I am taking you back to the month of May 1991. No doubt unless you experienced something significant in that month 30 years ago you won’t have a particularly strong memory of it.
But I have.
And do you know what? The weather in May 1991 was terrible. Cold, wet, unseasonal. (which is a foolish word if you live in the UK for seasons really are a seriously slippery commodity)And living in my Edwardian maisonette in SW14, I came to the conclusion that enough was enough. I had to get away. We had to get away. Coming home from school one day I said to my partner, let’s go to Crete for half term.
I knew nothing about Crete. But I had always felt drawn there for an undefinable reason. So, very randomly and naturally without the help of uninvented internet facilities, we booked a week and flew off a few days later.
That spontaneous holiday started my passion for Crete – my love for the island, the people and the language and shaped so much of what is intrinsically part of me now.
Again, quite by chance, we arrived midst the 50th anniversary ceremonies to mark the start of the Battle of Crete in 1941. And, in wonderfully casual style, drove in our hired jeep (I know – great on the uneven terrain we encountered on our mountainous journey across the island, but disastrous for the hair) to Souda Bay and were there for the service, rubbing shoulders with numerous dignitaries including the Duke of Kent. Security wasn’t exactly A Thing, you could say …
That very first Cretan visit, by chance during such a momentous week in their history, also introduced me to the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Literally, in fact. A few months after our return he had a new book coming out and we went to a reading and talk he gave at Waterstones in Kensington High Street. And we met him and talked to the charming, delightful man at some length about Crete and our mutual love of the place.
All these memories of May 1991 made me think of how so often I associate books I have read with the place I have read them in. And thus the books not only have an association, but also are imbued with emotions and memories of a particular holiday and time in my life.
The other day, I picked from my bookshelf my copy of The Loving Spirit, Daphne du Maurier’s first novel that I bought while on holiday in Cornwall staying in Fowey in the summer of 1991. It’s an early, rare edition that we found in a secondhand bookshop and as soon as I turn the pages images flood back. A particular and much-loved dress I wore that holiday, the restaurant we went to and, crucially, the overwhelming happiness I felt. Trawling back considerably further is my copy of Alice in Wonderland, a petite sized edition bought for me by my grandparents on a summer holiday in Devon.
And so it goes on. Mention Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way and I am on holiday alone in the south of France, loving the novel, the heat and beauty of the place, but feeling miserable and lonely. (whatever was I miserable about – I was 32 or 33, line-free, not an age spot in sight and with everything of importance still ahead of me!)
And it’s not just holidays that can be connected to certain novels. Simply mention Joanna Trollope’s name and it is 2am, 3am, 4am or some such nether hour of the early morning and I am breastfeeding my beautiful small son who spent the first year of his life thinking it essential that we have a drink and a chat on the hour every hour to break the tedium of sleep. Joanna Trollope’s so called aga-sagas were pivotal in ensuring I stayed awake long enough to complete the required feed and I will be forever grateful for her very readable and accessible stories and prose.
Everyone knows the famous adage A picture is worth a thousand words – which is very true, but, of course, a nightmare statement for any writer…
But equally the novels we have read play a big part in our own stories. The stories in our lives. We may well have forgotten the plot lines of those novels, but the context in which we were reading them is often sharply engrained and a source of reflection.