MY EARLY LIFE

(Explorers: 2008)

When I was a very small child my big sister and I used to play at climbing Everest. It was 1954, the triumph of Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing was still news. (We didn't know Tenzing Norgay's personal name, the private identity of the native guide was not part of the story in those days). I was two, my sister was five. We climbed, roped together with the clothes line, along the hall, up the steep and narrow stairs to the landing, up to the dressing table in my parents' room, which was the summit. There were never many photographs of me at that time. I don't think there are any surviving now, though there's a picture of my sister as a toddler, with a big almost bald head and a silk dress with real smocking. The smocking was important: I remember regarding her baby dresses as a sign of first-child status.



I have a blurred sense of the physical presence of that child, me: a stout little girl with deep-set eyes, over-large brow, round cheeks, fair hair curling into a drake's tail at the nape. I have a feeling of climbing the stairs hand over hand, breathing hard, interested in the trapped grit and the scratchiness of the pile. I can't know if that's an original Everest expedition record. Recovering memory so ancient is like trying to retrieve DNA from old bones. It's well nigh impossible to be sure there has been no contamination, over the intervening years. My mother tells me she used to find us climbing, and try to separate me from some of the expedition's baggage. I was laden, my big sister wasn't carrying a thing. Rosamund wouldn't allow it, and I defended her rights. "I'm the Sherpa, Mummy." I said. "I'm supposed to carry everything." My mother thinks this story is killingly funny. Me, I don't remember the exchange at all, but I still don't like being first or going first into anything. I cause jams in doorways when my minders try to usher me forward at literary events. I hurt the feelings of chivalrous gentlemen. It's not that I'm not sensible of the honour. It's visceral: I'm a middle child, I don't like that vulnerable position. My shoulders itch for the knives. . . It's funny that of we three sisters I'm the one who became the feminist, the dangerous radical, while the other two - trailblazers and rebels when I was conciliatory; always the good child - are fiercely traditional on the question of a woman's place in the scheme of things. My views make them furious -at least, I think they'd be furious. I avoid family confrontations on gender politics. I don't like confrontations (though I leave my contentious opinions lying around, like this, for anyone to read: evidently I'm conflicted on the issue). But I don't change my mind. I'm not good at changing my mind.



I spent my childhood in an atmosphere of privilege. We were minor aristocracy in the parish of Mount Carmel, Blackley, Manchester. (You say it Blakeley, by the way. The day I met someone who didn't know that without being told was an epoch in my life). We had bookcases full of books: my father's small library of pocket edition French novels, Lettres De Mon Moulin; Jacques Le Fataliste; the Desert Fathers, Henry Morton's In The Steps Of The Master; Keats's collected poems in blue cloth, the engravings protected by delicate tissue. They were all old books, shabby books, many of them treasured finds from my mother's lifetime of grubbing in the Old Book Stalls on Shudehill in the centre of Manchester. (the city centre tiny and grubby then, still ravaged by WWII bomb damage, the magnificent Victorian civic buildings still blanketed in a dignified soot-black from coal smoke). We had a piano. (My parents scrimped and saved to waste years of music teaching fees. We children were marginally talented but superbly, invincibly lazy). We had a tape recorder, as soon as the first domestic reel-to-reel machines appeared (we tried to record our hamster's heartbeat). We had the first television in our street. We didn't have much money, especially not after my father's accident. But we knew who 'the poor' were and they definitely weren't us. I wasn't in the least perturbed by the fact that many of 'the poor' in our neighbourhood seemed to have a lot more cash than we did. That was the way it was supposed to be. Shabbiness, in the ideal world of my books, was the ultimate sign of being the people who don't have to prove anything to anyone. My childhood was informed - given its psychic structure - by the golden age of children's literature. I read Swallows and Amazons, and Narnia. I read Elfrida Vipont, Frances Hodgson-Burnett, William Mayne, E Nesbit, Antonia Forrest, Elinor Lyon, Geoffery Trease. I absorbed, without question, the ethos of the ideal English middle class family which pervades that fiction. A family that inhabits a misty historical period in the last decades of Empire: modestly well-bred, devoid of material aspirations, delighting in hardship, gentle but wary in their dealings with lesser mortals; full of casual erudition about famous explorers, sailing, falconry, mountain climbing. . .



