Alice in Wonderland wasn’t actually one of my favourite books as a child – I’m not even sure I read an unabridged version until I was an adult – but in a curious way I feel it has always been part of the world of my imagination. All of us, after all, use phrases from it: grinning like a Cheshire cat, galumphing, chortling. I remember loving the Disney film – the earworm of ‘The Unbirthday Song’ and how people often sing-songed: ‘I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date’ – and a fancy dress day at my primary school where I was Alice with an apron and a tray of jam-tarts and my father (who was deputy head) was the Mad Hatter with a towering hat.
And then in my first year at secondary school I was Alice again in the school play, a double-bill of Wonderland and Looking-Glass. I stooped to a tiny door in the dusty school-hall, conversed with a caterpillar, had a crush on the March Hare, recited ‘The Jabberwocky’ to Humpty Dumpty and can still recall the fresh paint-smell of roses in the Queen’s croquet ground as she screeched ‘Off with their Heads!’ I was growing out the fringe I scraped back with a pale blue headband and felt myself to be, like Alice, both clever and confused; getting bigger and smaller. I had so many words to remember I made myself sick with the stress of it, especially after I apologised to the audience when another child missed a cue and was told off (coming out of character was an amateur’s error.) In those days I had a habit of fainting – exiting via my own rabbit hole – and on the week of the performances kept spinning out and being sent out of class to lie down.
They are extraordinary books. It is hard to think of any others that create such an entire and unique world, with its own peculiar dream-logic and no recourse to mythology or dragons or elves. The Wizard of Oz perhaps? Certain images or lines haunt me. I used to have a recurring nightmare about becoming too big for a house – an arm out of the window, a foot up the chimney. Or I cry: “I am real!” and Tweedledee remarks: “You won’t make yourself a bit realer by crying.”
(illustration by John Tenniel)
My new collection has a few poems inspired by children’s stories – Hamelin, Pinocchio, princesses and the Tiger who Came to Tea all make appearances – and I always felt I had to include Alice, so have been tinkering with a poem about her for a while. Which meant I was very pleased to discover that it was the 150th anniversary of the book, and that the wonderful team behind the Ekphrasis events – Abegail Morley, Catherine Smith and Emer Gillespie – were planning a reading and publication to accompany the British Library’s Alice exhibition. I will be there on the 4th and 5th of March alongside a very starry lineup – as well as the organisers and myself you can see Ian Duhig, Helen Mort, Amali Rodrigo, Sasha Dugdale, Robert Seatter, Luke Wright, Chris McCabe, Hollie McNish and Mona Arshi. Tickets are £20 but include a beautiful copy of the book which, having seen the proofs, I can confirm is full of delights – as a sneak preview here’s a poem by Heidi Williamson, a poet who seems as haunted by that Victorian child as I am, writing:
In the cold blue light
there’s a hole full of girl.