Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The Past is Another Country

They do things differently there.

Those have to be some of the most famous words in English fiction, and yet I can confidently say that hardly anyone can tell you where they come from.

L.P Hartley's The Go-Between was published in 1953, in a time when most people were looking forward - away from the terrible wars, away from the dingy sepia past and into the world of tomorrow where everything would be wipe-clean and Formica and we would all eat pills for dinner.

Out of step with this headlong rush into the unknown future, The Go-Between peers back, half-longing, half-bewildered, into the time before the world wars. The story is told as the recollections of a lonely, middle-aged man, who has never quite been able to shake himself free of that 'other country', one long hot summer when he went to stay with a friend in an upper-class household in the country.

Ignored by the grown-ups, left alone by his friend, he is press ganged into carrying messages for the daughter of the house, for a reason he can hardly understand, to the local tenant farmer.

I can't say any more - that would be spoiling! - but it's unforgettable. You're going to have to take my word on that. It's disturbing, haunting, melancholy and beautiful, and full of the confusions and embarrassments of childhood.

"To my mind's eye, my buried memories of Brandham Hall are like effects of chiaroscuro, patches of light and dark: it is only with effort that I see them in terms of colour. There are things I know, though I don't know how I know them, and things that I remember. Certain things are established in my mind as facts, but no picture attaches to them; on the other hand there are pictures unverified by any fact which recur obsessively, like the landscape of a dream."

I've taken a lot of inspiration from this book over the years, but it's more than just a source book or a place to go for pithy quotes; it's really, genuinely moving, and I unreservedly recommend it to anyone looking for a good read this summer. 

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