Lying on the musty carpet in the front parlour of my grandmother's house down in Blackley village, which was also my uncle John's bedroom ( in this model labourer's cottage, where seven children shared the four rooms with their parents, where indoor sanitation never arrived, and my grandmother still kept hens in the yard when I was small) I studied Mr Sherlock Holmes' adventures in damp, bound copies of the Strand magazine; and leaved through big blue volumes of Punch, which I only liked for the old-fashioned cartoons. I knew all the stories that the children in my library books knew, the same old jokes, the same great names. I followed the same code of behaviour. My experience seemed identical to theirs. I was very surprised when I reached Sussex University (which was, in the early seventies, a fashionable institution) and met the contemporary versions of my role models - modestly gilded youths who might really, as children, have crewed the Swallow in their holidays from boarding school, or visited Narnia through the wardrobe in an empty room, in some labyrinthine country house. I was surprised because they didn't recognise me. They were puzzled by the fact that I didn't speak working-class heroine. My accent placed me in the class structure -as accents did and still do in this country- but my idiom was bizarrely at odds with the obvious truth. It was in those days that I learned to call myself 'poor' and 'working class', greatly to my parents' disgust -my parents, who knew what poverty was, and had fought against its evils all their lives. I knew it was a nonsensical description. I have always had plenty to eat. I have always slept warm and dry (except when on adventures of my own choosing). I can read and write. But it was socially necessary. Periodically, since then, I find myself stumbling again into this uneasy position. Was I poor or was I rich, when I was a little girl? Shall I present myself as a goosegirl with a scholarship, or as a declasse princess, a sort of Mancunian Tess of the D'Urbevilles? It depends very much on whom I'm talking to. . . I've encountered British writers of my generation, from the Indian subcontinent, who describe a curiously similar problem: childhood affections permeated by the cast-off rituals of an alien culture -Huntley and Palmers biscuits, Bluebird Toffees, Johnners' cricket commentary, Childrens' Favourites on the radio, Hancock's Half Hour. People who grew up to discover that their psychic identity is built on a totally spurious sense of belonging, a whole history of false memories. It's strange, but in the end I find I like the compromise. A real 'sense of belonging' - of unearned and unassailable privilege- would be a serious embarrassment. A fake one is fine.



When we used to climb Mount Everest, my sister and I shared the back bedroom. It overlooked the small dank yard we called our back garden, with the coal shed and a brick-built outhouse which held an outside toilet and a stone floored wash-house. These small, solid Edwardian terraced houses were built before running water moved indoors: my mother remembered regular mangle clinics at the local hospital, for the peculiar injuries inseparable from washing day. Rosamund taught me to stare at the light bulb on winter mornings, until when I looked away there were coloured horseshoes flying everywhere. We used to chase them and try to catch them in our slippers. She was a leopard, associated with the leopard in Just So Stories but lolloping instead of dignified. The leopard was always apologising for the mayhem it caused: good grouch, it's in grouches . When there were three of us she, as the oldest, moved into the tiny 'spare' room next to the bathroom, and my younger sister Jacinta and I shared the back room. Life revolved around the obsessive constructions of string with which I tried to divide our separate territories -to no avail. Rosamund had never had that problem with me, I knew I was the subaltern. It was very unfair. And Jacinta was often ill, not in dull fits of bronchitis but in spectacular bursts. The night that she went down with mumps everybody rushed around and took her off to be comforted. They forgot about her bedding. I was left with an eiderdown full of vomit rolled over the end of my bed. I remember sitting shivering and looking at it in the half dark, utterly disgusted. It is a desperate memory: having nowhere to go, no space of my own.



