A Poet's View of Childhood

ALASTAIR REID is a poet of humor as well as sensitivity who lived in Scotland until he went to sea during the war. Since that time he has traveled extensively in Europe and in the United States. He is the author of five books for children and two volumes of poetry. A new book of his poetry and prose will appear in the fall.


CHILDHOOD, especially for a poet, is irresistible; his preoccupation with it would be completely incomprehensible to a child. From the vantage point of his aging consciousness, he finds himself, either through the eyes of his own children or through sudden green transformations of memory, dissolving into these states of pure trance (states which he can never forgive children for being unaware of), in which a single day is a clear, prismatic present, when a glass of water, instead of being a complex molecular structure, or a lucid piece of punctuation in a disordered chain of consequences, or an image in which the whole world is somehow reflected, stands on the table as nothing more or less than a glass of water, wondrously, needing no reason or excuse for its existence. I like nothing more than to listen to people talking about their childhood. Bit by bit, they work their way through a morass of judgment and sophisticated afterthought, psychiatric blah, and scholastic roughage until they reach, if they are lucky, an unencumbered point of pure memory — a day, an instance, a happening, tragic perhaps, comic more likely, but quivering with sheer life, pure and inexplicable, like the glass of water.

What, in fact, do we save from childhood? On the surface, a miscellaneous collection of odds and ends: birth certificates, because they are so necessary to prove that we exist; baby shoes, perhaps, because we cannot otherwise conceive of having been no more than eighteen inches tall; photographs of our bald, naked beginnings; stamps, shells, feathers, skeletons; thumbed books about gnomes, brownies, and heroes; tickets, scraps, lists, dried leaves. These are the relics and the gravestones, and are meant, in their tiny, wizened way, to evoke an aura, to suggest a state of grace; yet how shriveled they are, as they lie in a curiously smelling drawer, waiting for the day when we are courageous enough to cremate them.

Childhood is by definition a never-never land, a place where we have unaccountably been without knowing it, a nowhere which took up all our time before we realized what time was. Children drift through their sky-blue days without any feeling of being in motion; landmarks like birthdays loom on the faraway, blurred horizon, and move so slowly that it seems they will never arrive. When I was a child, even to wait for the next day was agonizing to me; in prospect, the night seemed so long and impassable, until I grew into a faith in the fact that I would wake up in a different, new-made day. For children, the future is so remote that it scarcely exists at all; the odd thing about growing up is the way in which the landmarks begin to move, faster and faster, until they are whizzing past like telephone poles. And the principal irony of childhood lies in the fact that we wander through it in an almost complete daze, unselfconscious, open-eyed, until we find ourselves gawking back at it from an age of realization, as somewhere we have been without noticing, wondering how we managed to pass the unwitting time.

But still, when we come to look at childhood, at the remove of judgment, do we see it at all? Or, instead, do we somehow accommodate it into the life we have later arrived at, trimming it to fit, forgetting its oddness and contradiction? I listen to people telling their childhood, and wonder whether the versions of their own childhood they have come to believe in bear any relation to the small, vanished selves they have left behind. Childhood seems to them no more real than old movies, the aftermath of a story they were once told but of which they have only the vaguest recollection.

What most people do, I suspect, is save for their later, full-grown days a few places, a few set pieces, a welter of anecdote (which over the telling years grows more and more original) to serve as memory whenever it becomes necessary to explain away the unconscious, missing years. Of the original, in its original form, little remains. It is, after all, better to decide that one had a happy childhood than to admit one had a relatively unconscious one, better to select the choicest places, the most fruitful occasions, and make of them a serviceable tapestry to suit the blandest of biographers. Or it may be just as serviceable to look back on childhood as the point where everything went wrong, to find, under the unruffled surface, monsters and nightmares. No wonder psychoanalysts take so long to get to the bottom to find the early secret, the original sin — childhood is in fact bottomless, and has its own strange scale.

The principal difference between childhood and the stages of life into which it invisibly dissolves is that as children we occupy a limitless present. The past has scarcely room to exist, since, if it means anything at all. it means only the previous day. Similarly, the future is in abeyance; we are not meant to do anything about it until we reach a suitable size. Correspondingly, the present is enormous, mainly because it is all there is — a garden is as vast as Africa, and can easily become Africa, at the drop of a wish. Walks are dizzying adventures; the days tingle with unknowns, waiting to be made into wonders. Living so utterly in the present, children have an infinite power to transform; they are able to make the world into anything they wish, and they do so, with alacrity. There are no preconceptions, which is why, when a child tells us he is Napoleon, we had better behave with the respect due to a small emperor. Later in life, the transformations are forbidden; they may prove dangerous. By then, we move in a context of expectations and precedents, of past and future, and the present, whenever we manage to catch it and realize it, is a shifting, elusive question mark. Habit takes over, and days tend to slip into pigeonholes, accounted for because everything has happened before, because we know by then that life is long and has to be intelligently endured. Except that, every now and again, one of these moments occurs, so transcendent in its immediacy, so amazing in its extraordinary ordinariness, that we get a sudden glimpse of what childhood was all about and of how much the present has receded before a cluttered past and an anxious future. In these odd moments, the true memory of childhood dawns. The glass of water is, amazingly, a glass of water.

