The Treachery of Books‘What you want to be’, Mam said to my brother and me, ‘is gentlemen farmers. They earn up to £10 a week.’ This was in Leeds some time in the early years of the war, when my father, a butcher at Armley Lodge Road Co-op, was getting £6 a week and they thought themselves not badly off. So it’s not the modesty of my mother’s aspirations that seems surprising now but the direction. Why gentlemen farmers? And the answer, of course, was books.
We had, it’s true, had some experience of a farm. I was five when the war started, and Monday 4 September 1939 should have been my first day at school; but that was not to be. I wish I could record our family as gathered anxiously round the wireless, as most were at eleven o’clock that Sunday morning, but I already knew at the age of five that I belonged to a family that without being in the least bit remarkable or eccentric yet managed never to be quite like other families. If we had been, my brother and I would have been evacuated with all the other children the week before, but Mam and Dad hadn’t been able to face it. So, not quite partaking in the national mood and, as ever, unbrushed by the wings of history, Mr Chamberlain’s broadcast found us on a tram going down Tong Road into Leeds. Fearing the worst, my parents had told my brother and me that we were all going out into the country that day and we were to have a picnic – something I had hitherto only come across in books. So on that fateful Sunday morning what was occupying my mind was the imminent conjunction of life with literature; that I should remember nothing of the most momentous event in the twentieth century because of the prospect of an experience found in books was, I see now, a melancholy portent.
Nor was the lesson that life was not going to live up to literature slow in coming, since the much-longed-for picnic wasn’t eaten as picnics were in books, on a snowy tablecloth set in a field by a stream, but was taken on a form in the bus station at Vicar Lane, where we waited half that day for any bus that would take us out of the supposedly doomed city.
Early that afternoon a bus came, bound for Pateley Bridge, the other side of Harrogate. Somewhere along the way and quite at random the four of us got off and our small odyssey was ended. It was a village called Wilsill, in Nidderdale. There were a few houses, a shop, a school and a church and, though we were miles from any town, even here the stream had been dammed to make a static water tank in readiness for the firefighters and the expected bombs. Opposite the bus-stop was a farm. My father was a shy man and, though I’m sure there were many larger acts of bravery being done elsewhere that day, to knock at the door of the farm and ask some unknown people to take us in still seems to me to be heroic. Their name was Weatherhead and they did take us in and without question, as people were being taken in all over England that first week of the war.
That night Dad took the bus back to Leeds, my mother weeping as if he were returning to the front, and there at Wilsill we stayed – but for how long? My brother, then aged eight, says it was three weeks; to me, three years younger, it seemed months; but, weeks or months, very happy it was until, once it became plain nothing was going to happen for a while, we went back home, leaving Byril Farm (which is now, alas, not a farm and has carriage lamps) standing out in my mind as the one episode in my childhood that lived up to the story-books.
I had read quite a few story-books by this time, as I had learned to read quite early by dint, it seemed to me, of staring over my brother’s shoulder at the comic he was reading until suddenly it made sense. Though I liked reading (and showed off at it), it was soon borne in upon me that the world of books was only distantly related to the world in which I lived. The families I read about were not like our family (no family ever quite was). These families had dogs and gardens and lived in country towns equipped with thatched cottages and mill-streams, where the children had adventures, saved lives, caught villains, and found treasure before coming home, tired but happy, to eat sumptuous teas off chequered tablecloths in low-beamed parlours presided over by comfortable pipe-smoking fathers and gentle aproned mothers, who were invariably referred to as Mummy and Daddy.
In an effort to bring this fabulous world closer to my own, more threadbare, existence, I tried as a first step substituting ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ for my usual ‘Mam’ and ‘Dad’, but was pretty sharply discouraged. My father was hot on anything smacking of social pretension; there had even been an argument at the font because my aunties had wanted my brother given two Christian names instead of plain one.