There was a drainpipe outside the window (there still is). On rainy windy nights, when everything out there was glistening black, I knelt and stared, (trying to pretend my sister didn't exist) at a vista of roofs, chimneys, red brick walls, stone cobbled alleys, glowing street lamps. I wanted to climb out in my pyjamas: down the pipe, over the gate, into the alley and off into the wild world. Wet darkness, slate roofs and cobbles. I put that odd image of freedom into my first published book. Typically, I trapped it in a story in which the girl escapes only in order to learn better, and comes back to cope with everything. That's what happens when you cannibalise your fantasies into fiction. Resolution, story-teller's demon, gets at them and they're never the same.
Later still we three girls shared the big front room. Our parents moved into the back room and our brother, the boy, had a room of his own. I wonder if his take-over still rankles Rosamund's breast? I expect it does. In her fiction and her journalism Rosamund promotes the ancient tradition of man-worship, but she treats my brother David like an honorary human being: I've never seen any sign of her worshipping him. I spent important winters in that big room when I was eleven, twelve, thirteen. When I was ill I had it to myself all day, and I was ill (my dull bronchitis) for weeks at a time. The giant crayoned cats I drew on the walls, in the alcove where my bed stood -the winter I was twelve, and succumbed to one of my fits while the room was being redecorated-must still be there, under layers of wallpaper. (The new owners, or the developers, will find them, now the house is sold). The dressing table that had been the summit of Everest was still there. It survived until after I'd left for Sussex: smelling of old talcum powder, shorn of its triple-mirrors; the veneer coming away from its bulbous curved drawers. It was Utility furniture. No matter how battered, it would never surrender.


It's all gone now. The only furniture that survived, from my first world to the end, was Daddy's desk (it will be gone by the time you read this, to a house clearence dealer). It held the Italian picture book of Pinocchio, a printed book in which the words, most improperly, were not in print but in looping joined-up writing; a French language text book about a jolly French family, a children's story book of the same vintage Fleure Du Coquelicot, L'Orgueilleuse. A postcard from Assisi, 1944, grey cracks of age across the turquoise blue sky above the Basilica; cigarette cards bound in withered elastic bands, British Trees In Winter. The rent book from the flat my parents lived in when they were first married (the figures involved already awesomely small before I left home). Baby cards for the first born. Daddy's WWII Campaign medals... The campaign medals were not loved. They later migrated to the shoe-polishing drawer in the kitchen. Which was appropriate, given the military perfection of my father's shoe-polishing, his prowess in a range of domestic tasks: boots scraping, potato peeling; beds made with knife-edge hospital corners. My father must have spent a lot of time, I deduced eventually, on punishment detail. (I now think he picked up his skills earlier. . .) But if he did, he didn't mind it. He liked the work. I know this not only from the evidence of his beautiful skills, but because I had the same experience myself at Notre Dame Convent Grammar School. I was always being thrown out of the ladylike Domestic Science classes and sent to work for the nuns in the proper kitchens next door. I was very happy there, scrubbing vast pans until they shone, while the sisters hulled the seeds out of glowing heaps of rosehips for the winter supply of rosehip syrup. Domestic skivvying was the kind of obsessive, muscular work I could appreciate; and I loved the nuns. They loved me too. They forgot that I was being punished and could never understand why the Domestic Science teacher hated me with such passion. (They'd have had more sympathy for her if they'd ever tried to teach me to sew a broderie anglaise blouse).



