Faraway Train

Hilary Mantel

  • Flickerbook by Leila Berg
    Granta, 256 pp, £15.99, January 1997, ISBN 1 86207 004 0

The title of this writer’s autobiography is taken from Easy-to-Make Old-Fashioned Toys. ‘Flip-books, or Flickerbooks ... a series of sequential pictures or photographs put on separate pieces of paper, one after the other. When the book was flipped quickly through, the pictures would provide the illustration of a moving picture.’ Thatword ‘illustration’ ought, surely, to be ‘illusion’. One wonders how often a successful Flickerbook was achieved, even by the patient child. The theory’s fine, but in practice there would be great gaps in the sequence. It may be that all those games and tricks demanding superhuman patience, all those artefacts with tabs and slots and letters of the alphabet, requiring glue and paste and three right hands, all those infant pastimes which allegedly were easy enough for a previous generation, were in fact designed specifically by grown-ups to bring home to the young the shoddy, sloppy nature of adult life. They bore a message for you, those cardboard models that folded at a breath, those home-made ingenuities that wouldn’t stand up, or which disintegrated even as you applauded them. No matter how carefully you follow instructions, no good result is guaranteed: what you have on your hands may turn out to be wastepaper and blighted hope.

It is in fact the half-achieved and unsuccessful Flickerbook which is the correct model for the process Leila Berg has undertaken for her reader. Memory starts erratically; there is drift, hiatus. And what do they mean, those flashes of the world that are run through the consciousness of a three-year-old? Berg is good at conveying the synaesthesia of early childhood, where shapes have smells and sound has colour and colour has its resonant deeps: ‘Sidney’s mother is making me another frock ... It is a mauve frock, mauve, a funny sound, like a cow’s sound.’

Leila Berg was born in Salford, into a lower-middle class family with aspirations. Her mother had been a teacher, but had given up teaching to assume domestic responsibilities. Her father had been a teacher, too, but had pursued medical studies at night school and by her early childhood was registered as a family doctor. These cannot have been easy career paths, and the strain would be evident from her earliest years; this is not a family at peace with itself. It will be an urban childhood, where there are two kinds of birds, sparrows and pigeons, and where a fog can last for eight days. Her family is Jewish, and at first she is much preoccupied with finding out what this means. ‘Square bread is Christian ... Jewish bread doesn’t have corners.’ Again: ‘Christians beat boys and girls. Jewish people only beat boys. This is because they think only boys are important. But Christians think girls are important enough to beat too.’ She knows that she is not nearly as important as her brother Ellie, who is punished more but also indulged more; at least he is taken notice of. She puzzles over those areas in which women have no power, but are assumed to have responsibility. Why is it that when her little male cousin gets his socks dirty, she is held responsible? Who, in fact, does she belong to? Is she her own possession, or are some bits of her – her mind, for example – ceded to adults? She learns that withdrawing into private thought is called ‘sulking’. And: ‘Grownups don’t like you being quiet, or by yourself, or thinking.’

Berg has decided in favour of glimpses and vignettes, and against the smooth dishonesty of narrative connection. This approach will carry her from 1921, when she is three years old, forward into young womanhood. She is a writer whose books are either for children or about them. She is clearly fascinated by child development, and one could construct theories which claim for her special affinity with a child’s thinking, but her memories, though conveyed with elegance and passion, work much like anyone else’s. Writers often seem to have memories of childhood which are more acute than other people’s, but they are not necessarily more accurate; in fact, the more accurate they are, the less useful they become. Nothing is less successful than reminiscence bludgeoned into the shape of fiction, called to active service ‘because it is true’. Accurate recall is less desirable than an ability to make links, to weave in the particularity of one life to the pattern of all lives. Almost everyone likes stories about childhood, because they see themselves mirrored there. Children are very alike, and defined by their disadvantages. Their pleasure and pain have a universality that adult experience lacks, except perhaps when mediated through religion or art or mob violence.

Berg’s attempts to define her Jewish identity do not detract from the universality, since most of us belong to some sect or other, and have to learn the shibboleths and the unwritten rules. All the same, it is dismaying to find the blood libel alive and kicking in the schoolyard: ‘Three boys got hold of me in the school playground and said: “You drink baby’s blood, don’t you” ... When people keep saying you do things, you begin to think you do.’ This is 1924. The world is already beginning to look a dangerous place. Christian churches are hung with monstrous images of cruelty. In November a guy is burned:

I wanted to scream but I didn’t know how. Edna looked at me and said: ‘It’s only a guy. It’s made of rags.’ But it turned in the breath of the fire and it held out its hand to me, begging. Edna said: ‘It’s made of rags. It’s only fun. It’s because they burned a man years ago.’ But to do it! To remember, and to do it again! And to laugh!

