Tuesday, 22 May 2012


Welcome to the 130th Road Trip Wednesday! 

Art by ASummerTimeSadness
Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. In the comments, you can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

We'd love for you to participate! Just answer the prompt on your own blog and leave a link - or, if you prefer, you can include your answer in the comments.

This Week's Topic: 
What book brings back memories?

Hmmm, yeah - as normal I wasn't able to participate in the *actual* RTW over on YA Highway, but I really liked the blog topic so I thought that I would steal it (whilst giving appropriate credit, above!).

You see, books do bring back very strong memories for me. When I look back at my thirty years on planet earth, nearly everything is sort of... watermarked by the books I was reading at the time.

I'm sure some people would find that a bit odd - but I just think it's a sign of how incredibly important books have always been to me, and how much I've learned and grown due to the books I've read. I'm a different person because of the stories contained within me. Each and every one of them - whether I loved or loathed it - has made some kind of imprint inside me, channeling the waters of my emotions and creativity in different ways.

I can remember the book I read before bed the day that I found out about the Royal Literary Fund grant. The book I read on the bus-ride home when I lost my job. The book I shoved into my bag the night I was rushed to hospital. The book I had just finished reading when I got the call telling me my first book was going to be published. The books I got for Christmas the year my father had his first heart attack.

But when I initially saw this topic, the book that immediately sprung to mind wasn't from any of those traumatic or wonderful events. It was Mistress Masham's Repose, by T. H. White - an enchanting little book that tells the story of plucky, mistreated orphan Maria, and her adventures once she finds her way to the tiny, forgotten island of Mistress Masham's Repose (which sits at the centre of the ornamental lake on her family's vast, neglected estate) and meets the people who live there.

When I think about Mistress Masham's Repose, I remember a gloriously sunny, yet slightly frosty morning. I remember how the buttery rays of sunlight streamed through the leaded windows of The Highbridge Cafe in Lincoln, and gleamed off the polished wood of the tiny table where I sat all on my own. I had a cup of tea in one hand and the book in the other, and a plate of homemade scones with honey in front of me, gently steaming because they were fresh out of the oven.

The cafe was bustling around me. Customers, waiters and waitresses moved by. I was on the top floor of this lovely old building, and out of the window I could look down on the swans drifting along on the deep, glossy green of the river, and shoppers scurrying from store to store. I remember how, in the midst of all that noise and movement I felt utterly serene and peaceful. 

I had just turned nineteen and I had finally managed to conquer one of my major fears in life - travelling places on my own. 

Oh, I hadn't gone far! Only to my hometown train station and then on to this rather lovely market town just under two hours journey away. For most people it wouldn't have seemed like anything at all. But up until that point I'd always been terrified of going anywhere - especially new places - alone. I was especially fightened of trains. I used to be convinced that I'd accidentally go past my stop, or miss a connecting train, and inevitably get stranded somewhere miles from home with no idea what to do. This conviction was unshakeable and paralysing. 

In my new job as a civil servant I had recently been sent on a training course which required me to travel by train to a large city quite a long way from home, and I'd found the experience so scary (even with another trainee going along with me!) that I'd ended up having a stress nosebleed on the way there. That was the last straw, and I decided that I wasn't going to be ruled by this irrational fear anymore. 

Part of the problem came from my family. It was widely acknowledged that I was (whisper) terribly clever, you know. But I wasn't supposed to have any common sense at all. Everyone from my little brother to my great aunt believed that I was one of those dreamy creative types: scatty, flaky, and not to be trusted to look after myself. 

I knew that if I said I was going to hop on a train and go to a random destination somewhere (and there was no way around telling, because I lived at home, and they all expected to know what I was doing all the time) just to see if I could, my father would start ordering me to call him on my mobile phone periodically to assure him that I hadn't fallen off the platform or been kidnapped, and probably telling me that if I wanted to go somewhere he could always drive me. My mother would enlist my sister's help to remind me of all the times I'd gotten lost as a child and persuade me it would be better to wait for one of them to be free to go along too, just in case. My brother would laugh in my face and say 'Yeah, right'.

Which seems like an absolutely ludicrous amount of fuss to me now, looking back. But it was what happened *any time* that I tried to go anywhere or do anything by myself. 

My family were genuinely concerned. Their concern had a basis, because when I was younger I did quite often get lost, and even when I was at school I was always getting beaten up and tripped and injured. But unfortunately their concern made all my own insecurities worse.
This terror of going anywhere by myself was basically (underneath all that ancient history) about the fact that I didn't trust myself. I expected to mess up as a matter of course - to forget vital details, get lost, or just plain freak out. I expected to trip, or get pushed, or possibly even attacked, wherever I went.

I had no faith in my own ability to cope with anything.

You're a reasonably clever, averagely competent young woman, I said to myself sternly. You can do whatever you set your mind to. You are going to get over this.

I waited until my parents went on holiday - leaving me alone in the house for a week. Frankly, they were scared to even do that, and left me a list of instructions as long as my arm, just in case. But I found that week of solitude invigorating. On the Friday, which I'd booked as annual leave from work, I gathered up my courage, went to the train station, picked a destination, and went. 

And nothing bad happened. In fact, once I'd gotten over shakily checking that I was on the right train for the twentieth time, it was *fun*.

I got to Lincoln, and spent a wonderful day wandering around the place by myself, basking in the sun, climbing the hill, poking into the shops, eating a solitary lunch - during which I read my book - and then I successfully got myself home again. 

That day taught me two very important things:

One: I could look after myself as well as anyone.
Two: I valued my own company and enjoyed doing things by myself.

The confidence and self reliance that developed from those realisations changed me. It didn't happen all at once, but within a few years I had gone from being the kind of person who got stress nosebleeds (and possibly hyperventilated) when she had to get on a train to go to a training course, to the kind of person who loved exploring new places and meeting new people, and who jumped at the chance to go travelling, especially alone. Eventually it sank in, not just for my family, but for me, that I wasn't helpless, flaky or lacking in common sense anymore. I probably never had been. Resourcefulness, focus and common sense have no reason to manifest if you never go looking for them,

So when I think about Mistress Masham's Repose, I think about strong, determined Maria and how she changed her life. I think about that seemingly insignificant day which was the start of this amazing journey of exploration, not just of the world, but of myself. I think about realising that the picture other people have of you, even the people who love you most, isn't necessarily the whole one. How sometimes what other people tell you about yourself is actually about them, not you at all. And I think about sunlight and scones, and swans on the river. But most especially I think about long, solitary train journeys where I watch the countryside slide away and scribble in my notebook and smile.


Rebecca Lindsay said...

I love your background story to the book you chose. I remember the first time I got on a bus by myself, I had to get to my mum to pay the driver and ask him to tell me when my stop was coming up. Lol

Zoë Marriott said...

Rebecca: LOL. I can totally see that. I was almost as nervous about buses too - even on routes I'd been on loads of times before. So odd to me now.

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