My father was in Signals. We had a periscope from a German tank that he'd brought back from the desert, it was a splendid toy. He made sergeant six times (according to legend: remember, all of this is legend, with the same confused, partisan, romanticised relation to the past as any other recorded history); but never kept his stripes. Your father my mother used to say just was not army material. They tried hard to use him, because they could see he was worth something. But they couldn't.
My mother met my father at a Labour Party rally at All Saints, Manchester, when she was sixteen and he was twenty-six. . .
[The more colourful version I knew through my childhood &recorded by me in 1996, where they "met on an anti-Franco march" and she was fourteen, has been shelved. My mother, I realise, now that she's old and childish, and no longer able to protect herself, has always had an audacious and shocking taste for fabulation. If there'd been alien abductions going around, in her milieu in the nineteen thirties, believe me, she'd have been snatched from her bed by Small Greys. They both told me the All Saints version in February of 2006, and I think it's probably the truth, a treasure snatched from oblivion.]
She fell in love at that first meeting, found out that he spoke for the Catholic Evidence Guild and joined him on the soapbox front: facing down hecklers, testifying her witness. They were a courageous pair, always. She was a first generation grammar school girl. The nuns wanted her to go to Cambridge, but she decided to train as an infant teacher instead (or so my mother has it). He was a garment cutter, and a trade unionist. When the war broke out my mother was evacuated from college in Liverpool to Worth Priory in Sussex. She passed on to me a dream of beechwoods, wildflowers; the secret curves of the green downs. In 1940 my father sent her a Valentine's day greeting by telegram. She was hauled to the principal's office and it was solemnly read out to her. On Corpus Christi the traditional flower-decked altars were set out around the priory grounds. The girls thought they heard thunder and were afraid the flowers and the procession would be ruined: but an old monk said, no that's not thunder. That's the big guns in Flanders. I remember the sound from last time. The guns never stopped then, all those hot early summer weeks, night and day, getting closer. The Home Guard came to tell the girl students what to do in case of invasion. They were to carry pepperpots in their purses. If a German soldier attacked you, you were to shake the pepper in his eyes. My mother says she was terrified.
After Dunkirk the invasion threat was so real that the evacuees were sent back to Liverpool, just in time for the big bombing raids. The Catholic Teacher Training College on Mount Pleasant wasn't far from Liverpool docks: not a healthy location. She was put on the train to Manchester in her nightdress once, after a night that had been so bad there was nowhere for the students to go, no clothes for them to wear, and no quicker way of letting parents know that their daughters were still alive. My father worked as a hospital orderly until he was conscripted. He never fired a shot in anger except that once, when he was guarding Italian prisoners with 'one up the spout' as regulations required, he tripped and sent a rifle bullet through his colonel's tent. The colonel escaped unharmed. He learned Italian from his prisoners. It came in useful later. He sent postcards from Italy, the Dolomites, Austria. He camped in the foothills of Vesuvius, and remembers they were not allowed to eat melons, because the fruit ripened lying in foul water and it would give you dysentery. He taught us Morse code, or tried to: we were too lazy. All I can remember is SOS: ditditdit dadada ditditdit, (the trivial mobile phone message code, sic transit gloria.) And you identify yourself at the start and end of any transmission: always. Log on, log off. As long as she was in charge of her own life my mother still answered the phone by announcing her number, clearly and distinctly. I did the same myself for years until I was finally laughed out of it, but I was uneasy ever afterwards. It was a great relief to get an answering machine and revert to something like proper Signals etiquette.



The record itself is not significant. The material objects and the memories have been sifted like fossils in the rock beds: preserved, deformed, destroyed by purely mechanical processes. Somebody has cleared out the desk from time to time: tackling the first strata with discrimination and then surrendering to inertia, throwing things out or stowing them back according to the convenience or otherwise of their size and shape; according to whether or not the waste bin was full. One could create an image of the probability of a baby-card's survival, it would be a swirl of false-coloured convergence determined by factors so slight and so multifarious as to defy reason: randomness is complexity in disguise.
When I was a child science was incapable of describing such ordinary phenomena. At my school physics and chemistry were taught by men, which was already an admission of defeat in that proudly academic female world. And then, a male teacher who was teaching science at a girls' school in the sixties had abandoned hope on his own account. They were a miserable crew and our lessons in hard science were a painful farce. At best we wrote down manifest untruths about experiments that had failed to behave as they should. Any curiosity I had about how the world works (and I thought about such things a good deal, by natural inclination) had no place in the labs. Pure speculation only happened in religious lessons, and metaphysics was the nearest I came to understanding what sort of thing physics might be. Biology was the exception. It was taught by a woman, a large formidable woman in a vast greeny-black academic gown, called Mrs VanderKoen (I don't think that's spelled right). I was good at Biology. There was nothing alluringly weird and extreme about it, no Theories Of Everything. But I liked the way it fitted together, the nestling of shape on shape and function on function: nitrogen fixation, photosynthesis; the reproduction of seedless plants; haploid and diploid forms.

