I heard it said once that in the subconscious it is always now and that seems true to me. Some experiences are so vivid that even years later we have only to close our eyes and we are right back there re-living those moments in all their intensity. They wait for us like tigers stalking the borders of our consciousness.
The night before last, for example, I found myself sitting up in bed, disorientated and panting, adrenalin rushing through my system, as a nightmare subsided, not once, not twice but five separate times.
I am a very happily married man. Indeed I may be the most happily married man in the history of happily married men. I have two grown up daughters whom I dote on and who are very kind to me. I own a nice house in London and I’ve even got an allotment* where I can lose myself in the natural world. Nevertheless, there have been plenty of dreadful moments in my life, as I’m sure there are in everyone’s.
One of the places I regularly return to in my dreams is the secondary school I attended as a teenager. Run by Jesuit priests who maintained discipline with a rubber strap, and policed by a system of organised bullying, it was seven years of sheer hell. My only escape was to lose myself in Latin poetry and English composition. I was never happier than the day I left . Yet when night falls, I regularly find myself transported there once again, walking its dusty corridors, inhaling the scent of male sweat, chalk dust, school dinners and fear.
But those corridors are also one of the first places I look when I need a new idea for a story. Not that my novels are all nightmarish. By no means. The one I’ve just finished is essentially a comedy. But you have to have a little sorrow to mix in with the laughter. It’s like salt. Without it, nothing tastes right.
Take a story like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s essentially a romp, an entertainment. Nevertheless, it begins with an orphaned boy shut in a cupboard by his adoptive parents, picked on, bullied and abused. Everything that follows – Hogwarts, Hagrid and the whole box of tricks, devolves its emotional charge from that initial situation.
In my opinion, to make a story work you have to put in some of your own tears. Even if you shed them years after the event sitting up in bed in the middle of the night.
That’s why I’m a children’s writer, I suppose. I never really recovered from my own childhood. I just put it in a hole in the ground and covered it up. But it keeps on digging its way out and finding its way back to me, decayed, rotten but horribly familiar.
* That’s a strip of land for growing vegetables for non-UK readers.