Well, that might be what a Bob Dylan character would do, but on a freezing winter day, I wasn’t quite up to it: I had my google map printed out, my coat with a fur hood, my hat, my gloves, my scarf and a threatening ear infection. At the best of times, navigation isn’t my forte, so I was ready to count down the streets and avenues one by one until I found Union Square, where I was to have lunch with Sarah, my editor at Farrer, Straus & Giroux. I found it easily of course, because the streets really are a numbered grid. And lunch was lovely: home made ricotta gnocchi with tomato, and a very good, very expensive white wine to celebrate the contract I had signed for my first novel, The Anchoress. Sarah told me she had a thousand questions to ask me but she began by asking just one: ‘So, who are you?’ Oh that! Easily answered … when I find out, I’ll let you know. Now could I have the thousand please; just start at number one.
A couple of hours later (how did I answer that question, I wonder?) I rugged up and headed back into the cold. Now I was no longer counting down the streets, I slowed and looked around. Gradually realised I must have looked like someone from a seventies movie, the star struck hopeful actress who finally made her way to New York, spinning, her arms in the air (Barbara Streisand, was it?). Well, I didn’t do all that, and I wasn’t star struck, but I kept stopping, looking up, overwhelmed by the beautiful buildings. I understand now that the fantasy of Gotham City in the Batman movies was really just an intensification of the lace, stone faces, art deco, colours and carving of the original. I’m not a fan of cities, especially busy cities, but the delicacy, the detail and the fantastic decorations softened the harshness of the metropolis for me. It felt like a place where all sorts of stories would be possible. I tried to take photos but here is the dilemma: gloves on and I couldn’t press the button; gloves off and my hands were too cold to hold the iphone straight.
The New York Public Library was warmer and I spent an easy couple of hours exploring the reading rooms, peering at the astonishing ceilings and wandering around the exhibition of children’s books, from the sixteenth-century moral primers for children to Alice in Wonderland, the Nancy Drew mysteries, Maurice Sendak and, the highlight for me, the Winnie-the-Pooh toys. There, in a glass case, the ‘real’ Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Kanga and Eeyore, all softened from play and cuddles, worn into a gentle grey-brown by the ‘real’ Christopher Robin. I wondered later why I was so excited to see the toys — after all, stories are about imagination, aren’t they?
When I was little I had a Peter Rabbit toy, and though I don’t remember much about the stories, or if they were even read to me, I know that he was soft enough to fit well underneath my arm, or I could carry him by the ears. Sadly in my many moves as a child, he was left behind as we purged for packing, and I wish I still had him. My husband still has his teddy, patched, mended, armless now and apparently falling apart just sitting on the shelf, aging.
When my son was born, an auntie gave him a scrunched-up looking creature he called Gronk with flat, wing-type arms just right for carrying. Everywhere. One of my daughters had a teddy that she carried by the ribbons around its neck, which she rubbed between her fingers for comfort, so much so that each year on her birthday Teddy also received new ribbons. One by one the ribbons became a record of the years.
So that’s it, isn’t it? Or at least part of it. The toys and the stories go together. The toys are companions that hug us as much as we hug them; with them and the stories they tell us, the world is bigger and more manageable, magical and familiar, scary and then safer, endlessly invented and discovered. It fades with growing up and getting serious, but it’s always there. AA Milne had his son to help take him back there, and Gronk and Teddy did the same for me; I didn’t write their stories, but I’ve written others. If I could have taken my editor to the Public Library with me, that question ‘Who are you?’ might have been easier to answer.