I climbed Everest when I was two. Before I was five I had became a member of the Clover Club. This was a select association, comprising my older sister, myself and three other girls, the twins Josie and Clare and their little sister Christine; the children of a friend of my mother's who lived two streets away. My mother's friendship with Mrs Brunt was a friendship of circumstance, more than like-mindedness. Ours was the same. For as long at the circumstance of being neighbours lasted we moved as one. We went to the same schools and the same church. We were allowed to play out on our own, on Rosamund's responsibility, until sunset on weekdays and all day Saturday if the weather was fine. We played make-believe games based on Narnia and on the first children's television dramas: William Tell, Robin Hood. We fought physical and painful battles with our enemies (broadly speaking, the children in our streets who were not going to pass a vital public exam called the eleven plus). I remember, in glimpses, that some of the fantasy games were intense. But above all we were explorers.

We made our first (outdoor) expeditions on an expanse of waste ground behind the houses opposite ours, known as The Tip. It was a desolation of rubble and twisted metal, drowned in thickets of rosebay willowherb and aromatic mugwort in the summer, bare heaps of builders' waste and smouldering rubbish in winter. Interesting fragments sometimes emerged from the wrack: charred pages of magazines with pictures of fat naked women in them. The landscape of my part of Lancashire is a maze of wet grooves in damp moorland. In the valleys, alders and willows grow, and the black poplars, planted at the turn of the twentieth century, childhood friends, that are dying and being chopped down right now. In our valley Blackley village proper lay in the depths, with the ICI dyeworks and the Co-op biscuit factory its chief landmarks; surrounded by the grim, packed streets that crawled out from the centre of Manchester. Here stood the slums you'll find described in hideous detail in Friedrich Engels "The Condition of the Working Class in England". When I was a child the current slum housing in the Irk valley, stopped just short of my familiar streets: like an outworn infection surviving in a milder form). The Tip occupied the slopes between the village and our houses, extending beyond The Incinerator, the rubbish-burning blockhouse whose foul red-brick chimney towered on the border of our territory; and into the iron- stained swampy bed of a stream that ran into the river Irwell.
Industry has been established in these valleys, where the water is pure and plentiful, since before the steam revolution. I suppose it was the water in the Irk and the Irwell that first encouraged the dye-works. In the days of the Clover Club the ICI was a vast monster that hissed and steamed and belched and stank, making the river run orange and green and blue; creating the most splendid, choking, terrible winter fogs. An expedition to the stinky pipes from our house was our first grand exploration. The Tip valley was perilous. It had an evil atmosphere. The houses were out of sight, the slopes were steep all round you; and it was uncannily still. Even the plants were strange, at least we thought so. We were afraid of sinking into the iron-red swamp. We roped-up to cross it. Once we found the shell of a tortoise, minus its occupant. Once when I was five we thought we'd found a dead horse. The others sent me to investigate. . . In fact I volunteered, because I wanted to be called the bravey of the gang. It was a horsehair sofa someone had dumped. But it had presence: it frightened me.
For relaxation we went to Clover Wood, where another, relatively clean stream ran under Rochdale Road from the public park called Boggarthole Clough (a clough, pronounced cluff, is a wooded valley. When I realised there were people who did not know that word, it was another epoch). The pitiable children who were not explorers made cardboard-box slides on the red sandy hill that ran down to the stream. We liked to slide too, but we had better things to do. We built dams and camps and huts of old bricks, making a mortar out of red sand and water that was satisfyingly realistic as long as it stayed wet. Later there was Damhead farm, two miles up the road towards Middleton, Rochdale and Saddleworth moor (where the Moors Murderers were just then burying their victims). In those days this land was still quite rural. Sometimes we trekked out there on foot, sometimes we took the bus and didn't start being explorers until we got off. We were naturalists, like Darwin on the Beagle. We collected specimens from the old mill pond, fresh water mussels, sticklebacks; we went in mortal terror of the big fat horse-leeches. We were archaeologists and dug up cows' teeth, we were thrilled if we spotted a rabbit. In June, for Whitsuntide, the meadows were full of buttercups and daisies and sorrel: gold and white and red. In September there were masses of blackberries. Sometimes the fields flooded, and we went rafting.
