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Return to Button Snap

The other day I passed Button Snap cottage, former home of Charles Lamb. It was a glorious Summer day and I’d taken the afternoon off to go for a proper long walk out into the countryside. Outside the cottage is a relief (a kind of cameo in an oval, about three feet high) of the early 19th century essayist, together with a little sign telling the world who this sensitive, slightly dandyish figure was. (He was a pal of, and rather overshadowed by, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley, now best remembered for his 1807 Tales from Shakespeare and for being quoted at the start of To Kill a Mockingbird: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once”.) I paused to admire his memorial – and to think how long it had been since I had last been here.

The answer was 45 years. I had been 17 when I last stood here admiring the same piece of art and its literary subject. As I did so, I remembered vividly, I had dreamt of doing something really amazing with my life.

Oh, well. Life turned out to be infinitely more difficult than my teenage self thought it would be.

Love, for example: finding it, keeping it, nurturing it. Passion and good intentions simply weren’t enough.

Art, too. At 17, I could sit down and words would flow. Looking back, the stuff I wrote then was terribly naïve, though it certainly showed talent: even writing badly in the style of James Joyce takes ability. But turning raw talent into genuinely top-class stuff that touches loads of one’s fellow human beings ain’t easy.

I had no clue how the world of work operated. At the time, it seemed monstrous – my father hated his job, but belonged to a generation that put up and shut up. Post-hippie voices (it was 1971) were whispering that the best thing to do would be to drop out and avoid it altogether. I didn’t, but it would take a long time to get positive about the working world, and see it as an opportunity not a chore.

Looking back at the adolescent I was then, my overpowering thought is of how gullible I was. How easily I was led by people who talked a good talk, who invited me into their ‘games’ of victim, rescuer or persecutor. I had little understanding of human weakness, in myself and others, and thus little understanding of strength and the need for it.

Still… Standing here again, I didn’t feel the need to beat myself up for all these failings and the cock-ups that would result from them. Lamb himself (I discovered via Google when I got home) had a pretty up-and-down life. Time to head on and enjoy the rest of my beautiful walk.

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