Sometimes when I can’t sleep I retrace the route I used to take to school. I went by bicycle (on my brother’s bicycle for some reason, a dark green one with a crossbar; I don’t know why I didn’t have one of my own, but he was away at school so his was unused), preceded on the same route by my father, who walked into town to get the train to London. Our house was old, had originally been a farm and must at some time have stood alone on the edge of the hill, by Hogback Wood. By the time we lived there a housing estate had been built behind it, and during our time another one was built between that one and the main road. Our path to the town was a remnant of the olden days, perhaps an ancient right-of-way miraculously protected from the builders.
My route started between our house and the Somervells’ (Andrew Somervell, who joined the army and was killed in Northern Ireland, was my brother’s best friend), through part of the older estate – early 60s red brick – past the houses of people we didn’t know and some we did, like Dave, whose mother let us watch their television. We didn’t have one ourselves so could only keep up with I Love Lucy and the Dick van Dyke Show in Dave’s house. Next was the Muirs’ house, with whose two children, Robert and Penelope, we sometimes played Monopoly, whole afternoons with biscuits and orange squash. Robert always won. They had an original set, which confused me terribly; it wasn’t until years later that I discovered that it was not based on New York, but Atlantic City, and Boardwalk wasn’t the same as Broadway. Eventually my parents did buy a television, and a Monopoly set, but, always different, they went to a lot of trouble to get the Dublin version (Shrewsbury Road, Kimmage and Crumlin).
On I would go, taking a road to the left, at the end of which was the join between the two estates, and the footpath. It ran between fences and hedges, with overhanging trees, and it was silent, a world of its own between the other worlds of houses, roads and cars. You wouldn’t know anyone who lived there, this was foreign territory, the backs of houses, the bottoms of gardens. The path wasn’t paved, you made no sound on it, although if I think hard I can remember rattling sounds coming from the stuff in my school case on the back of the bike. In my memory I was always alone on that path.
At the end you turned left and came into a kind of glade, quite wide, with dark trees, yews, I suppose, and the ground covered with moss. This was straight from a book, a secret space, forgotten by the urban planners. There were old fences on one side, the backs of more houses, and modern fortifications (that estate was definitely for the nouveaux-riches) on the other, but in between these was this magical space, where time felt as it were about to slip, where you might suddenly find yourself in another era. It was dark and, despite the occasional shaft of sunlight on the moss (many years later I found this in a Chinese poem: ‘Where sunlight, entering a grove,/ shines back to me from the green moss’), very slightly creepy: I did not linger.
At the end was a concrete path going up to the right which deposited me back in the real world of pavements and front gardens: this was Reynolds Road, and opposite was Beaconsfield library, where I had my first job, stamping the books and answering silly questions from readers on Saturday mornings. To reach my school I turned left, but I didn’t usually get that far, with any luck I would be asleep by then.
Some time ago I discovered that Robert Frost lived in Beaconsfield, for a few years between 1912 and 1914, and it was while he was there that he met Edward Thomas and encouraged Thomas to write poetry. This has always struck me as a miracle: Thomas was a writer, struggling to survive on prose, he wrote biographies, books on nature, guides and reviews, and then he met Frost and asked his advice about writing poetry. And Frost said that he should, that in fact he already was: ‘he was writing as good a poetry as anybody alive but in prose form where it didnt declare itself and gain him recognition’ (Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, 2011). This was in 1914, Edward Thomas was killed in France in 1917; his Poems came out at the end of that year.
Whatever growing up in semi-rural England is good for, even in a part of it that was rapidly being built over, it certainly gives one a direct line to Edward Thomas: rereading his long pastoral poem ‘Lob’ I find that it even has a footpath and a Hog’s Back. And bursting out from that mossy grove onto Reynolds Road turns out to be even more significant than I thought: it was actually the street on which Robert Frost lived. His bungalow, on the right, must have been behind those old fences in the grove, on the other side of which were cherry orchards, which were later built over and became the estate behind our house. But now I know too much to fall asleep: there I stand on Reynolds Road and the world has opened up, instead of closing off.