Whatever we were doing and wherever we went, we carried rations, first aid, a torch and rope. We made maps. We had meetings in the wash-house, and kept up the Club logbook (not very well, we were too lazy). My sister made rules about the type of food that could be classed as rations. Anything smuggled from a meal was disqualified. We semi-stole, like Spartan boys: taking biscuits from the larder and handfuls of sultanas from the blue sugar-paper bags that came with the weekly grocery order from the Co-op. First aid was an aspirin bottle full of Dettol, and some clean rags. When we were older my uncle John, my mother's youngest brother, took us on more ambitious expeditions. He introduced us to cooking outdoors, cold stews full of rock hard potatoes. There were plans for real camping with him, which never happened (to my relief). Once we made an expedition that took us the length of the Rochdale canal.
Our zeitgeist had been nostalgic from the moment of its creation. We were pretending to be the children in our library books: children in fictions invented by middle-aged men, who wrote to repair the damage that had been done to them by the British Middle Class childhood they described so lovingly. We put on the masks and danced the dance of our powerful, vanished ancestors: Scott, Nansen, Cook, Darwin, Amundsen, Hilary, Shackleton. But while we enacted this mourning ritual we lived in a world where the great expedition was still in progress. We hated the signs of our species' territorial expansion, the new housing estates which we saw exclusively in terms of playgrounds robbed and despoiled. We saw no connection between this activity and our play. And yet it was the same. There was still territory unmapped then, over the horizon. One could go further and find more. My mother, who loved the future, believed that the expedition would never end. When we were on holiday in Arthur Ransome territory, in the English Lake District, she pointed out the towers of Windscale Nuclear Power Station*, and told us that the dragon had been tamed. It would work for us now. There would be more and more leisure and beauty, university education and piano lessons for everyone, until we reached the stars: and still on, more and more.
She followed the Apollo programme passionately (though she didn't neglect the Russians, she was not partisan). In July 1969 we had an all-night party at my house. This was the pinnacle of teen-rebel wild dreams in Mount Carmel parish, and it was my mother's idea, which staggered our contemporaries. It was the strawberry season. In those days there were still seasonal gluts, they were dirt cheap and we had mounds of them. We had strawberry fights at midnight. By three am the survivors were lying comatose, wrapped in blankets. My mother went round shaking people awake: you've got to see this, this is important. So the explorers witnessed the event that seemed to be a beginning, and which now feels like the beginning of an end. My friend Stan Robinson has written a story (it's in his collection Remaking History) in which securely established lunar colonists, in an alternative near-future, rehearse the twists of history, little right-turns instead of wrong, that made twenty-first century amateur dramatics on the moon possible. Stan's optimism moves and amazes me. I wish I thought it was that easy: a few nips and tucks to alter the whole massive weight of two million years, the territorial imperative on its pre-programmed mission to implode. I think of a different story (call it the British variation), in which the inadequacy of those first steps becomes manifest not over sad decades but on the trip itself. The dreadful mistakes that (as we watched among the squashed berries) nearly destroyed my mother's festival have not miraculously compounded themselves into success. The disaster has happened. There is no possibility of rescue. The shipwrecked mariners have survived their crash landing to endure, patiently, to the inevitable end. Somebody, doesn't matter who, records a last message: it seems a pity, but I do not think I can talk more... Imagine us all crouched around our tvs, listening to the dying spaceman, trying to make out the grainy blue images. Now that would be true romance.