Had it been only stories that didn’t measure up to the world it wouldn’t have been so bad. But it wasn’t only fiction that was fiction. Fact too was fiction, as textbooks seemed to bear no more relation to the real world than did the story-books. At school or in my Boy’s Book of the Universe I read of the minor wonders of nature – the sticklebacks that haunted the most ordinary pond, the newts and toads said to lurk under every stone, and the dragonflies that flitted over the dappled surface. Not, so far as I could see, in Leeds. There were owls in hollow trees, so the nature books said, but I saw no owls – and hollow trees were in pretty short supply too. The only department where nature actually lined up with the text was frog-spawn. Even in Leeds there was that, jamjars of which I duly fetched home to stand beside great wilting bunches of bluebells on the backyard window-sill. But the tadpoles never seemed to graduate to the full-blown frogs the literature predicted, invariably giving up the ghost as soon as they reached the two-legged stage when, unbeknownst to Mam, they would have to be flushed secretly down the lav.
It was the same when we went on holiday. If the books were to be believed, every seashore was littered with starfish and delicately whorled shells, seahorses in every rockpool and crabs the like of which I had seen only in Macfisheries’ window. Certainly I never came across them at Morecambe, nor any of the other advertised treasures of the seashore. There was only a vast, untenanted stretch of mud and somewhere beyond it the sea, invisible, unpaddleable and strewn with rolls of barbed wire to discourage any parachutist undiscerning enough to choose to land there.
These evidences of war and the general shortage of treats and toys made me somehow blame the shortcomings of the natural world on the current hostilities. I don’t recall seeing a magnolia tree in blossom until I was fifteen or so, and when I did I found myself thinking ‘Well, they probably didn’t have them during the war.’ And so it was with shells and starfish and all the rest of Nature’s delights: she had put these small treasures into storage for the duration, along with signposts, neon lights and the slot machines for Five Boys chocolate that stood, invariably empty, on every railway platform.
This sense of deprivation, fully developed by the time I was seven or eight, sometimes came down to particular words. I had read in many stories, beginning I suppose with Babes in the Wood, how the childish hero and heroine, lost in the forest, had nevertheless spent a cosy night bedded down on pine needles. I had never come across these delightfully accommodating features and wondered where they were to be found. Could one come across them in Leeds? It was not short of parks after all – Gott’s Park, Roundhay Park – surely one of them would have pine needles.
And then there was sward, a word that was always cropping up in Robin Hood. It was what tournaments and duels were invariably fought on. But what was sward? ‘Grass,’ said my teacher, Miss Timpson, shortly; but I knew it couldn’t be. Grass was the wiry, sooty stuff that covered the Rec in Moorfield Road where we played at night after school. That was not sward. So once, hearing of some woods in Bramley, a few miles from where we lived, I went off on the trail of sward, maybe hoping to come across pine needles in the process. I trailed out past the rhubarb fields at Hill Top, over Stanningley Road then down into the valley that runs up from Kirkstall Abbey. But all I found were the same mouldy old trees and stringy grass that we had at Armley. Pine needles, sward, starfish and sticklebacks – they were what you read about in books.
Books are where the gentlemen farmers must have come from too, from Winifred Holtby’s South Riding perhaps, or something by Phyllis Bentley, both novelists my mother favoured – local celebrities (as much later was John Braine), writers who had escaped the mill or the mine and made good, the making good invariably taking the form of going Down South. These books, and those my brother and I read, would be borrowed from Armley Library at the bottom of Wesley Road, a grand turn-of-the-century building with a marble staircase and stained-glass swing doors.
The Junior Library was in a room of its own, and an institution more intended to discourage children from reading could not have been designed. It was presided over by a fierce British Legion commissionaire, a relic of the Boer War, who, with his medals and walrus moustache was the image of Hindenburg as pictured on the German stamps in my brother’s album. The books were uniformly bound in stout black or maroon covers, so whether they were Henty, Captain Marryat or (my favourite) Hugh Lofting, they looked a pretty unenticing read.
