I found Stag Boy in my local second-hand bookshop on a neglected shelf of children’s literature. I had no money on me at the time but knew I had to have it, so hid it behind some old copies of Harry Potter and came back for it later, cash in sweaty palm. This strange little book casts a powerful spell, for I instantly abandoned my current read to finish it in an afternoon. Stag Boy tells the tale of Jim, a frail boy who has returned to his rugged but beautiful native Exmoor to convalesce. One day, while exploring an abandoned cottage, he finds a strange helmet of fused antler and iron. From the moment Jim puts the helmet on his being becomes intertwined with the powerful black stag, which roams the surrounding countryside. The black stag gives Jim a confidence and power he has never known, but it is not long before the mysterious influence of the stag starts to overpower the human boy.
As 1970s young adult literature, elements of this story are of its time (gender roles, surprise surprise) but the pagan elements were unsettling and fascinating, and the writer's dreamlike descriptions add a primal mystery the story. It will remain with me for a long time. Also, how could I pass by a book with such a stunning illustration on the front cover? Especially when the artist appears to have used his Space Oddity album cover as a reference!
THEN AND NOW – SOMERSET MAUGHAM.
Then And Now chronicles three months in the life of subversive philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. Novels that imagine the lives, loves and clandestine conversations of real historical characters always intrigue me, and Then and Now was no exception. Add to the fact that I read this during my obsession with Renaissance Italy, at a time when my dreams were plagued by Borgias and Da Vinci paintings that came to life, I’d say this book turned up just when I needed it. Then and Now is also the first thing I’ve read by Somerset Maugham. Maugham has a spare, elegant but vital kind of style which I’m drawn to so the next time I happen across a book of his I won’t hesitate to pick it up.
D.H. LAWRENCE ESSAYS
I will always find things in Lawrence that speak to my soul. In one essay he relates his contentment about the known self being a dark forest, and how one must acknowledge the gods within oneself and other people, a creed I now live by. First recited on a dark Christmas Eve, before the storms, it gave me the courage to enter the New Year being content with the unknown elements of myself. So much of Lawrence is instinctual, he is at once literary and pagan. These essays provide an intriguing insight into Lawrence’s personal thinking, which many have criticised as inconsistent and vague. To me that misses the point of Lawrence completely, for a disciplined mind takes the heart out of the animal. What cold-minded critics may dismiss as unfocused is the passionate opinion of a man who feels as much as he thinks, who is unafraid to work by impulse and who recognises that the pulse of the body and the tugging of the soul are equal to (if not superior to) the mind. Passionate, poetic, at times difficult and aggressive, but always thought-provoking, this battered collection is now a well-thumbed addition to my shelf.