It was with completely unexpected pleasure and excitement that I re-found a copy of Susan Hill’s ‘Howard’s End is on the Landing’ on the bookshelf this morning, as I was about to dash out of the door to the hairdressers. I was looking for a ‘back-up’ book, in case my tablet malfunctioned (not an unusual occurrence) and I was unable to access one of the many half-read books on it. I knew there were a couple of weighty Ken Follett tomes somewhere, and apart from the challenges of fitting one in my handbag, I wasn’t particularly taken with the idea of starting something I wasn’t likely to finish for the next year. So finding the slim and enticingly entitled Susan Hill (which I had forgotten I had received for Christmas) was the perfect start to my long-awaited annual three-hour session to have my full head of highlights done. (Three hours? I have long hair).
It’s hard to describe the way in which I look forward to my annual trip to have my hair done. It’s not vanity, though I do enjoy the way my hair looks good for all of a day or so while the shape that’s been blow-dried into it is still there, and while the colours are still vibrant and before they fade into my very dark natural shades. I have small children, and borderline personality disorder. The first is common to many, who will immediately understand why three hours out, just sitting, drinking coffee, and reading a book, is a pure luxury. The second is not quite so common, and you can’t take time out of it, but if you know, you’ll understand the value of getting away with your thoughts, and getting some space from your triggers. And of doing something that helps you to feel cared for, even if you are the one having to do it, for you.
There’s a particular type of book I look for on these occasions, but it’s difficult to articulate what that is. I just know it when I find it. Past highlights (what a very poor attempt at a pun) have included Bill Bryson’s wonderful biography of Shakespeare and Jon Ronson’s ‘The Psychopath Test’. My books for these trips must be not-too-long, so that I can read a sizeable portion while I’m actually there, and can truly immerse myself in them and have them take me over. For me, there’s no better way to read a book, than in one sitting. They must be interesting page turners, and something I may not normally have thought of reading. I’m not particularly interested in Shakespeare, and ‘The Psychopath Test’ was something my husband was given for his birthday. But the writers of both books carried me along on a fascinating and funny journey, which I look forward to reliving when I pick up the books again in a few years time.
On this occasion, I had imagined that I would be flitting between the various partially-read books on my tablet, including a Jodi Picoult and an interesting volume entitled’ The Buddha and the Borderline’. Deborah Meaden’s book, ‘Common sense rules’ was also on there and would have qualified as a ‘highlights’ book, had I not already been half-way through it, and so the excitement of opening the pages, starting out afresh, and finding out what it had to hold, was already in the past, and my reading of it had already become very fragmented. I was already feeling the disappointment of not being able to make the best use of the upcoming precious reading time, when my hand brushed over ‘Howard’s End is on the landing’, while I my eye was looking for ‘The Pillars of the Earth’.
Susan Hill has been one of my favourite authors since I fell in love with “Strange Meeting” as a teenager. Some of my most vivid memories are of intense feelings felt as a result of reading a book, or reading a poem, or watching a film. ‘Strange Meeting’, and the central relationship within its pages, triggered that intensity for me. More recently, I have greatly enjoyed her crime novels, and it was in looking on Amazon to see if she had published another, that I came across this particular offering. ‘Howards End is on the landing: A year of reading from home’, is an autobiographical tour through Susan Hill’s personal library – a memoir hung on books, using her discovery and rediscovery of her collection to tell of the stories and memories they evoked.
I’m not surprised that I loved it from the very first sentence. It was interesting, it was funny, it was warm, it was honest, it was beautifully written, and intimately revealing of its author. What surprised me, is that I read it with tears barely held back and lingering constantly just below the surface. What surprised me is that reading it was filled with poignancy and pain, and although the first was at least to some degree present in the book, the second was mostly present within me.
How could a book that some reviewers called ‘light-hearted’, evoke such sadness? I think it was the ‘looking back’. I think it was the idea of a full-life, long-lived; the idea of being able to pick memories off a book shelf, that could be pondered with contentment, and made sense of in the context of a coherent life, true to some underlying core. Those things, in themselves, are the very opposite of sad – but they are things that I find it impossible to believe can be true of me either now or in the future, and that is where my sadness lies. It also lies, very much so, in the resonances that ‘looking back’ has for me at the moment. I have been doing a great deal of ‘looking back’ – in therapy, and outside it. It’s a painful process, and I know there’s much worse to come. The key Pandora’s boxes have been skilfully avoided – my grief over having to cease therapy with my previous counsellor being a very genuine, but also very convenient, distraction from those things that I would rather not talk about.
Though it’s all leading to the same place in the end – grief is loss, and loss is everywhere. It bubbled up occasionally in Susan Hill’s accounts of authors that she knew, but it bubbled up continually as I was reading, in my sense that ‘the past’ is defined by what I have lost or never had, and that ‘the future’ is defined by the losses to come. What should have joined the two, a stable thread of enduring identity, is shaky at best. When I hold up a mirror to the past, or try to look into a crystal ball, what I see depends entirely on who I was mirroring at the time, or who I am longing to ‘merge’ with now. The ‘therapy-honed’ eye of self-awareness picked up on it even as I was reading – the more I lost myself in the text, the more attracted and the closer I felt to its author. Its author who, like many of those who I have felt drawn to recently, is an older woman. Yet another source of sadness. Yet another closed box waiting to be opened.
The time passed all too quickly. I had read half of the book, and knew that the other half would probably have to be read in toddler-attention-span-sized chunks, or far too late at night when I knew I should be sleeping. I had beautiful hair – I’d been well looked after. When I got home no one commented, and I tried not to feel too hurt. Another borderline day – but with a difference. I wonder what my memories of this day will be, when I ‘re-discover’ the book in two, five, ten, twenty years from now? Will the actual memory be, as the prospective memory was, laden with sadness? Maybe. But I hope that I will remember that this was a day when I was able to conceive of a future; that an existence beyond the immediate chaos made sense and held, if not promise, at least possibilities. And that’s a little way further on than where I have been in the past.