When I was five my parents took us on our first holiday to the English Lakes, where they'd spent their honeymoon. Then and for years later we children pored over the maps in the Swallow and Amazons books, never managing to work out that Ransome's lake was neither Windermere -where we stayed- nor Coniston, the next lake along to the west; but a combination of the two. While we doggedly struggled to identify fictional landmarks, I fell in love. Like a prince in a fairytale I had fallen in love with a picture, and loved the picture's original on sight. It wasn't my only passion. At home in Blackley I fell in love with a row of black poplars that stood opposite the church of Our Lady Of Mount Carmel where we went to Mass on Sunday. They had ropey, knotted black trunks like hanks of tarry twine. Their leaves were yellow and heartshaped, in spring their masses of purplish catkins fell and drifted in the roadside puddles. The day they were cut down I was as heart-broken as I will ever be in my life: my aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled; quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun, are felled, are all felled.
I fell in love with places, with mountains, with living things, desperately and hopelessly in love, long before I was considered old enough to be interested in boys. This is the fate of imaginative children who are protected from what people call the facts of life. Emotional pathways are opened to other stimuli, a deep and over-subtle understanding of passion develops too soon. By the time I emerged, at fifteen or sixteen, from the segregation that I'd accepted without the slightest resistance, I was incapable of finding human courtship rituals romantic You buy me this, I let you do that. It made sense, fair enough, supposing I wanted to venture into any of the many situations where an unaccompanied female would be uncomfortable. But only a fool (thought I) would get sentimental over such blatant horse-trading. I would grow up bemused by the whole role that that is said to be feminine.
I wasn't an easy convert to feminism. My mother, my sisters, the teachers at my schools, had been telling me what to do all my life. When I eventually met the women's movement, I was not impressed by the revelation that women are powerful. I did not hate my mother, or fear to become her. Far from it! I admired her probably more than was good for me. But I did not agree that women were gentle, wise or morally superior creatures. This was not my experience, for whom women had been most of the world. When I was young I could say, along with many women of my generation, single-sex educated, taught to aspire without limit, just like boys: I don't know much harm of men. I never had much to do with them. But women have oppressed me plenty. . . There were no boys in the Clover Club, though we fought a campaign or two with those boys who were not going to pass the eleven plus. We were enacting supposedly masculine fantasies, but that didn't worry us in the least. In the golden age, between two world wars, misogyny was in abeyance in children's fiction. Nobody called Captain Nancy Blackett maladjusted, because she liked to wear shorts and was the captain of her own ship. Nobody cheeked Mate Susan either: or showed anything but respect for her domestic arts and steely control over the commissariat. When I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, I grieved over the metamorphosis that I believed was inevitable. I was convinced that one day (my periods had started, without having any effect on my mind, but I supposed it would happen soon) I would turn into a woman.
But I never did. It was too late, the wiring was no longer malleable. The ideals of the story books -courage, wit, achievement, endurance, pugnacity, the devotion to adventure- were mine forever. It was too late to become a girl, I had no desire to be a boy. I had to be a person. I continue to resist the culture of feminism, whenever it slides into gender nationalism. I can't share the resentment of the oppressed. . . I found out plenty about misogyny later; and I'm still learning. But childhood is what matters, and in my childhood I accepted the social restrictions imposed on a girl, while feeling my self to be not a girl but an explorer: an artist, a fantasist, a hero. What I learned, maybe the most deeply imprinted lesson, was displacement. If we are defined as Plato thought by what we desire, by what we lack, then the black poplars have something to do with it; and Lake Windermere; and the gleaming, cold rainy night outside my bedroom window. I am what I lack. I am what I long for and cannot have. I am the thing that knows it is separate. I begin to think that displacement -having no place to call your own- is the state of self-consciousness itself.

