Thursday, 18 February 2010

Looking-Glass Land

I was sitting in my upstairs writing room (the tiny spare bedroom) when I saw one of our cats – the black one with the white shirt-front – trot purposefully across the road, down my opposite neighbour’s drive, and disappear into the hedge.

I found myself wondering what tales a cat could tell.  Do they construct narratives for themselves?  What  does life mean to a cat?
For cats lead very different lives to ours.  We hardly even live in the same house. From down on the floor, things look utterly different. The functions of objects are not the same for my cats and me.  I don’t walk on the table (neither should they, but they do); I don’t sleep on the stairs; I’m not desperate to lose myself in the garage, I'm not interested in what’s going on under the kitchen sink.  When I go out the back or front door, I don’t tense and look carefully about for enemies. 

I don’t know what my cats get up to when they go out, but I suspect it’s adventurous and epic, with dangers everywhere.  Cats that go outdoors are never bored.  And what must it be like to go up trees the way they do?  We were pruning the apple tree a few weeks back, and I realised how very much higher it feels, at the top of the ladder, than it seems from the ground; and how very different the garden looks from up there.

I suppose you remember it was the black kitten’s fault that Alice went through the Looking Glass?  It wouldn’t fold its arms properly, and she held it up to the mirror ‘that it might see how sulky it was –

‘and if you’re not good directly,’ she added, ‘I’ll put you through the Looking Glass-House…
‘Now… I’ll tell you all my ideas about the Looking-glass House.  First, there’s the room you can see through the glass – that’s just the same as our drawing room, only the things go the other way.  I can see all of it when I get upon a chair – all but the bit just behind the fireplace.  Oh!  I do so wish I could see that bit.  I want so much to know whether they’ve a fire in the winter: you never can tell, you know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too – but that may be only pretence, to make it look as if they had a fire. Well then, the books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way; I know that, because I’ve held up one of our books to the glass, and then they hold one up in the other room.’

Let’s stop for a moment and just reflect (pardon me) on how sinister (sorry again) Alice’s chatter actually is.  She’s not even stepped through the looking glass yet, but she’s already come up with the disquieting notion that the people who live there are NOT us; and that they may be deliberately deceiving us.  It isn't her own reflection holding up the book in the mirror, but a mysterious ‘they’.  (And a nice bit of observation on Lewis Carroll’s part:  the looking glass is on the high mantelpiece: Alice, as a little girl, is not tall enough to see herself in it: if she holds a book up over her head she can see the reflected book, but not the person holding it.)

Alice continues:  ‘You can see just a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing room wide open: and it’s very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond.’

And, of course, it is.  ‘What could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but all the rest was as different as possible.  For instance, the pictures on the wall next the fireplace seemed to be all alive, and the very clock on the chimney piece…had got the face of a little old man, and grinned at her.’

People – adults as well as children – often ask writers the dreaded question, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’  It’s so very difficult to answer because a lot of the time, we don’t actually know. But I’ve evolved an answer. Fittingly, it’s in the shape of a story.  Some years ago on a book tour I stayed in a Manchester hotel, and my room overlooked the windows of a derelict building across the street.  Because I'm a storyteller, I immediately imagined a face in one of the broken windows, looking back at me.  Who might it be?  A ghost?  A fugitive?  A member of a gang?  Somebody from the past?  An alternative me?  And any one of those choices would lead to a different story.  

My ideas come from that hop across the street, that quantum jump that takes me out of myself into a different place, to see the world from a different, slewed angle. 

They come from Looking-glass Land.


  1. Isn't it wonderful how ideas come? I am often worried that I'll run out someday, but there always seems to be a new story waiting just down the corridor, beyond the place where the wall curves and hides the room from view.
    I read both Alice books as a child and always got that nasty nightmarish feeling you get sometimes when you have a high fever. They are disquieting to say the least.

  2. Cool! Too tired to say anything intelligent, but I really enjoyed this post, Kath!

  3. I agree, Jo, the Alice books are disquieting - but very very intriguing too! I feel a new post coming on... maybe for next week.