worlds of england
Tom, the central character of Jonathan Raban’s novel Waxwings (2003), is the child of East European immigrants living in Essex. When he reads Swallows and Amazons, he realises that England is “another country”. The street in which he lives is
not so much a part of it as a colonial dependency inhabited by an inferior people. The England of the books, the real England, began somewhere in London and stretched out westward from the city into a rich, dappled landscape of green hills, brambly footpaths, oak trees, and half timbered Tudor villages… (p127, my ellipsis)
The geographical and cultural interpenetrations of that kind of fiction–its landscapes & the “worlds” they encoded–were always more complex than Raban makes them seem. This is because it was a fantasy not just for its consumers but for many of the authors who wrote it; and in the end even for the very children who lived something like it, out in the brambly Shires. Having said that, Raban comes as close as anyone has come to describing my own relationship with the England of those kinds of children’s books. They informed the world of a quiet, alienated boy (whose family, entry-level middle class, went in awe of fake Tudor, let alone the real thing, & knew they could never aspire to it), not destined for grammar school or university but already trapped by the primacy of the written word & the culture of fantasy, or fantasy of culture. By the end of the 1950s I had already bought into writing as an escape from the housing estate, rather than an honest admission of what I saw & experienced. This gave rise to a set of internal contradictions & literary/political paradoxes which took two decades to resolve.