I had to think really hard about which books I could take to a desert Island as I have enjoyed reading so many over the years. I tried to think about the books that I had gone back to, the books I had re-read. In the radio programme the people stranded are allowed The Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare so I will happily assume that I will have these to fill the lonely hours. There are a few Shakespeare plays that I am familiar with but there are others that I don’t really know so I think it would be fun to read them.
Maybe I should ask for a book on survival, do the whole Bear Grylls thing – armed with my pocket knife and a ball of string I could make a shelter from palm leaves.
The first book I would take would be The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This is a particular favourite of mine and very close to my heart as it was the first “proper, grown up” book with chapters that I read to my daughters.
The story is about a young girl called Mary Lennox who lives in India. When her parents die suddenly she is sent to live in her Uncle’s house. It is a huge house set in the wilds of Yorkshire. Mary starts to hear strange sounds at night and soon discovers that she has a cousin (called Colin) the same age as her who is bedridden and treated by everyone as if he is really ill. She starts to visit him regularly and they form a friendship.
Wandering in the garden one day Mary finds a hidden door to a secret walled garden. With the help of Dickon (the brother of one of the maids) she sets about tending the garden and making it beautiful again. The two children invite Colin to join them playing in the garden, out in the fresh air he starts to recover and eventually learns to walk. Colin’s father returns home to find his son now healthy and full of life – just like the garden.
There are lots of things that I love about this book. The characters of Mary and Colin change as they grow and develop their love of nature. Mary is quiet and reserved at the start of the story but gets stronger physically (tending the garden) she also finds a way to trust people again and the three children form a strong bond. Colin has been treated as incapable of doing things for himself all his life because he was a sickly baby and his father was terrified that he would die. He learns that he is capable of doing many things he never thought possible and that there is actually nothing wrong with him.
The setting of the garden is intriguing as it is hidden away for many years and it is the children’s secret. Restoring it gives them a purpose in life and gives them the opportunity to create something beautiful out of a place that is wild and abandoned. It is a wonderful story about redemption and hope.
The second book I would take would be Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I am very fond of the book and have read it several times. This was also a favourite of my father and I am (apparently) named after the heroine in the book.
The story starts with Mr Lockwood visiting Wuthering Heights (an isolated house on the Yorkshire Moors) he has to stay the night and is haunted by visions of Cathy, a young girl who had lived there. When he returns home he is told the story of Cathy and Heathcliff by the housekeeper Ellen Dean. Cathy and Heathcliff had grown up together as though they were brother and sister. Cathy’s father had brought the seven year old orphan Heathcliff home after a trip to Liverpool. They remain devoted to each other but Cathy is tempted away by the lure of a better life with the Linton Family who live in the manor house nearby. Heathcliff disappears thinking Cathy has abandoned him and she marries Edgar Linton. The story continues with the next generation as Heathcliff exacts his revenge on those who he feels have wronged him. The setting is the desolate Yorkshire Moors with a real feeling of the vast, deserted expanses of land.
The writing gives us a sense of the bond between Cathy and Heathcliff and the desperate, emotional pain that they both feel when they realise that they can never be together, other than in death, as ghosts roaming the moors. The revenge that Heathcliff wreaks is cold, brutal and causes much emotional pain to the characters involved. Has Heathcliff been so badly betrayed that he has to ruin their lives? Judge for yourself – read the book.
The last book I would take is the one I have on my bedside table, the one that I dip into now and again. It is The Collected Works of Matt Simpson.
Matt Simpson was a well-respected contemporary poet and writer from Liverpool. He was born in Bootle in 1936, went to Cambridge to study and work before returning home to Liverpool where he died in 2009. He studied at Cambridge University where he met his wife and settled briefly before the call of his Liverpool home became too much and he returned to settle in Halewood. He worked as a lecturer in English at Hope University before retiring to concentrate on his writing.
Simpson wrote about his life and his family with pathos and humour and had several books of poetry published which were later collated together to form this book. The book runs almost in chronological order so you get a real sense of the poet’s life. He is able to beautifully describe the characters in his family with poems such as this one – a particular favourite of mine.
My Grandmother’s African Grey
My father’s brother brought it home,
Madcap Cliff, a ‘case’, with wit as wild
As erotic dreams. It was his proof
Of Africa and emblem of the family pride
But the parrot quickly sensed
Our pride was ragged. Perverse, it
Nipped its feathers out
With tar-black pincering beak, until,
Baring a stubbly breast, it looked
Like poultry obscenely undead.
A gift to grandma and to Auntie Bell
Who lived together, two odd shoes
Inside a wardrobe of a house, it learnt
To parody my grandmother’s Liverpudlian
Wash-house talk, her lovely common-
As-muck, which it counterpointed faithfully
With Auntie Bell’s posh how-d’you-do’s
That froze you to politeness:
Sunday Best, with little finger cocked.
The bird survived them both, lost all sense
Of Africa, one quarter of a century on a perch.
Shabby slate-grey feathers came to mean
My grandmother, its tail’s red splash
Was Auntie Bell – their stout and brandy accents
Jangling on inside the cage.
My personal favourite is Ferry Crossing – it tells of a day out that Simpson took with his daughter into Liverpool city centre where they had taken a trip on the ferry. At the end of the poem he realises that his daughter has grown up and is flying free like the gulls overhead.
Ten minutes’ seamanship
Like a fairground ride –
The screws’ back-churn
Lifting the Mersey under us,
Swinging the stern to shore
And bringing us back
To this nervous and emaciated place,
Liverpool, we must call home,
Father and daughter,
Heads in the wind
Smelling of salt – you concerned
To fathom my ghosts, those tough
Old tars flying
In out wake,
And in that gull-crazed wind,
In a special effort of love,
You too showing me wings.
I love this book because the poems are from the heart, personal, insightful and tell a story. You get a real sense of place (Liverpool/Cambridge and also Tasmania where he was poet in residence) with many references to the Mersey and the Port (where his father had worked) the questioning of the life he would have had if he hadn’t gone to university and become an academic, how, somehow he had betrayed his roots.
Simpson’s manuscripts and writings are now archived in Liverpool University Library.
The poems have such a personal connection to me because in the poem about the father and the daughter – I was that girl on the ferry with her dad.