Over an even longer period I have been having a go at writing a novel for children. This started on a holiday with the kids when we finally reached the end of the Harry Potter series which I had read aloud form beginning to end to my oldest son over many years. He is now at Sheffield studying Politics. Anyway – with nothing else to read I started writing 1000 words a day which I have continued to do on holidays ever since. My boys politely tell me they are fans but are slightly impatient with the progress. The title is taken from an old Geography text book and the book’s heart is all the magic of cartography. So – just to test the waters (and a lot more nervously than the previous entry) here is some of it….
Max looked forward to the weekends. It’s not that he didn’t like school, it’s just that Saturday meant the freedom to explore. Many of his friends were not allowed this privilege. Their parents didn’t like them traveling too far and organized their Saturdays and Sundays for them – one activity after another – an endless stream of music lessons, church, sports events, visits to relatives and extra homework. Not so for Max – he was allowed to roam London promising only to be back by dinner time. Six o’clock sharp was the only fixed point in his timetable. Max always had dinner with his family. His dad, Simon, was a professor of philosophy at the University of London. His mother, Annabelle was a novelist who wrote long novels he was forbidden to read. He once read a review in a Sunday paper that called one of her books a “post-modern allegory for the collapse of civilization.” That seemed rather grand but he had no idea what it meant. And then there was his little sister Rosemary – a wild child, six years younger than him, who roamed their rambling house in Ealing, imagining herself in lands of dragons and princesses until six o’clock – and that, of course, was dinner time.
Max didn’t know anybody who always had dinner with their family. His school friends would sometimes eat dinner while watching TV. Others would have dinner before their parents. But Max, Rose, Simon and Annabelle always sat down at six and told their stories of the day.
And now it was already three. He had to leave an hour for the tube ride home – no time for the bus today – and today he was in his favourite London haunt. Saturday morning, for Max, was decision time. London lay before him. Miles upon miles of new worlds to explore. A lifetime of square and alleyways, tree-lined avenues and rambling parks. You could spend a whole lifetime exploring and never leave London. So where to go? Sometimes he would consult one of the guides that lined the living room wall mixed randomly with accounts of travels in Thailand or Tibet, books of medieval recipes, complicated novels written by people with foreign sounding names and occasional, small, cardboard children’s books with bright pictures of talking animals. More often he would simply pick a station on the map of London transport he had on his bedroom wall. He loved this map -the way it connected places in ways that made little sense on London’s surface. It was elegant and full of opportunities for surprises – a secret key that unlocked London.
His aim was to visit every station on the map. He was only quarter of the way into his quest. The red and silver trains had taken him to Richmond with its huge slice of Royal countryside, deer and the best Italian ice-cream; he had passed through endless lines of suburban streets with black and white mock-tudor houses; he had enjoyed the sights, sounds and smells of Brick Lane in the east end with its calls to prayer from the mosque nestled up against small shops selling chopped liver bagels. He had walked down the Regent’s canal to Camden where he had watched the Goths and the emos with their black make up and silver studded belts.
But today was not one for new discoveries – today was a return to an old favourite – the elegant regular houses, neat green squares and grand learned buildings of Bloomsbury and, more importantly, the bookshops by the British Museum and down the Charing Cross Road.
This is where his dad spent days in the tall white, tombstone-like building of Senate House – the University of London library. This is where one of his mum’s favourite writers – Virginia Wolff – had lived, fermenting new stories with her friends. It seemed like every other house had a blue plaque announcing the former residence of noted scientists, engineers and artists. In its centre was the British Museum, thronged with tourists – seemingly from every corner of the globe. When it rained he would sit in the central atrium admiring the huge glass roof and enjoying a lemonade or hot chocolate.
Today, however, was a day for bookshops. There seemed to be hundreds of bookshops around the British Museum and down the Charing Cross Road. Most famous was Foyles, a huge rambling one-of-a-kind store with seemingly never ending floors of every conceivable kind of book and secret little café hidden away among jazz CDs. This is where Annabelle would meet her writer friends for dark, strong coffee and the swapping of ideas. Then there was the chain stores with their 3 for 2 offers and coffee-table books of glossy pictures. Annabelle and Simon moaned about these stores over dinner. They never seemed to stock either Annabelle’s post-modern allegories or Simon’s even more complicated accounts of the philosophy of beauty. “Philistines” they would grumble. But what enchanted Max most were the array of little bookshops specializing in art, or the movies, or science fiction or old first editions. He loved the black signs above the windows with gold or silver lettering. He delighted in the smell of the second hand books and today he was looking forward to flipping through the £1 bargain boxes outside the stores. He had £3 to spend and burning a hole in his pocket.
