets of Light.

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