In contrast the Adults’ Library was a bright and cheerful place, where Dad would be looking for something funny by Stephen Leacock or what he called ‘a good tale’, and Mam would be in Non-Fiction seeking her particular brand of genteel escape – sagas of couples who had thrown up everything to start a smallholding (gentlemen farmers in the making) or women like Monica Dickens who had struck out on their own. A particular favourite was William Holt, whose I Haven’t Unpacked was one of the few books Mam ever bought, and again it was escape – the story of someone brought up, as she had been, in a mill town but who had bought a horse and gone off on his travels.
This theme of escape, very strong in Wells and Priestley, tantalized my parents for much of their lives. Dreams of leaving I suppose they had, and I now share them, feeling myself as nailed to my table as ever my Dad was to his shop counter. They never did escape quite, though they made a shot at it just once when, towards the end of the war, my father gave up his job at the Co-op, answered an advert in the Meat Trades Journal and got a job working for a private butcher in Guildford. And in Guildford for a year we lived. Down South. And there were thatched cottages and mill-streams and children who called their parents ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ – the world I had read about in my books, and the world Mam and Dad had read about in theirs.
But, thatched cottages or no thatched cottages, they were not happy, and one miserable December night in 1945 the four of us got off the train at Holbeck and trailed disconsolately back to my grandma’s house and reality. It was another lesson that you should not believe what you read in books.
From time to time after this my mother’s hands would be covered in terrible eczema, the joints cracked open, the skin scaling away. ‘My hands have broken out again,’ she would say, and put it down to the wrong soap. But it was as if she was now caged in and this the only ‘breaking out’ she was capable of.
The few books we owned were largely reference books, bought by subscription through magazines: Enquire Within, What Everybody Wants to Know and, with its illustrations of a specimen man and woman (minus private parts and pubic hair), Everybody’s Home Doctor. No book, whether from the library or otherwise, was ever on view. Anthony Powell’s ‘Books do furnish a room’ was not my mother’s way of thinking. ‘Books untidy a room’ more like, or, as she would have said, ‘Books upset.’ So if there were any books being read they would be kept out of sight, generally in the cabinet that had once held a windup gramophone, bought when they were first married and setting up house.
This undercover attitude to books persisted long after I had grown up and had accumulated books of my own. I worked in the spare room, though it was never dignified as such and just known as the junk room. That was where the books were kept now, and there among the broken lampshades and bits of old carpet and hemmed in by the sewing-machine and the family suitcases I would set up a table and work. To begin with it was for my degree, then it was research in medieval history, and finally writing proper. But to my mother it was all the same: to her my life had not changed since I was fourteen and doing School Certificate, so degree, research or writing plays was always called ‘your swotting’.
As a young man my father had some literary ambitions, going in for competitions in magazines such as Tit-Bits and even sending in little paragraphs and being paid. By the forties his efforts were concentrated on one competition, Bullets, a feature of the magazine John Bull, the point of which was to come up with a telling phrase on a given topic, the phrase to be witty, ironic or ambiguous – in effect a verbal cartoon. Once he had regularly won small prizes, but though he went on plugging away during the war, and until the magazine folded in the late forties, he won only a few pounds.
I couldn’t get the hang of Bullets or see the point or the humour of the entries that won; they seemed like Tommy Handley’s jokes – everybody said they were funny, but they never made you laugh. If I missed John Bull when it closed down it was for its cover paintings, in particular the landscapes of Rowland Hilder – idyllic downland farms, beech trees against a winter sky – or the townscapes of deaf and dumb artist A. R. Thomson, as English as Norman Rockwell was American.
In later life my father was often ill and this started him reading again, only now his taste was much more eclectic and he would try any book he found on my shelves. Knowing nothing of reputation and just judging a book by whether he could ‘get into it’ or not, he lapped up Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, revelled in Nancy Mitford, but couldn’t take (at opposite extremes) Buchan or E. E Benson; Orwell he just about managed (‘though there’s not much of a tale to it’), and he liked Gavin Maxwell and especially Wilfred Thesiger. When he came to the episode in Ring of Bright Water where a Scots road-mender casually kills one of Maxwell’s pet otters with a spade he burst out, ‘Why, the bad sod!’
