|Image from google books.|
The Book That Almost Came to Life
When I was young I read a book about a boy staying in a big old house. On a nocturnal exploration he stumbles on a way of going back to the house's Victorian past, and befriends a girl who lived there. It was Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce. Each time he goes back in time and plays with her she is a little older, until finally she is a young woman with a boyfriend. Tom is still a little boy, and sadly realises that the adventure is over. I won't give away the twist ending – but it always brings lump to my throat.
I re-read it as an adult, and unlike many revisits of childhood books I wasn't disappointed. I learned that the setting was the author's own childhood village on the River Cam near Cambridge - and decided to go on a literary pilgrimage and find it.
After some fruitless wandering about I spotted an elderly lady pottering in her garden, and asked for directions. I was surprised by the grilling she gave me as to the reason for my search – until she finally admitted, 'I am Philippa Pearce – I bet you thought I would be dead by now!' (I denied it – but the books were old so I had kind of assumed…)
She invited me in for a cup of tea, explaining that she had bought this cottage because it was opposite the old family mill house which had inspired her stories. We discussed her writing, and when I told her I was an aspiring but unpublished writer myself she gave me some useful advice. I went away walking on air and clutching a signed copy of another of her books. Only a year or so later I finally had my first book published, and I sent her a copy and received a very kind reply. One lasting effect of the encounter is that I've always tried help other unpublished writers in whatever small way I could.
It's only just struck me that the denouement of my story is not unlike that of the novel, which prompted me to change the title of this little piece. Apart from the birth of my daughter, meeting Philippa Pearce remains the most magical memory of my life.
Thanks, Martyn. As an once-unpublished writer who Martyn helped and encouraged, I am very grateful to Philippa Pearce as well! Tom's Midnight Garden was one of my favourite childhood classics and I'm itching to read it again now...