I’m not sure how old I was when the first escapist impulse struck, but throughout childhood, I remember being miffed by story characters who found their way to a different world and wanted to go home. Whether in the The Jungle Book, The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland, this fascination with getting back to Earth once you’d actually managed to leave it was frustraing, incomprehensible, weird. Narnia provided rare satisfaction, in that the Pevensie children stayed to grow into kings and queens, but other narratives weren’t nearly so accomodating. What I wanted was real escapism: someone who not only left the planet, but with a sense of willingness and adventure.
At school, this lead to my imagining a fictional doppleganger, one Saffron Coulter, who was able to do just that. An ordinary student, Saffron was plucked from her maths class by powerful, humerous entities with a stake in the smooth running of the multiverse, given the power to travel between worlds and to comprehend all languages, and sent off on a mission to discover – what? That varied on my mood and inclination: sometimes, to stop a malevolent entity throwing things out of whack; to uncover the fate of another (handsome, male, half-human) agent; to venture as a prophetess to ancient worlds; to find the grave of angels. Armed with nothing more than her school uniform, a change of old clothes, some books, pens, a battered backpack and sarcasm, Saffron wove her travels through my imagination, accompanied by Jung and Minka, a pair of transdimensional serpent-wyrms, or Ingryn and Balter, two chattermouthed, gecko-handed, hand-and-a-half-high imps. In pen sketches, unfinished stories and endless daydreams, Saffron journeyed to the farthest corners of the possible, leaving me to stay at home and sigh wistfully.
As I grew older, the longing for a magic door remained. Watching a remade Planet of the Apes, I cursed roundly as Mark Walhberg struggled to get home, the foolish fool! – and all to no avail. Even as more films embraced the concept (Gary Sinese voyaging with Martians at the end of Red Mars, Neo’s epiphany in the first Matrix), I wasn’t satisfied; because what I wanted, deep down, was my own means of escape. The feeling was a powerful mix of youthful selfishness and intelligent frustration: my life was extremely good, but in day-to-day terms, I had almost no control over it. I got up early, went to school, went to class, came home, ate and slept. Breaks in routine were scant, and rarely on my terms: only summer holidays provided a reprieve.
It wasn’t until the revamped Dr Who that I realised the significance of home, and why so many characters had wanted to return there. As Rose rejected the Doctor’s first invitation to join him on the Tardis, the enormity of forever abandoning an Earthly life – family, friends, the familiar – hit me for the first time. How could I simply vanish, telling no-one where I’d gone? How would I ever find my way back when the journey ended? At this point, the Doctor reappeared, pointing out that the Tardis was also a time-ship. Grinning gratefully, Rose hopped on board, and I grinned with her, having found the answer to at least one question. Only if it’s a time-ship, or goes both ways, I thought, wryly.
Looking back, the feverish escapism that prompted me to inhabit Saffron was born of modern youthful frustrations, most of which remain valid. Teenagers occupy a discomforting limbo between childhood and adulthood: day to day, minimal rights are balanced against oppressive (but, paradoxially, trivial) responsibilities, a subtle combination often overlooked by adults. Students might lack the burdens of parental duty and jobs, but the scope for choice and personal satisfaction in both cases far outweighs anything available before university. In memory, most adults recall the freedoms of school in comparison to their current boundaries, forgetting that the knowledge and rights they’ve since accumulated – to disregard false authority, say, or to get work done quickly, to drive and go out drinking – didn’t apply at the time, and wouldn’t if they returned.
On an intellectual level, I can’t comprehend surviving school as I am now: either following all the petty rules would send me mad, or I’d do as I pleased and get expelled. Experience and time act on all of us. I’ve given up yearning for a magic door – even on awful days, the best I can conjour up is part of the multiverse coming to visit, staying for a bite of lunch and vanishing again.
But maybe one day, I’ll write Saffron a real adventure. She’ll roam the worlds, save the day, get properly kissed, lose her maths book, fly off into the glory of a binary-star sunset…
…and not look back.