Windermere is a playground for the masses. And good luck to them, by the way, but I won't be sorry when they decide to take themselves off somewhere virtual for their fun. My Blackley playgrounds have vanished under housing development: even the dreadful valley of the tip. The Incinerator is no more. The ICI European dyeworks, our awful, majestic neighbour, is no more (there's a new housing estate on the site now). Childhood illness makes writers out of people who spend too many formative weeks lying in bed, becoming addicted to idleness and isolation. Maybe the ICI made an artist out of me. I've returned the favour unconsciously I'm sure, many times. More than once I have consciously made art out of the ICI, transposing the stinky pipes and their meaning into science fiction scenery, to make some point or other. I wonder if the people who live in the new houses in the tip valley ever feel uneasy, the way we used to feel; and how long before the swamp reasserts itself in seeping walls and mouldering timbers? I wonder how it feels to be someone whose first world did not disappear. Someone for whom the streets and paths and trees and rivers remain as they were, who can return as an adult to the territories of childhood. It would have been no use for me to promise, like Yeats, never to leave the valley where I was born. The places left me.


When I was two I climbed Everest. When I was eight I climbed Kanchenjunga, the mountain the Swallows and Amazons tackle in their great climbing expedition in Swallowdale. This should have been Coniston Old Man, but debatable fictional geography allowed us to make it Wansfell Pike, a miniature Matterhorn that conveniently rises right above the streets of Ambleside, our holiday town. When I was fifteen, on the last and greatest expedition of the Clover Club (reduced to me and our beloved leader, my big sister), I climbed Hellvellyn and tackled Striding Edge in a blizzard. I discovered, particularly on an awesome forced march over the Black Sail pass and through Ennerdale Forest and back in the same day, that I was no longer weakly. I could hike twenty odd hard mountain miles in vile conditions; and get up and do it again the next day; and the next. I could do it. But I did not like it. I didn't like the cold. On that expedition I decided it was time for the Ethiopean to move into different spots, no matter what the leopard thought of the idea.
The first mountain I climbed after climbing Everest up our stairs was Wansfell Pike. I made my first independent journey, all alone, when I was eleven, and took the train from Manchester Piccadilly to visit my Auntie May in Heald Green, a genteel suburb to the south of the city. I was wearing my mother's idea of eyecatching best clothes for a young girl: a blue wool cape with green and blue plaid trim and a matching deer-stalker hat. I was a short, plump, pasty child with mousy hair, National Health spectacles and a habitually, comically preoccupied expression. I felt, with justice I believe, that eyecatching was the last thing a person like me wanted in their clothes. But explorers don't argue. They endure the burdens of social life, and make escape plans. I rode back from my visit in the dusk, alone on a train for the second time in my life. One day, I promised myself, I will be on a train like this, but it will be in Sumatra. I kept the promise. My next mountains after the Clover Club's last expedition were in the tropics. Gunung Batur, Bromo, Kinabalu. Beautiful Arjuna, who defeated us. One day - one night - fifteen years after my maiden voyage to Heald Green, I put down Naipaul's The Mimic Men, which I had bought on a second hand bookstall in Singapore. I got up from my place in our first class compartment (it was First Class only, on the night train from Panjang to Perembulih) and went down to the end of the carriage. The door was open. I watched a light-painted rectangle of wet greenness, banana fronds and palms rushing by. But I was elsewhere, remembering.
I have never escaped. The world is too small, and there are too many people. Any time that I've struck wildly out into trackless jungle, which happened, quite literally, rather often, in my travelling years, it has been to find myself stumbling into somebody's back yard; and to be instantly surrounded by people who might as well be my Manchester relatives, offering me tea and forcing me -in the nicest possible way- to make polite conversation. Like the girl who always appeared in my early stories, I accept the constraints of resolution. This is the end the music demands, this is the way it has to be. My mother's great dream of escape ended in July 1969 (I wonder if there'll be a lunar colony before I die? I think the jury's out on that). Territorial expansion is over, the whole planet is our campground. There are no more manly adventures into the unknown, only the women and children, searching ever farther afield for water and fuel, in the desolation that surrounds our fires. But there is still room, within the mediaeval envelope that once more hems us in. There are worlds opening with dazzling complexity in the interstices of the cramped design. I tell myself that we were explorers. An explorer is an emissary, not a colonist or pioneer or an invader. Explorers don't set out to sever themselves, to go and never come back. They remain bound to the past, to the people and the places at the start of their journey. They go to find whatever there is to be found; and return to tell the tale. I can still do that. I can't return to the urban countryside where I grew up. But I can still explore, and tell the story of what I've found.
At home in Manchester there's a picture of a jungle scene-
[Not any more, I rescued it, it's restored, and hanging in our Brighton basement now]
-executed in powder paint on dark, coarse sugar paper, now crumbling with age. It used to be framed on the wall above the kitchen door until the frame started to fall apart. I believe that I truly remember painting that picture. I must have been seven at least, I think I was eight. . . I stood in front of my easel in the art room at St Joseph's Convent Blackley (long gone) and laid those long, wiggly petals of the giant daisy in the foreground, smoothly onto the paper. I remember deciding to add the small kangaroo who flies through the upper air with such elan, paws tucked protectively around the joey in her pouch... A memory is a living thing, holding within itself the history of its own evolution. The original of any experience of the world is buried in the heart of its most complex development. Whenever I put my hands on these keys, to devise a sentence with pleasure and care, the thread reels out unbroken: the little girl who painted the jungle lifts her brush again. I am the child I was.