This phrase had a literary history and was something of a family joke. As a child Dad had been taken to the Grand Theatre to see Uncle Tom’s Cabin and in the scene in which Uncle Tom was being flogged by the overseer, Simon Legree, a woman sitting next to Dad in the gallery shouted out, ‘You bad sod!’ The actor playing Simon Legree stopped, looked up at the gallery, leered, and then laid it on twice as hard.
Towards the end of his life I had so taken it for granted that our taste in reading coincided that I forgot how shy and fastidious my father was and how far his world still was from mine. Though there may have been a priggish element of ‘I think you are now ready for this’ about it, I did think that when I gave him Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint he would find it as funny as I did. Always anxious to talk about what he had read, on my next visit home he never mentioned it, and I later found it back on the shelf, the jacket marking the twenty pages or so that he had got through before deciding it was pornography and not something for him, and by implication not something for me, though nothing was ever said. It was a miscalculation that mortifies me to this day.
My mother was more broadminded and might have found Portnoy’s Complaint quite funny, but Dad’s literary renaissance never infected her, and for years her reading was largely confined to Woman’s Own and in particular to the column written by Beverley Nichols, of whom she was a great fan. But seeing the Brontes frequently referred to in the Yorkshire Evening Post she began to persuade herself she had read them or perhaps would like to – maybe because (another escape story) if they hadn’t got away from their surroundings they had at any rate transcended them. So on a bleak February day in the late forties she and I took the Keighley bus to Haworth to see the famous parsonage. Not so famous then, Haworth was still happily unaware of its potential as a tourist trap, its situation on the frontiers of Last of the Summer Wine country far in the future. The place must have had some charm, but it looked to me like any other grim mill town and all I could think as we toiled up that long hill was that it must be even more dismal on a Sunday.
We were the only visitors to the parsonage that day, and it was as dark and damp as it must have been when the famous trio lived there. Ramshackle and unrenovated, it was, even for 1948, a decidedly eccentric museum, looked after by a lady who, if not actually a contemporary of the Brontës, seemed their sister in suffering. Objects around the house were only haphazardly labelled: the sofa on which Emily died, for instance, just had pinned to it a yellowing piece of paper that said starkly, ‘Sofa Emily died on’. Mam was horrified. The fireplace wanted blackleading and the curtains were a disgrace. ‘Too busy writing their books to keep the place up to scratch,’ was her comment.
Though this was long before the tasteful pall of heritage was laid across the past, the parsonage can have survived in this Victorian state only a few years longer. Had it been kept as it was then, it would today be in a museum itself, a museum of museums perhaps. It would certainly be more interesting and characteristic than the branch of Laura Ashley the parsonage is nowadays, though there’s not much doubt which Mam would have preferred.
My parents always felt that had they been educated their lives and indeed their characters would have been different. They imagined books would make them less shy and (always an ambition) able to ‘mix’. Quiet and never particularly gregarious, they cherished a lifelong longing to ‘branch out’, with books somehow the key to it. This unsatisfied dream they have bequeathed to me, so that without any conscious intention I find I am often including in plays or films what is essentially the same scene: someone is standing at a bookcase; it may be a boy with no education, not daring to choose a book, or a wife anxious to share in the literary world of men; it can be Joe Orton looking at Kenneth Halliwell’s bookcase and despairing of ever catching up, or even Coral Browne, idly turning over the pages of Guy Burgess’s books while being quizzed about Cyril Connolly, whom she does not know. One way or another they are all standing in for my parents and sharing their uncertainty about books. As for me, while I’m not baffled by books, I can’t see how anyone can love them ale loved books’). I can’t see how anyone can ‘love literature’. What does that mean? Of course, one advantage of being a gentleman farmer is that you seldom have to grapple with such questions.
Alan Bennett is a renowned playwright and essayist, whose screenplay for The Madness of King George was nominated for an Academy Award. He is also the author of The Clothes They Stood Up In and Writing Home. He lives in London, England