Max made his way from Russell Square station (one of his favourites due to the long spiraling staircase that led from the platform to the surface of the deepest station in London. He had climbed them twice) across the square, past the fountain and towards the Museum. It was an unusually sunny day for April and the cafes were spilling over on to the pavements. Students from the nearby University were sprawled across the neat lawns and two young children were running in and out of the fountain as their mothers sat on a nearby shaded bench. Max loved days like this.
When he reached the Museum the adventure really began. A line of second-hand bookstores lined the street across from the museum entrance, interspersed with souvenir shops which sold anything you could put a Union Jack on. The first shop he entered had an array of faded comic books in the window. He liked cartoons and comics. Somewhere on the bookshelves that lined almost every wall of his house were volumes of Tintin and Asterix the Gaul as well as weird cartoons from America like Krazy Kat and Love and Rockets. His mum insisted on calling them “graphic novels”. He hadn’t been in this shop before. It had the words “Komic Kapers” written in big bubbly letters across the window.
Behind the desk sat a large, sweating man with little round glasses too small for his face. He didn’t notice Max. Max had a procedure for dealing with new bookshops. He would start at the furthest back corner and look across the middle and bottom shelves. His dad once told him that you often found the best books on the bottom shelf because so few people would bother to stoop down and look. He spent a good twenty minutes flipping through vintage science fiction comics cartoons with supposedly futuristic space ships that now looked old fashioned. Funny how the future back then seemed older now, he thought. He had a quick look at the section of children’s picture books. As always, he found a copy of Where the Wild Things Are. He parents had told him he had been named after the little boy who found himself on an island of dancing beasts. It always made him happy to see it.
On exiting, he noticed the bookshelf outside with the sticker which read – “take your pick – 50p”. After a further five minutes he had bought two comics. One, for his sister Rose, was a simple colour comic book about a family of horses who befriended a lonely unicorn. The other, for him, was a dark, monochrome detective story from Chicago featuring a square-jawed private eye in a black hat and in need of a shave.
And so the afternoon unfolded. By half past four he had a pound left and reached Tottenham Court Road, He considered descending the stairs at the station and returning home on the Central Line – the straight red line that ran through the city – east to west connecting the endless western suburbs with the mysterious land of the tightly packed East End. But that would waste a precious half hour of a precious Saturday. Instead he headed towards Leicester Square down Charing Cross Road. No time for Foyles today, he thought, and crossed the road as he spotted a promising line of bargain boxes outside a string of old looking shops – no 3 for 2 deals here.
After a quick ten minutes in a far-too-expensive shop of first editions and framed prints where he had been spied on incessantly by a thin balding man with a humourless, thin-lipped face, he made his way down a little side street and stopped outside a green storefront with the intriguing name, “All Possible Worlds”. This immediately made him think of his sister and her fantasy books with curious maps and tall bearded men in cloaks adorning their covers. He stepped inside. It was probably the smallest store he had ever been in. It was just wide enough for one grand old wooden bookshelf to run lengthwise down the centre of the room. Against the walls was what looked like a kitchen counter made of similarly aged, dark wood under which were hundreds of thin, long drawers, each with faded yellow card labels stuck inside a brass holder. No-one appeared to be in.
Max bent down to examine a label which read “Indonesia, 18th Century”. It was only then that he noticed that the walls above the counter were decorated with not posters but maps. All kinds of maps. Many were of London or parts of London. All were over a hundred years old. At the far end of the room he discovered a map of South Asia from the eighteenth century, Around the edges of the multi-coloured map were pictures of strange looking animals and noble looking people. Rose would like this one, he thought. He also noticed that the maps cost hundreds of pounds. No way to get rid of a pound coin here then.
As Max was about the leave he noticed a small box on the floor to the right of the door. £1 each was written in red felt-tip on the side. In the box were two sheets of paper, each in a protective clear plastic envelope. Idly he picked up the one closest to him. It seemed to be a slightly yellowing plain piece of paper. He turned it over and recognized it at once. It was a map of the London underground. Not the one everyone would recognize now but a more curvy version – an old one. A huge smile welled up from within. What better way to spend a pound!
Taking the remaining coin from his pocket he took the map to the desk and said as loudly as he dared – “hello – is there anyone here?” And then again – this time a proper shout – “Hello”. Still no-one emerged from the door at the back of the shop. But Max was determined to have this map with or without a shop assistant. He reached down inside his shoulder bag and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and a pencil, On the paper he wrote “Here is £1 for the map from the box – I called but no-one came – Max Caxton”.
It was ten past five – he had to be quick to get home for six.