Part fictional, part not; reeled off between 9 and midnight tonight…
There were no books in our flat. Well, the entirety of Mum and Dad’s collections scarcely met the knee of my eight year old self. I availed myself with the generic romances of Danielle Steel and the sub-Kray crime thrillers Dad had left behind but never finished them; such was their lacklustre appeal or maybe my momentary concentration span. Until I joined the library, the last gratuitously decorative, arts and crafts glass-tinted, yellow-brick Carnegie in the neighbourhood and met Sue, I would have never been exposed to world behind my parochial station. Until perhaps, a laptop came along. I hope the fate of future “Sues” are not reduced to the sandwich of retina displays and motherboards but perhaps we already know the answer to that question. I knew from a young age there was only so much Mum could offer. Maybe this instilled snobbishness, maybe resentment. I don’t know.
Sue didn’t run a recommendation ‘club’ that was borough-mandated or the impetus of New Labour back-muscle; she was the consummate expert at the counter, the professional appreciator, the teacher after school but before a return home; the buffer, the air-lock and orientation before that held the disparity. It was born on the unshakeable philosophy that if someone could read, they could be free. Every available surface in the children’s section had been covered with this guiding principle, so that it almost became stifling: Forced to be free! To be fair, I don’t know if this was Sue’s doing. She first explained literary devices, verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, presuppositions and so on; I suppose simple ways of identifying fallacies and meta-tools to me. Things like that. It was never patronising. She always asked me what I thought when I returned a book she had recommended. I never felt I had an answer that was genuinely my own or at least good enough for Sue. When I felt like I had thought independently, it felt fragile, too delicate. She often laughed though not unkindly. I didn’t have to invent a persona day-by-day, just read and then ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’ and nod and smile in response.
It had begun with ‘The Hungry Caterpillar’ and a Geography project on the cattle farmers of the Amazon and the Gauchos of Argentina. I remember that, at least. From there, it had sprawled like crayons out of line into a D.K. illustrated encyclopaedia on butterflies, metamorphosis generally (Kafka would come), and various books on the Amazon: its inhabitants, its future, its necessity. She wouldn’t impose or indoctrinate so unsubtly as to give me Allende’s biography or Kropotkin or something utterly alien.
One afternoon, I asked if Thoreau must have felt sad living almost alone with his thoughts. She laughed at that too. I think she responded with that oft-quoted response: is it not better to be among the company of a few, desired friends than immersed in the thronging multitude of unwanted thousands? I said there were no woods to run to in this part of London. She sourced a book on Epping Forest. I’ve never visited it. Maybe I should have. Nobody would’ve taken me and besides, I only would’ve been liable to see druids, dogging and body disposal, not solitary-minded writers. After a while my pile grew steadily larger and I tried ever harder to impress Sue. She just kept asking me what I thought. In hindsight, she was incalculably important to what was possible, but I’m not sure I was anything more than another child to captivate. Not that this was a negligible status to take on, just not total reciprocity.
Her eyes were frequently found in a squinting rictus of blazing ultramarine just below a mat of silver, curling rivulets. Think of a Slavic Margaret Atwood and you’re more than two-thirds there. If this detail seems overwrought and unnecessarily poetic, her glasses (sixties-derived, in fact, probably from the sixties) magnified those fanning laugh-line tributaries bringing the top half of her head close to some computer-aided distortion, though not quite. On most of her cardigans (lint-lined, possibly cat hairs) there was a small black-and-white CND button badge. The white in the logo had yellowed and the pin had rusted to a blood orange.
My memory reduces her to the ageing hippy archetype she appeared to be and essentially was but, in retrospect, she was probably something more; too bad I couldn’t have had an adult conversation with her. I don’t know if she’s still alive. And if being sunnier and more self-assured, as I’m told is valued, comes at the expense of shaking off the very same complacent feeling that smashes stigma, exposes hidden avenues, new critical continuums then let me be a precocious eight year old reading Walden and Dr Seuss again, and have Sue being my so-called “Alan Yentob”: asking difficult questions, being an auteur, an editor and a voiceover on a life that has already seemed to have receded.
We eventually moved about an hour further out, into an even more removed patch of nominal London and I have never seen Sue since.