One of my reading finds at the end of 2016 was Alison Uttley’s ‘Christmas Stories’. I thought it was something I’d dip into, but I was pulled into her world. Rural, mystical… and so calm. This Puffin has waited a long time in the Beach House – wrinkled, yellow, damp and flattened out to dry on a summer’s day years ago. Waiting for just the right moment. I thought it might be too twee to hold my attention, but I really loved it. Uttley is one of those people whose writing really takes hold of me.
Remember that – when you equivocate about carrying on and persevering with somebody’s book. The ones that really grab you always stand out. You’re in no doubt this is what you want to be reading. You’ll listen to them talking about just about anything. You’ll even listen to them repeating themselves, as Uttley does, in these stories drawn from many different books across her career.
I was also reading Nina Beachcroft’s ‘Cold Christmas’ from 1974. I feel as if I read something by her a long time ago, mostly forgot it, and am trying to find it again. This one was new to me, but hit many of the right buttons – the big house, being snowed in, the ramshackle cast of people trapped together, not quite getting on. The kids having their own, quite frightening adventures and the adults not quite understanding. Spooky animals. A near-fatal accident in the snow. Some ghostly time-slippage and a mystery cleared up.
I spent quite a few Christmas afternoons in my study, in the comfy chair with Bernard Socks occasionally dashing in to doze for several hours with me. I was burrowing down into pages. Having the usual Twixtmas thoughts about – oh, couldn’t I just stay here and read for the whole coming year? Wouldn’t that be the best thing? I’d learn so much. I’d go to so many places. I’d get so much done. I’d be going deeper into somewhere magic. Somewhere that needs a lot of attention and energy to keep it going.
Wonderful passage about how a character is changed for the better by a ghostly experience –
“As Josephine broke free and ran away laughing until her stomach ached she had a moment’s memory of her first day here and how she had been cross, acutely shy and all closed up upon herself. Nevermore could she be quite as she was: a spirit from the past had broken the little icy shell of self, the brittle outer covering with which she was encased, to play its own melody upon her, as upon some musical instrument, and she had responded.”
And this seemed to me, as I read it, exactly how the best spooky stories ought to feel – the character is transformed by the experience. They are brought out of themselves, through having connected with something old and complicated – often something moving, uplifting, strange or mythic. And it’s more than that – it’s not just the state of the character at the end of the book, it’s about the adventure of reading itself. The book itself cracks you open as a reader and plays upon your spirit – getting in deep and haunting you. And you let yourself by haunted by it, quite happily.
Books get into you.
Also, because of the context of this scene – in which Josephine and Simon decide never to meet again (because strange things happen when they are together…) it makes me think all this might be about friendship and love, too. Of the kind that stops you sulking about yourself. That brings you out into company.
Sometimes it seems to me that reading is great practice for being close to other people. Necessary practice. No one ever really tells you this, but it’s true. It draws you closer and gives you skills and tact for coping with others (and yet – especially when young – we were always told that it made us solitary and bad at mixing. When all the while it was the very opposite.) This is a nice set of epiphanies for the gap between Christmas and New Year. Waking up from ghost stories and seasonal festive dreams – into new days, renewed friendships – and a sense of being open to the world.
That charged, magical feeling was there throughout Margaret Mahy’s stories, too, in ‘The Door in the Air.’ That feeling of being on the edge of realizing something amazing; of being dragged into an astounding epiphany by a story. I love Mahy because she can be winsome and phantasmagorical, but then very down-to-earth and satirical. She is all of these things in quick succession in this book – with the accent always on urging us to go out and have adventures and explore and be brave – and to create and to think of it all as art. To think of what you do as good as – even better than – anything that’s ever been done before. Her stories are all about valorizing and celebrating your own abilities and the things you do with them. She’s brisk, energizing, and so gobsmackingly audacious she makes you want to stretch your imagination as far as it will go. She’s like a wonderful aunty, cheering you on. It’s very generous work.
These are the women I read over Christmas – carrying their books with me as I cooked and peeled vegetables and turned leftovers into vast puff pastry pies and stood in the kitchen eating pate on toast with Jeremy and drinking wine. I’d vanish in the afternoons with my books (all three, I think, out of print) and I’d marvel at them.