This weekend I read one of the pot luck books I picked up from the library – The Ocean At the End of The Lane by Neil Gaiman. I like choosing books I don’t know, just because I recognise the title or author or just because I like the front cover (and the library is much cheaper than all the books I’ve bought in book shops using the same method and have then never read!)
This ticked the last two points – I have heard of Neil Gaiman (I follow him on Twitter even) and I was intrigued by the cover. I first came across Neil Gaiman when a friend bought me one of his Sandman graphic novels as a teenager. Then I loved (although was creeped out by) his Doctor Who episode The Doctor’s Wife.
The Ocean at the End of The Lane is the first novel of his I have read. It creeped me out, too. Just one bit in the middle which I made the mistake of starting to read at bedtime. I had to switch to a Georgette Heyer and skip three pages in the morning.
It’s an interesting book, simply but compellingly written. It recounts an event from the childhood of the forty-something protagonist, which he recalls after revisiting his childhood house and a farm at the end of the lane. The telling of childhood was fascinating; viewing the world through the eyes of a seven-year-old. It also made me think a great deal about the difference between being seven thirty-odd years ago and being seven now. I kept thinking Oh he wouldn’t have been left to roam free like that, surely? And then I realise that I was, as far as I can remember. Certainly some time before I was eight (when I moved north – my childhood is bisected by that move) I roamed the fields, climbed trees, visited friends’ houses on our estate, all without taking much notice of where my parents were.
My memories of childhood are almost non-existant, apart from one or two key events. The book recreates that fluidity of childhood and memory with great authenticity. It also made me wonder what my children will remember. It’s so different now: their lives are recorded through photographs, video, school reports with images, social media, parents’ blogs. So many aides to memory. There are probably fewer than fifty photos of me between the ages of 0 and 16 in total. I can take that many of my chidren in a day.
Is it a good thing? Maybe we should be able to rewrite our childhoods, change our recollections at will. Like the protagonist in the novel, maybe our childhood memories are not entirely accurate, and maybe that’s necessary. Maybe we don’t want to be reminded of every tiny detail. Our lives are really only stories we write in our mind, with heroes and villains. The truth, as revealed by endless photographs, is bound to feel much more ordinary.
Mind you, all our photos are stored digitally. There’s a strong chance they’ll degrade over time and the children will only be able to retrieve fifty images in thirty-odd years time. And perhaps that will be just as well.