Aged nine, as the third of four children, sitting in the front of our white Cortina Estate was the closest I could come to adulthood. The front was where the grown-ups sat.
The liberation of being driven away from the cloistered world of cricket pitches, pine trees, bracken, red brick Victorian buildings and a school timetable built on Edwardian principles was intoxicating. Perched on the red plastic passenger seat, travelling back from St Neot’s Prep School, my Saturday morning prospects would be the thrill of home and, in the summer, the garden. I could anticipate the deep greens of the chestnut trees over the dip; the achingly huge – to me – grass tennis court that was our front lawn; the reassuring tap of my father’s typewriter from the windows of the flat. There might be the scent of drifting Player’s Navy Cut pipe tobacco smoke in the air.
Summer would see my mother smilingly de-stringing runner beans at a table on the back lawn or carefully hanging out sheets she had sides-to-middled on the line. Several divisions of bees would patrol the catmint in the herbaceous border, a thousand bumble raid scooping up, rather than scattering, their powdery, pollen bombs. Little Downham’s tumbledown edges would be softened by the miraculous life that hummed in the three-quarters-of-an-acre in which we were lucky enough to grow up.
Whichever parent picked me up for one of the two exeat weekends in a thirteen-week term, there would be a roll from Banham’s Progress Bakery, ready to eat on the way. My mother never failed me. From the white paper bag, through the thinnish crust around a doughy ball of puffed white bread, would come a residual waft of yeasty fumes. It was a yearning scent of hunger, one we breathed in on dog walks across the village recreation ground when baking was in progress. The butter – Anchor butter – would have melted a little when spread and was setting again to a salty ganache. Strands of thick orange pith, cocooned in a dark, syrupy magic were lying at the epicentre, mostly softened but crunchy in places with a crystalised frost. Homemade Little Downham marmalade was unique, almost savoury, and the combination giddying. My roll was an edible version of Steve McQueen’s motorcycle jump in The Great Escape. Full of hope and possibility, I was biting into freedom, as we threaded our way around Twyford, past Reading, through Marlow and the down-and-up valley of High Wycombe.
There have been similar echoes of food as liberation throughout my life, but the loudest appeared in a book. Impressionable and with a ravenous imagination, I devoured the Narnia stories, not as religious instruction, but as magical adventures that resolve to deeply satisfactory endings. Baddies are vanquished. Priggish children have the stuffing knocked out of them and become likeable. Animals talk. Between the age of seven and ten, I read and re-read them several times, usually when ill. I recently finished Katherine Langrish’s wonderful ‘From Spare Oom to War Drobe’. Published in 2021, it is a companionable critique of the chronicles, instructively honest and full of illumination. She wanders her reader through the seven books, simultaneously as informed scholar and her nine-year old self. Her adult eyes nail the inconsistencies, maddening omissions, religious didacticism and the colonialist tropes of Lewis’ world view. The nine-year old in her never loses a love for the stories nor, ultimately, their creator.
She doesn’t mention my favourite passage of all in the whole saga but perhaps it doesn’t merit literary attention. In The Horse and His Boy, chronologically the third book in the series, a blue-eyed youth called Shasta escapes the slavery of his cruel fisherman ‘father’, a dark skinned tyrant who looks nothing like him. Long story short, the boy runs away on a talking horse, meets a similarly dark skinned near-Princess, also running away – from an arranged marriage – on a talking mare, and travels across an exotic, Arabian Nights land, through near calamitous adventures and an exhausting desert trek to Archenland and Narnia. (Narnia, in my imagination, looked conveniently like Gloucestershire, a place my mother would drive us as children to picnic in the Cotswold village where she grew up.) Shasta turns out to be a Narnian baby lost at birth. All is neatly resolved.
Having made it through all the complications, slipping ahead of an invading army giving chase, Shasta finds himself alone, in thick fog, atop a mute horse. He is separated from everything and everyone he knows. He is exhausted, feels a failure, and is close to despair. In a timeless interlude, he has a terrified conversation with something or somebody unseen, next to him in the mist. Without him knowing, he’s being guided by the lion of the piece, Aslan, who talks to him like a stern vicar handing out school prizes.
The fog lifts. The lion has disappeared. He stumbles away from his horse and into Narnia for the first time. Fainting with hunger, he is met and scooped up by some friendly animals and a household of dwarves. Thanks to Shasta’s faint and weary tip-off, a centaur rushes away to warn the Narnian Court about the invading Calormenes (a caricature composite of North African, Arabian and South Asian cultures). The dwarves take charge and cook Shasta breakfast. Endless cups of tea, a feast of bacon, eggs and mushrooms, proper dairy butter slavishly spread over slice after slice of toast, the meal is served with incredible energy and lush description, to a boy who has never seen anything like it before in his life. The cups and plates are small, but never empty. Shasta practically overdoses on the most perfect, greasy spoon fry-up you could imagine. He then falls asleep at the table, snoring his head off.
I’m not sure I have ever encountered a better description of breakfast. Certainly not before and hardly since. There remains a sense of welcome, of relief, of arrival in the simple prose of the episode.
Back in the real world, aged eight or nine, the soft white roll with home-made marmalade did pretty much the same job. My edible passport, it transported me to happiness. With each bite and an increasingly light heart, I knew I was being driven towards a promise of freedom that would not be broken for two whole days.