At the beginning of this holiday, I realised I had too much clutter. How much is too much? Well, when I realised there wasn’t a decent permanent home for my university-work folders because schoolbooks dating back to when I was nine were in the way… I realised I had to throw some stuff out.
I hold onto it because at one point it might have come in useful, and then when I probably should have thrown it out I never got around to it, and then of course it never got thrown out when the next pile got put on the shelf. It’s a plan doomed to failure. So, just before Christmas, I sat down with some binliners and started trawling the shelves.
And the overall feeling was… I don’t need any of this any more. None of it was useful. Out of stuff since I was eleven, all I’ve held onto are some English notes from 13 onwards, and my Chemistry and Latin notes – simply because they’re useful as refernce material, in that not everything I knew was in a textbook, especially Latinwise (and obviously I’ve kept all my English texts, because, well, they’re real books and you don’t throw them away, do you?). But when I discovered three lever-arch files just full of A-Level Maths practice papers… it wasn’t a difficult decision to bin them. I’ve got a few textbooks; “Understanding Pure Mathematics” should cover most stuff if I ever need it again, and Stats was never really that hard. In the end, I filled three binliners with endless practice papers, ancient Geography notes, and project-drafts. The space I’ve gained is wonderful.
But I did find one curiosity, and put it on my desk to write about some time. Namely: a reading record notebook from when I was about eleven. I must warn you now: I was a precocious eleven. And I read masses back then. Mainly, from the looks of it, dodgy teenage scifi. But we’ll forget that, I read proper stuff too. Anyhow, buried at the bottom of a page are a few comments on HG Wells’ The Time Machine. You know. Wells’ first book, that took three different versions and countless drafts before he got it right, and kicked off his scientific romances and some of his best writing. And in a neat, pre-adolescence and still clean script, are the words: “very good but I have read better”.
Jesus wept. Where have you read better? Not in some of the dodgy stuff you were reading around it, though the list is still pretty good (and I rank The Borrowers and Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising as high as ever, especially the latter). I did get it slightly better on The War of the Worlds: “I couldn’t put it down. This books is how every book should be”.
I hated reading records. I hated being forced to read. You couldn’t really stop me reading; now you kind-of can, simply by forcing me to do it for work, or taking the time for reading-for-pleasure away by filling it up with work… but back then, it was just something I loved doing. Having to do it as ritual seemed strange to me; it wasn’t effort to disappear into a book, so I found the idea of having to write it all down irritating. And it’s now strange to look back on those words, written by an eleven-year-old in short trousers, with impossibly neat handwriting, who didn’t even know where he was going in the world (but probably wanted to be a physicist or programmer or something like that) and look at where he is now. Where is he now? Well, I’m reading English, at a relatively decent university on a course that has suddenly blossomed and got me really fired up about work for once. And my final year dissertation, 20% of my end mark, is on HG Wells. It’s one of the most fascinating things I’ve studied – early sci-fi and early-modern science, two of the most interesting topics I’ve met at Cambridge and now both real interests of mine. If only I could tell the eleven year old me everything I know now. And convince him that the The Time Machine might be slightly better than he thinks.