I read Neil Gaiman’s new book on the tube home from the restaurant. And then I got home, and John went to sleep, and I kept reading. Somewhere about page 100 I started to cry, and I kept crying until I got to the end, and then I kept crying: big, ugly sobs, and if you had asked me why I was crying I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, not really.
Then I read it again. It was about one in the morning, and the street outside seemed very alien. I wanted to go home.
There is an essay by Laurie Lee called The Obstinate Exile, in which he is an adult in London longing for Slad, the village in which he grew up. It is a good essay; there is no copy of it online, but you can find it in the book I Can’t Stay Long. I first came across it when I was very young- maybe seven or eight- and like so many things I read then, there was so much I didn’t understand about it.
I was allowed to read anything from any bookshelf, or rather, nobody ever said I shouldn’t, which I took to be the same thing: there were lots of things I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, although I loved it. I didn’t get all the jokes in Wodehouse, or Chaucer. I read a lot of Ian McEwan -Black Dogs, and A Child In Time, and (oh god) The Cement Garden- and didn’t understand any of it.
All sex and death and grown-up things, but I was not used to not understanding Laurie Lee. The sex and the dying in Laurie Lee were the sex and dying that is integral to childhood; the understanding of the passages and seasons of the earth that comes easily to the child, and that most adults forget. Children know so many things. Gaiman takes for his epigraph a Maurice Sendak quotation: “I knew terrible things, but I knew I mustn’t let adults know that I knew. It would scare them.”
I knew the earth more intimately then than I have known ever since: ever since has been a getting back, a going back, but it is like going back with a map.
I didn’t understand, then, that it would be this way. I thought I would always know what it was like to exist this way. I thought I could not forget. I thought that I would never leave, or sometimes I knew I would leave, but it didn’t seem real. I could not understand why Laurie Lee left. I could not understand why Laurie Lee did not go home, if he wanted to so badly. His reasons for not going home were not reasons I could understand, and as I write this I realise that perhaps it was because his reasons were not reasons but excuses, or post-facto justifications, of the kind that grown-ups make all the time, of the kind that the grown-up world demands all the time. Nothing ever just is, in the world; nothing ever just is, in the city. Everything is bluster- the cars on the Mile End Road are bluster- everything is excuses, and nothing is. I would not have wanted to understand this, then, perhaps. I was a story-child, and everything was: the stories were, they were, they were. That was enough; I would not have wanted to understand that in the world it is not enough just to be.
Neil Gaiman’s new book is. And it is enough.
Neil Gaiman’s new book is, the way potatoes are, and cow parsley is, and the way oceans are, or duck-ponds.
Neil Gaiman’s new book made me want to go home, and going home is a thing that’s gone, and I was crying in a dark room at one in the morning, reading and reading and reading. I had not owned a book, or been owned by a book, so completely since I was very small, it made me feel like reading used to, when I was little: it made me not want to understand, and understanding, I wanted to go home. The sex, and the dying, in this book is not the sex, and the dying of childhood: the understanding of it is the end of childhood, the end of going home to that house that isn’t, any more.
I have not told you very much about Neil Gaiman’s new book- I have not told you about the people, or the stories, or the magic, or the darkness- I have not told you about anything very much, except, maybe, why I was crying at one in the morning listening to the traffic on the Mile End Road, and I think that’s for the best.
This morning I am reading it again, and it is different this time round: it is different in daylight. I can see it, almost, as a novel, instead of a myth as much mine as Gaiman’s. I can read it, almost, like an adult. I can see, almost, what is real and what is not real in it, and I can see, almost, that I am forgetting already what it was like to read it in the night, and what it was like to remember. I am forgetting already what it was really like to understand the passages and seasons of the dark earth, to understand what came, what comes beneath.