It’s winter and so of course it should come as no surprise that it’s cold – but it’s really cold. Last night, with the gas heater chugging away as hard as it could, we were still rugged up and feeling draughts of frigid air from the ill-fitting casement and louvre windows and glass doors in our charming old house. I’m sick of charm. At the moment, I feel that a warm brick bunker would do me. But the days have been sunny and the big freeze doesn’t start till near dark; besides, I’ve just had an email from my brother in New York where it’s breathlessly hot and steamy. So much for complaining about the weather.
Except to say that, cold weather and knitting going together as they do, I’m on the front of my first cable experiment.
I read somewhere that, when deep in the rhythm of plain and purl, the knitter’s brain- waves resemble those of a meditator. Perhaps that’s why I love knitting so. And probably why what I love most is knitting scarves. You don’t have to think. The long straight parts of a jumper or cardigan are fine, too, but all those decreases to make arm-holes and shoulders are troublesome. This cable pattern looks lovely, but what you don’t see is that I’ve pulled it out and re-knitted about half a dozen times. This is not what I knit for! However – as I know from the bin at my closest Op Shop, where unwanted hand-knitted scarves multiply like multi-coloured rabbits – there are only so many scarves a person needs.
When this cardigan is done, I will look forward to my nightly collapse on the couch with some nice plain knitting. And for a special treat, on Sunday afternoons, as the evening draws in, there can be (this is me in Barbara Pym mode) knitting, a book, a cup of tea and some McVities Digestive biscuits. Not all at once, of course.
Knitting and reading aren’t really similar, but re-reading is a little like plain knitting. Soothing, with no real surprises, but with much enjoyment. I have just re-read a children’s novel called Mistress Masham’s Repose by TH White. I haven’t read it since I was twelve or thirteen, but it was hugely influential in making me into the writer I am. I was hesitant, at first, to re-read in case I didn’t like it – in case it wasn’t all I’d cracked it up to be – in case it’d lost its charm. But – amazingly – no.
Mistress Masham’s Repose was given to me as an 8th birthday present by a friend of my eldest brother’s. He was a teenager, and he worked at the local bookshop – Stonemans Bookroom – where I work now. How he came to choose this one for me, I don’t know, but re-reading it, I’m surprised that he chose it and that I loved it.
Because, on the face of it, it’s quite a difficult book. Briefly – Maria lives in an almost-ruined great house called Malplaquet in the wilds of Northhamptonshire. She discovers the descendants of a band of escaped Lilliputians on an island; makes friends with them; battles her malicious governess Miss Brown and the unscrupulous Vicar, Mr Hater, in order to prevent them from kidnapping the People (they plan to sell them to circuses); and with the help of the cook, Mrs Noakes, an ancient Professor and the dotty Lord Lieutenant, she foils the plans of the evil pair and comes into her inheritance.
What’s difficult – and wonderful – is the language. All through the book, TH White plays with words. Here, on the very first page, he has fun with 18th century military history, poetry, architecture, and vocabulary;
It had been built by one of her ducal ancestors who had been a friend of the poet Pope, and it was surrounded by Vistas, Obelisks, Pyramids, Columns, Temples, Rotundas and Palladian Bridges, which had been built in honour of General Wolfe, Admiral Byng, the Princess Amelia and others of the same kidney.
I don’t need to pick apart how and why that is difficult for an 8-year-old reader. I can’t imagine that I truly understood much of that. But I kept in reading, and there was more history, more pastiche, lots of humour along with some sadness, lessons in love and respect for Maria who had taken to treating the tiny people as pets (Her apology reads; I am young but tall. You are old but short. I am sorry and will be better), some jokes around Latin and antiquarian book lore, a gallery of English stock types of the 19th and early 20th century – Vicar, governess, faithful retainer, dotty Professor, loopy aristocrat, doughty but dopey policeman – and a lot of swooningly beautiful nature writing. Like this;
Under her nose, she watched the mare’s-tail and other flora of the ocean floor, as the prow edged its way between the water lilies. Dragonflies, like blue needles, and damsel-flies, like ruby ones – the husband keeping his wife in order by gripping her tightly round the neck with a special pair of pincers on the end of his tail – hovered over the surface. By going gently, she could sometimes pass over a flight of perch without disturbing them. Or rather, they would raise their spiky fins, blush out the dark anger of their bars and make mouths at her. Once or twice, she passed a pike, only six inches long, basking under the flat green leaves, and once she came close to the meeting place of the tench – who made themselves scarce with a loud plop. They had been lazily scratching their backs on the lilies, like a school of elephants.
The whole thing ends happily after an extended comic set-piece of the Professor trying to convince the hunt-mad Lord Lieutenant that Maria has been imprisoned in the dungeons. It’s almost all dialogue – a script –
‘Here, have a cigar. We keep them in this filly here, for parties. Look, you just press her tail down, like this, and the cigar comes out of her mouth, like that, oh, I’m sorry, and at the same moment her nostrils burst into flame, so you can light it. Neat, isn’t it?’
The poor Professor is waylaid with an array of ingenious musical devices shaped like horses which spout cigars, chocolates, coffee and cigarettes – and I was on the train laughing helplessly and out loud.
How I made any sense of it at 8, I don’t know. Was I just the most amazingly precocious reader or what? Well, I was stopped in my child-genius tracks when I looked on-line to see that other readers had made of it – and found legions of devoted American fans. They would, I thought, be even less likely than me to get the so-English jokes and references.
Re-reading, I was surprised to find of the source of my writing. Some of it, at any rate. My sense of humour, my love of pastiche, my tendency towards (hopefully) nail-biting pile-ups of suspense and action; red herrings, historical oddities, Capitals, made-up book titles; a semi-delirious swoon of words… I only have to look glancingly at The Truth About Verity Sparks to see a bit, here and there, of Mistress Masham’s Repose.
One last odd thing about re-reading Mistress Masham’s Repose. I found that I had remembered, since I was a young girl, a particular phrase from the book. Maria, pretending to be a pirate, has paddled her boat out to an island in the middle of an ornamental lake. ‘She boarded the tree bole, brandishing her cutlass, and swarmed ashore with the battle cry of a Maria, her spectacles twinkling fiercely in the sun.’
How I love that. How I loved re-reading that. It’s a kind of key-stone – spectacles, twinkling, fiercely – there’s laughter and affection, imagination and reality, a building-up and cutting back down to size. Why, of all the words in the book – many of them wonderful, long and obscure – those are the ones that encapsulate for me it’s delight, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because, in its own way, ‘spectacles twinkling fiercely’ is simply perfect.