Thursday, September 01, 2005

‘Birthdays were literary events — even though we only had six books’

Taken from,,923-1750306,00.html

August 27, 2005
By Jeanette Winterson

TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY. FORTY-SIX years ago I was left on the steps of a Manchester orphanage, and later adopted by my Pentecostal parents and taken to live in Accrington.

Birthdays in our house were always literary events, even though there were only six books in the house. The important book, the Bible, was used as Word of God and crystal ball. Ask a question, screw up your eyes, open at random and bang your finger on chapter and verse. It was simple and exhilarating. Sometimes, of course, there were setbacks; land on a nasty bit of the Old Testament and an innocent question such as, will my dreams come true? might get the reply: “Thy testicles shall be cut off for seven generations.”

On the other hand, Mrs Winterson, whose cast of mind was Old Testament, was very pleased when, troubled with calloused feet, she asked as her birthday question: will I be able to get my shoes on again in time for the baptismal service? The answer came back: “The Moabites hath eaten the Lord’s corn.” She took this as a yes.

Imagine my delight then, when I discover that Bloomsbury is just about to publish something as useful as The Ladies’ Oracle, by Cornelius Agrippa, a 15th-century German mystic and alchemist.

First published in 1857, this tiny tome is all about love — presumably because women weren’t worrying about getting promoted in those days. So Agrippa can’t help you on the career ladder, but if, for instance, you are thinking, right this minute, ought I to oppose the projects of my husband? Then there is an answer for you. I asked the oracle, how many lovers shall I have? The answer came back: “You will be always changing.” No point ordering the wedding dress then.

On lottery nights you could ask, may I hope to receive a fortune? My answer was: “You will be hoping in vain.” So good job I’m not going to the expense of the wedding.

The oracle is a fun way of doing what all of us who love books do; we read to make discoveries about ourselves. Fiction and poetry have oracular qualities, reading runes for us that we hardly know we have cast, interpreting signs that we would otherwise miss. One of the reasons I get rather depressed by the current fad for documentary-style fiction is its insistence on the explanatory above the symbolic. Good writing goes beyond its subject matter. Language is more than meaning. The things that we have read that we remember seem to move with us through our lives as we get older. Their symbolic value increases. This book, that poem, become repositories for our own changing memories, and retain the power to activate a response in us long after the moment.

When I was 16 I read Wuthering Heights for the first time, and I read it as a kind of oracle; that life is worth nothing if it is not worth everything. Disaster does not matter, intensity does. You can dilute Wuthering Heights, as Mills & Boon and musicals have done. But if you are honest, you cannot escape its central stark premise; all or nothing. The all is not Heathcliff — that is the sentimental version. The all is what Heathcliff represents, which is life itself.

A birthday is a good moment to think about life itself — especially a mid-life birthday. When Mrs Winterson was particularly fed up with me, which was often, but always on August 27, she used to say: “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.” Next to me, in the orphanage, had been a nice boy called Paul. Paul shadowed my childhood, not as the brother I might have had, but as the person I should have been. When I left home just after my 16th birthday, in time to work for a living and start my A levels, I had my books, and for the first time ever, I had myself. No Paul.
It was a beginning — that is, it was another beginning, but the great relief of a birthday is that you can start a new chapter. You won’t need The Ladies’ Oracle to tell you what it is you would like to change — and if there is something worth changing, then I have always found the energy of a favourite poem is a good psychic kick-start.

Anyway, my personal trainer tells me that my biological age (ho ho) is 37. She puts it down to the gym, but I put it down to the rejuvenating power of art. There’s nothing like a good book to keep you young.

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