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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

08 May 2020

The sight of rain splashing into the Granta brings back a double memory to Malcolm Guite

I DON’T know how it is that confinement in­­tens­ifies memory, but the links that memory makes between sights and sounds seem more vivid than ever. So it was that the sounds of the recent rain, and the sight of it falling and splash­­­­­ing into the Granta, brought back a double memory: the memory of a book and of an encounter with its author.

The first memory was of the opening chapter of The Children of Greene Knowe, and how Tolly, its young protagonist, travels by slow train across the flooded Huntingdonshire countryside to stay with the mysterious great-grandmother whom he has never met. I re­­membered its opening sentence: “A little boy was sitting in the corner of a railway carriage looking out at the rain, which was splashing against the windows. . .”

I was myself a little boy when I first read that book, and went on avidly to read the descrip­tions of his journey through floods, the last stage rowed through danger to the safety of Greene Knowe, the old house itself, as the rain splashed on the flooded river.

And then comes “Tolly’s first sight of Mrs Oldknow”: “His great-grandmother was sitting by a huge open fireplace where logs and peat were burning. The room smelled of woods and woodsmoke. He forgot about her being fright­eningly old. She had short silver curls and her face had so many wrinkles that it looked as if someone had been trying to draw her for a very long time and every line put in had made the face more like her.”

I was gripped by the writing, and soon found myself drawn into the world of that magical house, in which all the centuries through which it has stood are available to all the children who have ever lived and played there, and who meet one another, not as ghosts, but as living friends, in a place of numinous encounter, presided over by this remarkable woman, who is at once very old and as young at heart as the children whose lives she transforms.

But no sooner had I remembered those opening scenes in the first book of a beloved series than my second memory came, glim­mering through the first, and that was my encounter with the book’s author: Lucy Boston.

It was 37 years ago, and I was teaching English in a comprehensive in St Ives. I men­tioned to a colleague that I intended to read The Children of Greene Knowe with my first-formers.

“Well, why don’t you drop round to Green Knowe itself?” he said. “It’s just in the next village; for it’s really the manor house in Hemingford Grey, where Lucy Boston lives. I’ll arrange an introduction.”

I was astonished. It was as though someone had said “Why don’t you pop into Narnia this afternoon? Here’s the wardrobe door”; for Greene Knowe had a similar magical draw for me: it was somehow part of the same world.

And so it was that, on a day as rainy as when Tolly came, I rang the bell and was ushered in, and Lucy Boston, then in her nineties, with short silver curls, a wrinkled face, and bright, bright eyes, rose to greet me, as much like Mrs Oldknow as I could have imagined. Indeed, the whole house was just as it was in the de­­scrip­tions and in Peter Boston’s beautiful drawings.

I gradually came to know Lucy, and found her as magical in person as she was in the pages of her books. She even invited me to stay a while as an amanuensis, while she worked on new poetry; but that’s another story. . .

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