I had plans for this day, but they have been shelved. Suddenly the tree is not important, it can wait. The phone can ring, the inbox rest unopened. Even Elmer may take a back seat, though Iain Gray’s final performance as the Worst First Minister Scotland, thankfully, Never Had may be quite as gripping as all those that preceded it – viewing through spread fingers, listening with astonishment. The Labour Leadership farce of the last seven months should come to an end this week, and Elmer Fudd will leave the scene. But I came here not to talk about politics, not to whinge, but to share some joy.
The family slept in today, en masse, apart from me, me who had been awake for hours, but lost in a different world, one between the covers of a book you may not be surprised to find. The clock mattered not, even if I could have seen it without glasses, without tears. The book may need to be dipped into again, for some passages tugged at the heartstrings so hard that I know not if I really took in what I couldn’t clearly see.
For decades now I have read the works of William Horwood, enchanted first with his world of moles, and followed him into the skies with his eagles, the forests with his wolves, and more recently into the world of the Hydden. Horwood it was who was selected to write four volumes of tales to enhance those works of Kenneth Grahame a century ago, works that we all know as the Wind in the Willows. From Horwood’s pen the magic lives on once again.
Back in 2004 William Horwood published a memoir. It got much press comment at the time but, despite acknowledging him as a favourite writer I was not tempted. In fact I purchased the book just a few months ago, after I had replaced some early paperback volumes with hardback firsts, and I did so primarily to complete the collection. I hinted the other day that I was in the midst of something deep, but even then I knew not what lay ahead. My final session began around five this very morning, and could not end until the covers closed, no matter who may miss the school bus. But I finished, and they got the bus, breakfasted and dressed, and I slowly gather my thoughts. I have had a quick look at Horwood’s website, and I see there is an update in the offing.
The Boy With No Shoes was written third party, with changes of names to people and places. Initially it brought reason and insight to some of the magic of the world of Duncton Wood, and The Stonor Eagles. We learn how he slowly uncovered the world of medicinal plants, his knowledge of the seas and the tides. But more importantly we learn. And the sources of our learning may not be the expected ones.
Horwood was born in 1944. His memoir was published at the age of 60, telling how a five year old boy grew, taking us through the formative years into adulthood, times when writing was not on the agenda. We start with illiteracy and end with first class honours, but third class ambitions. We enter the world of a family that would now be labelled dysfunctional but then remained behind closed doors. He was 34 when he started to delve into his past, but it was decades later before he shared it with us. For Horwood it was a journey of healing, an essential trip, and for us, for me anyway, it is in education in itself. An education into understanding childhood, the responsibilities of being a parent, and the hope that wise words can make me, finally, a better one.
I am not going to tell you of the highs and lows that lie in those 400 or so pages. Not even of the importance of Granny and the worthies of the beach and the harbour; nor of the Menace of the Master at school – I thought here of Anthony Valentine’s performance as Major Mohn in Colditz – or of the effect such menace has on the innocence of youth. There was first love, shattered so cruelly, the same cruelty that marked so many stages of his young life.
Depression and despair; Darktime, and fear; mistrust, as people that knew better mishandled and destroyed; Love and hope. And finally an astonshing outcome, not for Horwood, but for others who again suffered so cruelly when they should not have done.
So as I set out to get an understanding into the delving of moles, the reasoning behind the settings in the Welsh mountains, the Kent coast, the book took me way beyond that. It took me further into the mole tunnels, and to rain and flooding. But more importantly it teaches me about family relationships, and needs, and responsibilities. Life really is too short.
A little lad had only one memory of his father, The Man Who Was, and his home had occasional visits from another, the Man Who Wasn’t. He had one pair of shoes, the only ones he owned and they had been given by his father, before the train came and the rain came. The shoes were removed and the boy was lost. Today the boy is a hugely successful author bringing joy to many. Perhaps it was his review of his early years that allowed the boy who could not read or write, to become so.
I see there is an update on his life in the offing, with The Man Who Feared Rain, and I hope that it does make it’s way to the bookshops, for I shall be first in the queue. And as for you, well even if you are but a stranger to Horwood’s various worlds, track down a copy of The Boy With No Shoes. Read it, and weep; I know I did. This book has a place in my book list. It is a place beyond my favoured reads of this year, a richly deserved slot all of it’s own, for I am trully touched.