Then: On occasion, when I was a child, my father took it upon himself to be fatherly and confer literature upon me. He had a small collection of much-loved books – primarily Narnia, of which the Magician’s Nephew was his favourite, specifically the scene in which the Witch stands atop the commandeered the London carriage – but his favourite among them was Brendon Chase, by B.B.
Sunday afternoons were a lagoon of calm; book-ended by church, it was understood that no work happened on a Sunday. Sometimes it would be my parents turn to entertain guests from church, but irrespective of whether we were alone or with company, my mother would always produce a full roast dinner. Then everyone would retire to snooze or read the afternoon away until 4 o’clock rolled around and we would be back on our way out to the evening service.
When I was about seven or eight, my father tried an abortive attempt to use Sunday afternoons to teach me the catechism. I treated it much the same way as I treated piano lessons: a rather clumsy enthusiasm for the duration of the lesson, and an extended absence of practice that meant I never grasped the finer points. He abandoned the catechism fairly quickly.
With the benefit of years, I wonder if he was actively trying to invent something that gave him something in common with his son. Apart from occasionally kicking a football around in the garden, it was always my mother with whom I had shared interests and activities. My father often told an anecdote about how, when his own father returned from war, he had been too afraid to ask him to do anything with him. Instead, he would stand outside his father’s window, kicking a ball against the wall, hoping that his father would hear it and come out and join him. At the time this was little more than a story, and it is only years after my father’s death that I see some of the weight of that story, and begin to wonder about how my father felt about me, and my siblings, and fatherhood. If I might be so bold as to suppose, I would guess that he had felt the absence of his father keenly, but as many of us do, had fallen into the patterns learnt as a child. I wonder now if his telling of that story was a father’s equivalent of kicking the ball against a wall, with his son on the other side of the window.
On occasion, I suspect he would take it upon himself to seek common ground. Certainly, had the religious aspect of the catechism been the point, it would have continued. Instead, it was replaced with Brendon Chase.
The story is simple: three boys, left to live with their clueless aunt while their parents are abroad, run away to the woods, where they survive remarkably effectively by hunting, trapping and foraging. Meanwhile, their absence causes quite a stir, with the clueless Reverend Whiting (who would rather be hunting butterflies) and the oafish PC Bunting in pursuit. It was my father’s favourite book from his own youth. Each sunday afternoon he read a chapter aloud to me, and unlike the ill-fated catechism, we never missed a week.
His favourite chapter occurred mid-way, in which one of the boys is dispensed to the local village for supplies, and is spotted, making off in a stolen dustcart. There’s a remarkable similarity to the witch atop her carriage; perhaps my father had a weakness for transport-related anrachy. But if I continue to make my leaps of supposition, I might suggest that actually my father was once one of the boys in Brendon Chase, stomping off into the woods in search of animals, living a grand adventure. His childhood home was next to a small copse of trees in which he hunted butterflies, and he pointed out what remained of it every time we passed it on a Sunday morning. And then, somewhere over the years, he had become the Whiting – the mild-mannered reverend who collected his butterflies in cases and secretly rather liked that the boys had run away to join the wilds.
Now: I had some trepidation about returning to this story; some books it is fine to be underwhelmed by when returning to them in adulthood, but this was not one I wished to be so sharply disassembled. With the book in my hands, I realised that I did not recall vast quantities of it (though the climbing of the vast tree, the midnight return to rescue the younger brother, the cart-theft and the bear in the snow all stuck in my mind) and so I experienced a thrilling mixture of discovery and familiarity. Most clearly absent from my memory was the frank bloodthirstiness of the book, with its numerous depictions of hunting and skinning (which unfortunately I happened to be reading around the time of Cecil the Lion) although it always errs on the side of survival over pleasure.
What resonates the most is the sense of magic that slowly unfolds throughout the book; by the end, there is a sense of the mystical about the forest, with the trees singing, and the bear that haunts the white winter. And with some years wisdom on my shoulders, I might wonder at what it tells me that my father’s favourite book is about running away from all the responsibilities of the world and leading a life of primal idyll away from everything. (And perhaps, I might also wonder at the resonance of a book in which the boys run away only because their father is absent, only to return in the final pages to scoop them up and return them to safety. But I’ve long since learned not makes these kinds of guesses and I no longer have the chance to ask. All I can do is sit down on a Sunday afternoon, and read his favourite books, and suppose.)