Under the wide, free-wheeling skies, through the sugar-beet fields, and among the woods and streams of Nottinghamshire, I had a wild, wide-ranging childhood. Then we moved and I woke up, on the threshold of adolescence, boxed into a terraced house in Reading. I must have been eleven.
The town closed itself round me with its always indoors places, and the town was grey. The roads were grey and the buildings were grey. The pigeons and gulls that blew, like litter, about the sky were grey. And the sky was hemmed-in and small. By night, it was even lit up, as if it too was indoors; the soft silver of its own scattered lights swallowed in sodium glow. In the day it matched my new school uniform, which was grey. Or at least that was how it seemed.
How had we got so shut in? - Why were we here, in this place made of tarmac and front doors, of walls and pavements, cars and broken shopping trolleys and glass and railings? We weren’t allowed to roam around. It was dangerous. We weren’t told how. At night, outside my bedroom, there was a drunk - was it just once, or every night? - hawking and staggering and groaning in the street below my window. Perhaps he was the danger. I didn’t know. In the mornings I got up early, made myself breakfast, and bicycled down the hill, past cherry blossom so pink it might have been plastic, on my boy’s bike, on my way to my all girls’ school.
It wasn’t just the town. It was also that the move marked the end of childhood. It closed me into my body and my body had become a place I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want these bulges, this unstoppable plumping femininity. I didn’t want this clock inside me, telling me monthly that I was now a woman. Where was the girlboy, fishbird, fluid thing I’d been before? How would I ever get used to this lesser, more restricted me?
I missed the stream. I missed the skies and the whirling winds. I missed the fields where the owl passed, white-faced, before bedtime and his hollow hoot in the dark. I missed the world that had seemed to match my restlessness with its own, always changing, always on the move. And I missed my old self. Where could I go, now I couldn’t leave my own body? Where could I roam, wide and wild, like I always had before?
I never dreamed the answer would come from a particular book - but that is just what happened. I read all the time but for some reason this book was different. It was Leonard Cottrell’s The Bull of Minos, in a paperback edition called, ‘Pan piper illustrated’. There was something exotic sounding about that. There was something exotic too about its cover.
The lettering on the red and white front was in black and gold. I remember that clearly, though I don’t remember where or why I picked it up. Filling the whole of the cover was a black bull’s head; strange and savage looking. It had a gold rosette on its forehead and long and finely-tapering golden horns between which the title was caught. Something about it matched how I felt. I’d never seen anything like it before but I recognised it immediately, like something I had lost.
It is the account of three archaeological excavations, the finding of Mycenae, the Minoan palace at Knossos, and ancient Troy, carried out by Heinrich Schliemann and Arthur Evans. That makes it sound dry. It isn’t dry. It’s full of light and full of gold and both of those were the opposite of grey. More than that though, it is the story of the passionate exploration of a ruined civilisation by two men who believed that the great myths they’d been told as children were actually true. I too knew the stories of Troy and its wooden horse, of Agamemnon and his terrible murder, and of King Minos and his labyrinth. I’d read them as myths, not as history. I’d never thought that there might be real places where, at some distant time, these things had truly happened. Following in the footsteps of his chosen archaeologists, Cottrell journeys across modern Greece and Turkey to visit these ancient sites, telling the story of the excavations as he goes. Here he is, tired and disoriented by travel, disappointed by Greece’s tatty poverty, alone, on a train at nightfall:
Glancing up when the train had been halted for nearly a minute I happened to see a station name- board in the yellow light of an oil lamp. It was Mycenae. Even as I snatched my bag from the rack and scrambled out of the carriage the absurdity of the situation struck me. To see the name of Agamemnon’s proud citadel, Homer’s ‘Mycenae, rich in gold’, the scene of Aeschylus’s epic tragedy, stuck on a station platform, was too bizarre. And yet there it was. And there was I, the sole occupant of the platform, watching the red rear-light of the little train as it slowly receded into the night.