Her inability to scream is mentioned on more than one occasion. She feels she does not know how. Those who can’t scream, can’t give warning. And yet she can see very clearly what there is to be afraid of. She can feel her father’s rejection even as a tiny child:

He snatches his hand away and throws his look at me as if he is throwing a stone. He hates me! My heart stops beating. I am frozen inside. Aunt Ettie says: ‘Oh look at her! You shouldn’t do that to her! She’s only three!’ Her voice is like a faraway train.

And Aunt Ettie, for all her quick perception and her pleading, will be as much use as a train that’s far away and pulling into the distance; for it is one of the routine tragedies of childhood that rejection can be understood long before it can be defined, long before its pain can be communicated. Fear, too, can dominate a life long before it can be explained to an adult. In any case, what words to use? The adult vocabulary is strangely-coloured. ‘Good means whatever makes grown-ups happy.’ And what is one allowed to know? What is one allowed to see? Leila panics one day at the sight of a woman doing textile repairs in a shop window: she is advertised as ‘The Invisible Mender’. Yet there she was, clear as day: should she mention this, or will adults be offended, is it a breach of some powerful convention? There are certainly some things one shouldn’t see – like fleas. They appear, somehow, only after they’ve been half-erased: ‘Is a flea a smudge, then? I can’t understand how it can’t have any thickness, but only be a smudge.’

Leila is thin-skinned; much as she wants knowledge, she shies away from the darker reaches of the human imagination:

I don’t want to see the story of Hansel and Gretel. I never have wanted to see it, ever since I’ve been little ... How can a father take his two children into a dangerous wood, and leave them there? On purpose? For ever? How can they make that into a book, and just leave it lying around for anyone to see suddenly?

It is the ‘suddenly’ that is important: the idea of a shock delivered to whatever myth one has cultivated about the world. Leila Berg’s impressionistic approach has the effect of concealing from us most of the adult motivations which surrounded her. She is not going to make sense of them: it is not the task she has set herself. Yet one is reminded of the novelist Gail Godwin’s words: ‘Behind every story that begins “When I was a child,” there exists another story in which adults are fighting for their lives.’ For Leila Berg then – and perhaps now – there is an essential discontinuity between the child’s world and the adult’s. She is disposed to believe that children are not only better than adults but a different order of moral being. This may be necessary as a foundation for her future trade. But it will strike some as a piece of sentimentality. As James Baldwin put it in Nobody Knows My Name, ‘children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models.’ That may be the brute reality of the situation: nobody ever gets a fresh start.

Leila Berg was a bright child, bright enough to be marked out through her childhood as scholarship material and to attend Manchester High School for Girls. By 1928 her family have moved to the prosperous suburb of Broughton Park. The quarrels are no less vehement, and as she drifts into adolescence she still sometimes seems mired in infant perplexity. Her teenage years are dominated by her increasing passion for music and the theatre. She can always find a refuge under the echoing dome of Manchester’s Central Reference Library, and at weekends Salford empties itself into the Derbyshire countryside. By sixteen or so, she has decided to be a writer. She avoids university, not seeing the point of it, and ends up at a dismal teacher training college from which she is expelled for trying to educate her fellow pupils in left-wing politics and taking them to a rally at the Albert Hall.

Her father persuades her into doing a journalism diploma at London University. She joins the Communist Party, and her first two lovers are killed fighting with the International Brigade. ‘They die so fast in Spain.’ Six short words can be worth a volume. Life seems to accelerate, but its content to matter less. The texture of experience coarsens. There is no longer time to measure every emotion. Those early loves were important, and everything that went with them. Now sex is what you give people to comfort them, because you know they might die. ‘I have had ten offers of marriage in as many weeks.’

The book ends with the outbreak of World War Two, and the swoop and wail of the first siren in the London streets. Afterwards ‘that monstrous howling still hangs in mid-air like a torn limp rag on a tree after a storm. On the bus everyone stares ahead, showing nothing, English-wise.’

It is probably wrong for Flickerbook’s publisher to claim a special status for it as a book which will change the way we think about childhood. It is a winning, frank and highly readable memoir which shows how successfully one may apply techniques of fiction to one’s own life. Our own childhoods are sustaining legends, unique to each person and yet common territory, and echoes of our innocent misunderstandings and rearrangements often resurface in adult life, puzzling us and throwing us off course: an insignificant word or action evokes a deep flicker of joy or dread. This is what Leila Berg has captured; not static images of childhood, but something of its process.