Quite often, there comes a time when we try deliberately to recover childhood, revisiting a place, a house, a garden. Perhaps it would be better not to; almost inevitably it is a puzzlement, if not a downright disappointment. How wizened it is, how shrunken, how small, how unlike the mysterious nowhere we imagined we inhabited! I recall once revisiting a seaside village in Scotland where I lived as a child, a small harbor town I had gone over lovingly in what I thought was my memory, telling it house by house, hearing the high tides thud against the seawall in my sleep. Yet, when I walked around the harbor, I wondered how I could ever have been carried away by it, even in dream, so ordinary, small, and grubby it was, so unglowing, a poor stage for the wonders I remembered as having happened there in my small, broody days. The particular tree I made a profession of climbing had become only one in a series of trees, not, as it was then, the only tree in the world, Yggdrasill. And the people who remembered me now had to take their place in the context of time; they no longer belonged to the towering world of unchanging legend that my child’s eyes and ears had appointed them to. They were mortal. “Don’t change unless I tell you to!” cries the child to the world; and the world, instead of replying, goes quietly about its business of changing us, of turning what once was called growing up into growing old.

My own childhood, now that I look back on it with the proper distrust, seems to have been not extraordinary, for all childhoods are that, but a peculiar mixture of earth and air, of the practical and the impossible. My father was a minister of the church and moved and breathed with an extraordinary reverence for things, a reverence we absorbed simply by being in the same house with him. He did not speak often; when he did, I used to listen to him with the proper astonishment. My mother, on the other hand, was a doctor of medicine, and ran her doctoring and her household with a ribald, go-ahead, down-to-earth directness. They were, for us children, like the North and South Poles. Heaven knows what strange equilibrium they achieved, but we children were the fruit of it, and we spun dizzily from one to the other, from the no-nonsense bustle of the kitchen and surgery at one end of the house to the quiet, smoke-laden, book-lined study at the other. In between was a long corridor, our limbo. Outside was the world. Even now, I simplify, for it was never so neat; I cannot even remember whether or not there was a corridor, but there should have been. Along it, we were always in motion, busy with the odd variety of our existence.

Scotland we hardly noticed; it was no more than weather and landscape, and we lived, if we lived anywhere at all, between garden and water, in a mud-stained leaf-smelling round of errands and holidays, our feet on the ground, our heads firmly in the clouds. At school, among our friends, we spoke the local dialect bluntly and boisterously; at home, we clipped it to suit the household. As a minister’s family, we had an odd immunity from the strata of local society. We knew — and played with —everyone from the snotty-nosed farm children to the starched and proper county families, who envied us our worldliness. We knew worse words than they did, and used them judiciously. At the same time, however, we were foreigners, never quite belonging anywhere; we had books at home, and things obviously went on as a matter of course in our house which never would have occurred in the rest of the town — blood and sermons, blessings and bandages.

I hovered for years between the surgery and the study, trying to decide whether I was cut out for the pulpit or the operating room; but I solved my dilemma by plunging into the mysterious countryside and by playing endless fantastic games over which, at least, I had control. The poles were noise and silence; I ran wild during the day, and in the evening I crept into the deep silence of books, unreachable. All of us kept passing and repassing one another along the length of the corridor, some on their way to burst, hungry and shouting, into the kitchen, others to tiptoe into the study, breath held, shoes in hand.

And yet, none of this is quite what I remember; it is rather the context and setting for my remembering. I recall, some years ago, taking a long voyage under sail across the Atlantic and passing the night watches — which we took alone at the wheel, under the enormous processes of the sky — by applying my memory to a particular place, a particular day, a particular time. I found I could recover whole periods of my life which I had not thought of since they happened. I remembered the names of those who had been in my school classes; and, with practice, I could take long walks over stretches of lost country, scrutinizing farms, trees, landmarks on the way; so that, night after night, perched alone in the middle of the Atlantic, I replayed most of my childhood like an endless movie, not for the sake of finding anything out, but, as the English say, just because it was there. It seemed particularly appropriate, for then I had no context, save for the sea, the dark, and the innumerable repetitive stars; and I sat under them, saying over to myself long lists of names I was not aware I knew — Kirkmaiden, Catyins, Linglie, Yarrowford, Pirnmill, Altgolach, Imacher, Windygates — amazing myself with their sound, seeing each place vividly in my mind’s eye. It was then I realized that my childhood was not lost; all that was required to recover it was the dimension of amazement.

In the eyes of children, anything can happen, for so little has happened before; for us, at a remove, we know what is likely and what impossible, and so our propensity to astonishment is much less. Moreover, we tend to forget, as Christopher Fry says, that we were born naked into a world of strange sights and sounds, not fully clothed, in a service apartment, with a copy of the Times in our hand. This is why some of the afterthought we apply to the world of children — the books they ought to read, the things they should be interested in, the ways in which they should pass their time — is often preposterous and seems to assume that children are our idea, not theirs. Children are interested in anything except, possibly, the things they are expected to be interested in; and we might as well lay our world open to them and let them make off with whatever improbable treasure they discover for themselves.

I suppose the difficulty lies in deciding exactly who children are, in seeing them mistakenly as small replicas of ourselves, or as raw material, or as undersized animals, or as a race of miniature entertainers, or trainees, or even as income-tax deductions. I prefer to regard them as sudden visitors from an unlikely planet, frail, cogent messengers from a world which we know by name but have lost sight of, little people who are likely not only to amuse and amaze us but to remind us that life is long, and that they, as much as we, have a right to their own version of it. The mistake we make is to encumber children with the versions we retain of our own childhood, to imagine that what would have been good for us, as we think we were then, will be good for them, as we think they are now. Children are entitled to their otherness, as anyone is; and when we reach them, as we sometimes do, it is generally on a point of sheer delight, to us so astonishing, but to them so natural.