That was what did it. That was the paragraph that got me hooked - the idea that stories could be true, that a book could open like a door onto a real place, at once now, in the present, and as it was in some other distant time. I loved the blurring of the edges of history, fiction, and reality. I loved the slippage of travelling in three dimensions at once, through time, across geographical space, and into story. And there was so much detail. There was this whole country where I’d never been - the drama of the digging, and the waiting and working, and the impossible dream of gold. There was the first breath-stopping glint of it, those long-lost possessions of kings lying, battered but intact, in the mud. But there was also the ordinariness of stations and grubby carriages and train lights. I was caught - caught among the moonlit olive trees - as Cottrell set out to walk to his lodgings, with his suitcase in his hand and the ancient stories in his head.
Behind him, my little box room in Reading forgotten, I too was setting out on that midnight road, free and fierce with intent, and with the glamour of the Greek myths moving like great shadowing clouds, somewhere in the air above me.
In some ways I’ve been following Cottrell ever since. When I came to write my own books, in particular when I was writing Lost Property, I remembered the freedoms he taught me: the knack of slipping round the back, of ignoring what everyone said wasn’t possible and of daring to cross borders of time and fiction, as well as conventional ones of space.
I didn’t plan to write a travel book, or a history book and I certainly didn’t plan to hold conversations with the many people who had been before - all of whom were dead. It was something that just unfolded, as we rolled across Europe towards Cottrell’s Greece. I followed the lives of the people who’d lived in the places we passed through. Just as Cottrell had done before I threw myself into reimagining what they’d striven for: the dream that an Italian baron had of rescuing the Camargue, or a French archaeologist’s passion for Egypt, or just someone like Aubrey Beardsley, trying to get well in the Mediterranean sun.
The longer we travelled the more things blurred and freed themselves of convention. Rattling across France for instance, in our battered van, past the places where she fought, or the white cathedrals where she prayed, it began to seem natural to speak to Joan of Arc. As if time were like a sea I became aware of how many people were travelling alongside us, at the deeper levels of different ages. It was as if I could see them, criss- crossing back and forth, busily moving about just below me; the Bayeux Tapestry knight with flowing moustaches, for instance, who was buried in Boulogne, or Dickens hiding out with his mistress, or Joyce eating cake in Trieste and arguing with his friend Svevo.
At first I spoke to them just in my head. I asked them the questions I wanted to ask about the times they lived in and the events they lived through and all the possessions they left behind. What did they think about nationhood? Or about war, or love, or death? What was the point of it all? Gradually, as if they were all still somewhere there, they started to talk back. As if through the door of a book, whether writing or reading, you could go, not just forwards, down the real open roads, but back, to a time before.
Travel shifts your perspective. While for migrants and those who didn’t already belong, the borders to the countries we crossed became not just fixed but closed, for us they came to seem less and less real. They were only invented so recently, after all. Instead it was those who’d wanted them there, or wanted them gone, the long-gone people who’d crossed them back and forth, fighting, or writing, or trying as I was, to make sense of the beauty and the nonsense of being alive, who came like Cottrell’s Greek heroes, to seem the most vivid things; more real, more lasting, more present, in every sense.
Laura Beatty is the prize-winning author of both fiction and non-fiction. Oxford educated, she began writing in her twenties, while working in the art world in London and New York. She has written two biographies (one for children) and three novels. Pollard, her first novel, won the Authors’ Club award and was shortlisted for the Ondaatje prize. Her third biography, a life of Aristotle’s favourite pupil, which is a mix of travel, history and imaginative life-writing, will come out next year.
She is also a regular writer of short stories, journal articles, and book reviews and has contributed an introduction to the reprint of H E Bates’ Through the Woods.
She teaches writing at the University of Western England, runs residential courses in England and abroad, and runs regular writing workshops for NHS nurses and for various Social Sector projects.
Place, landscape and time are important themes in her writing and she is interested in imaginative and experimental forms. She likes collaborative work and is very interested in how art and music affect writing. She is working on producing something with her own illustrations.
Every ten years or so a new writer appears who puts the old hands to shame. Laura Beatty is just such a writer.
Amanda Foreman, in the Daily Mail, on Lillie Langtry.