When I was but a boy and a bit in the last World War, I had a dream. I walked down Polstead Road in Oxford to Aristotle Lane. And I stopped off by the canal with my fishing-rod before going over the shuddering railway bridge on to the vast expanse of Port Meadow with its snapping swans. ‘Break your leg, they can,’ I was told. ‘With one chop of their beak.’
I tried to catch tiddlers, the dace and the roach, and put them in a jam-jar, though they were too muddy to eat. Sometimes a shire horse would plod up the canal path. It towed on a rope a dark barge, yet bright with painted colours, on its way to Tartary or beyond. Or so I supposed. Steering the craft, a heavy man with a cloth cap. I took out my rod as it passed. In those days and nights of rations and the black-out, I wanted him to call out to me, ‘Ahoy, boy. Come aboard. And shiver me timbers.’ But he never did.
A picture in our little house and a book excited me. There was a coloured print of Sir Walter Raleigh in Elizabethan hose and doublet, sword and feathered hat, explaining his faraway adventures to two children on a beach. And there was the magic of Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, where the young brother and sister act A Midsummer Night’s Dream and meet the pixie Puck, who tells them of the people of the Hills of Old England, imps and trolls and brownies and goblins, who live by Oak, Ash and Thorn. And he relates the history of Ancient Britain in fairy story and fact.
At 8 years old, I could not tell what from which. For my sense of wonder had not left me, even in the shrapnel of war. When not watching the sparks climb in tiny fireworks on the soot at the back of the grate above the glowing coal, I read Puck of Pook’s Hill. And from the chapters on ‘Weland’s Sword’ and ‘The Knights of the Joyous Venture’, so much of my future work would unconsciously come. As Puck implied, the spell of Merlin could last a lifetime.
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