Apart from wanting to have a magical piece of wood that could be used as my double, like the one given to a girl in my German story book, I never wished for any particular magical power. This wasn’t because I didn’t believe in magic, but because magic was something I lived by and within most of the time. It must have been an elevated kind of magic, the sort you don’t necessarily use for crude personal gain or to make life easier, more congenial – because life was not easy or congenial. When we came back to England from Germany, I was a strange creature moving from one place to another, changing schools with each move, each new place putting me at one more remove and making me stranger. I lost my father en route because my parents separated: first he was on tour, running around on all fours being a pantomime cat, then when he came to back to London he lived in a bedsit. My mother was distracted, career-building, unpredictable, there were girls from Scandinavia, Germany and Spain to look after me and my sister and they were bored, resentful, unpredictable. My school-teachers were sometimes well-meaning, sometimes not, and it was easy to do something that would get you into trouble. There was nothing surer than magic.
I carried it inside me. Story books helped, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, though only a few of them carried the DNA of magic. Magical Thinking is a reductionist or pejorative term sometimes used by psychoanalytic therapists to describe the strategies used by insecure individuals to ward of anxiety etc. Magical thinking was sure ground beneath my feet and represented the hidden light that lay just beneath the surface of things and sometimes broke out, like a shining behind cloud, or like song that you feel in your breast. It came from the heart rather than the head and radiated down to my fingertips, keeping my hands warm. You could say it was a faculty I developed in extremis, but none the less real for that.
When I was nine I would go into the room I shared with my sister and look out of the window in the direction of London Zoo from where one could hear the wolves howling. A new breed had been brought in from Russia. They looked out of the bars of their cages and found nothing they recognised but the wide black sky and the moon.
I looked out at The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter, and all,
And the star of the sailor, and Mars and pictured the pail that was half full of water and stars, and all was in place, packed tight, the magic, nothing missing. It was the coldest winter for over twenty years and in the new year, in February, a poet who lived nearby put her head in a gas oven and died. She was Sylvia Plath, but I didn’t know about her yet. She and I had the same doctor and she probably went to the same playground, with her two small children, that I went to.
If you lived without any magic at all, life was just boiled cabbage and gristle for lunch, a cold home-coming, a beige carpet with ugly stains in the shape of cockroaches. I made a post box out of an old biscuit tin – cut a slit into its lid, damaged a knife in the process, threw the knife away to lose the evidence (my mother kept wondering but never knew where it had got to, her best kitchen knife). I posted notes through the slit – messages (to whom?) saying, when the moon is blue your wish will come true (meaning that the moon would without a shadow of a doubt sometimes be blue, for it was written, yes in my own hand, and I had seen it in my mind’s eye); and messages that were simply the titles of books I had read: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, What Katy Did, Five Children and It, The Borrowers, The Wind on the Moon, Das Doppelte Lottchen, Peterchen’s Mondfahrt – and lines from A Child’s Garden of Verses.
Dark brown is the river, golden is the sand