Elizabeth Jane Howard probably did not intend her title to refer to the astronomical name for an impossibly long time away. 'The Light Years' are the years 1937 and 1938, just before the Second World War. It is Sussex, in England, and they were years of happy, comfortable, innocent country life, much of it seen through the eyes of young teenage children on their long summer holidays.
The families who gather in the rambling old farmhouse by the sea are comfortably off. They have cars, maids, a cook who every day produces mouth watering meals for upwards of sixteen people at a time, a pony, a tennis court. The summer evenings, filled with the sound of gnats humming and the smell of new mown hay, seem to go on forever. Each day seems to stretch well beyond twenty four hours, barely containing the heady mix of idleness (indolence in the case of the grown ups), and pleasurable distractions. Summer, this life, now, seems as if it will never end.
It did end. The war ended it. And although it is still within living memory, that time seems now to be light years away.
We have a fascination for this period in England, from Edwardian times up to the outbreak of World War 11, as evidenced by the many TV shows that exploit it. There is a sense of bittersweet sadness that pervades much fiction set in this time - Brideshead Revisited is a stand out example for me. It's like a longing, this fascination, for - what? A simpler life? Being young again? Or maybe it's for a world that has slipped away into the past but still seems so real you could almost touch it, it's not quite history yet.
Nostalgia for childhood, and for what I know of my parents' and grandparents' lives, is a big part for it for me. Although my own childhood was in the 50's, remnants of the old, pre war life continued to drift, to have sudden late flowerings, to die more slowly. By the early 70's, they were in the past, and the talk was of preservation - of pockets of countryside, of the hedgerows, of old cottages and stately homes, of wildlife, and traditional farming practices.
It seems to us as if people then had less complicated lives, and more time to live them. How wonderful it might have been, if you were a young Mum, to have a nanny to take the children off your hands whenever you wanted! There is a scene in The Light Years where the whole party piles into the cars and goes to Cooden Beach for the day, taking the nannies with them. The parents swim, sunbathe, talk, and smoke, and only pay attention to the children when they feel like it - the fun moments. The nannies sit at a little distance, clad in their sensible dresses and grey stockings, responsible for the children and having none of the fun. A governess takes the girls for lessons, the boys go off to boarding school. Husbands go up to London, to work, and to see their secret mistresses. It is they, the husbands, who make all the important decisions. The rigidity and expectations of gender roles, while often frustrating for the girls, nevertheless seem somehow to contribute to the certainties and securities of this world.
There is something especially intense and poignant about a happy time that you know, in retrospect, is going to end. You want to signal wildly to these people, from your bitter vantage point in the future, 'No! Stop! Do something, or you're going to lose it all!' Utterly futile, of course, the benefit of hindsight; it's all way too late.
One of the most beautifully crafted episodes in the book occurs when 14 year old Teddy has a falling out with his slightly younger cousins. The two younger boys have decided they are going to run away from home, and they make elaborate, secret preparations, establishing a hideaway in the woods. When Teddy finds out, he is furious at being left out of their plans. After a painful and rageful punch up, which achieves nothing, they begin a process of negotiation, the younger boys giving ground, literally, to their older cousin, in the hope he will keep their secret and stop his aggression. It is a process that neatly parallels the distant drama in the grown ups' world, in which Prime Minister Chamberlain is going to Europe to have the meetings with Hitler which culminated in the Munich Agreement. It was one of the most painful moments in the book for me - the realisation that in four years time, Teddy will in all likelihood be flying Spitfires over the English Chanel, that he will almost certainly die doing it, and that if he survives, he will never inherit his fathers' world. *
It feels to me as if we too are living a life that is slipping inexorably away from us. I think my grandchildren will look back on this time - which is the time of their childhood - and yearn for the lost comforts and securities : cheap travel, plentiful food, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fuel for cars and money for the roads to drive them on, a country at peace. And they may wonder at the succession of bland and bickering governments, whose abject failure to make the tough decisions needed to secure the future we just went along with. We didn't want them to interfere with us, to stop us from just going on doing what we're doing.
Our frustration with politicians now is a paltry thing. The worst we do is make protest votes for independents who promise to give us more of what we want. We have a collective, suicidal belief that, like Chamberlain, somehow the politicians will 'take care of it'; that, like children playing outside on a summer evening, or the grown ups partying inside, we can just carry on, until someone actually tells us we have to stop
* There are four further books in the Cazalet Chronicles - I have not read them yet, so don't know what actually happens to the fictional Teddy.