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I've used these pages to gather together blog posts that have already appeared elsewhere, chiefly on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. There are plenty of older posts about a variety of subjects. Happy reading!

Monday, 6 December 2021

Divided Opinions—The God Beneath the Sea

When I bought my copy of The God Beneath The Sea many years ago I did so because I loved the Charles Keeping illustrations and not because I was desperate to read this new interpretation of the Greek myths by Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen. I first read it thirty years ago and neither loved nor hated the text, but I was very glad that it had given Charles Keeping the opportunity to make those haunting images. I bought and read the sequel, The Golden Shadow, too, and the illustrations in that book are, for me, even more haunting. As the late, great, John Prine put it in his song Lake Marie

'You know what blood looks like in a black and white video? Shadows, shadows. That's what it looks like.'

There are a LOT of shadows in Keeping's illustrations.

I was astonished, when I came to write this blog, to discover that this book, which won the Carnegie Medal in 1970, divided critical opinion more starkly than any previous winner had done.  I thought I'd better re-read both books, and I'll describe that experience later, but what fascinates me most is the extraordinary controversy generated by the text, and particularly by the writing style. This is described in an unusually lengthy Wikipedia article, but tracing critical comments back to their sources was a cautionary experience, as in: you are unlikely to get the whole story from Wikipedia. Or from this blog post either, come to that. So here are extracts from some of those opinions.

'This neglected book is the best ever rendering of the Greek myths in modern English. Visceral, overpowering, defiantly undomesticated, it brings out as no other version does the ancient stories' potential for woe, wonder, transformation and astonishment.' Francis Spufford in The Guardian 30/11/2001

'These goings on . . . are made vividly new, interesting, often exciting . . . It is a real feat to make everything sound so first hand. These are in fact genuine imaginative retellings.' Ted Hughes in Children's Literature in Education, November 1970.

Philip Pullman said in an interview with Alex Sharkey that he was inspired to tell stories from the Greek myths to 12 and 13 year old pupils by The God Beneath the Sea'I loved the book and wanted to use it in class, but reading it aloud didn't work. So I made up my own version and told that.Independent 6/12/1998.

'The authors have succeeded in attaining a literary style which breathes a robust vitality into the ancient myths and legends in a manner which, whilst not unique, is truly inspired.' Alec Ellis in Chosen for Children, 1977.

It sounds like a terrific book, doesn't it? Although there is that proviso in Philip Pullman's piece where he tells us that reading the stories aloud to pupils 'didn't work.' It's true that the immediacy of telling a story is especially effective where the stories originate from an oral tradition. But perhaps the key to why they didn't work as readings is contained in some of the more critical reviews.

In a piece in The Spectator in 1973 John Rowe Townsend  said 'The authors were asking English prose to do something it has never been at ease with since the seventeenth century, and many reviewers thought that the Garfield/Blishen attempt at high flight ended like that of Icarus.' (That one, like the next, did come from Wikipedia I'm afraid.)

Rosemary Manning was one of the reviewers Townsend mentioned. In the TLS she described the writing as 'lush, meandering and self-indulgent.' 'Loaded with . . . lazy adjectives . . . and weighed down under laborious similes.' 

But even more savage was Alan Garner's review in The New Statesman. This was reprinted, alongside the more positive Ted Hughes review, together with pieces by Edward Blishen and Charles Keeping in the November 1970 edition of Children's Literature in Education. Garner began by pointing out that the subject matter of these stories, which is extremely violent, is somehow deemed to be acceptable to offer to children because it is myth, not realism. You may remember that Garner's The Owl Service was criticised for its themes of illegitimacy, adultery, jealousy and revenge back in 1967. Here's how he begins his review:

'We live in strange times. A character in a story, with his mother's help, cuts off his father's genitals, has children by his own sister, and eats them at birth. This seems to be OK for a child to read. In a different story, 'bastard' and 'arse' occur, and a teacher sends a letter chiding the publisher for printing filth. The crucial difference between the stories is that the first is a myth and the second is a modern novel.'

Alan Garner makes the argument that this material is potentially explosive and needs to be carefully mediated if given to children. It needs to be done well. In his own piece in Children's Literature in Education Blishen makes the case for what he and Garfield have done:

Both Leon and I have for a long time been concerned with what seems to us to be something that's happening inside children's literature, and is happening inside society as a whole. We're no longer quite so sure what children are, or who children are, or when children are. We must all be aware that in the last few years children's literature has been moving, at its senior end, closer and closer to adult literature . . . We believe it was essential to go as far as we have in our treatment of human passion and of violence, of necessary cosmic violence. We felt this must be done, it was right to do it, because these are the themes, the concerns, the preoccupations with which our children are, we know, at the moment filled.

I have a problem with this. If we don't know who, what or when our children are I don't understand how we can be so sure about their concerns and preoccupations. Garner accepts, however, that it's good for an attempt to be made 'to restore Classical myth to its original vigour', but he does not like this attempt one little bit. 

'With so many books published annually, and so little space available to a critic, it seems extravagant to pay attention to rubbish, but in this case there may be a lesson to be won from the experience. The God Beneath the Sea (Longman 35s) is very bad. It is almost impossible to read, let alone assess.' And then: 'Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen have fallen into the trap they tried to avoid. The prose is overblown Victoriana, 'fine' writing at its worst, cliché-ridden to the point of satire, falsely poetic, groaning with imagery and, among such a grandiloquent mess, intrusively colloquial at times.'

Is it possible that all these critics are discussing the same book? 'Almost impossible to read', says Garner, though I note that he most certainly did read it and he had no problem delivering his judgement. I took it as a challenge anyway, and managed to achieve the 'almost impossible' yesterday. My own assessment? I can't handle all those adjectives and similes, but you know, for some people it's poetic and powerful. The God Beneath the Sea would, for instance, provide perfect instructional material for teachers to use with children in Key Stage 2—those between the ages of 7 and 11—if it wasn't for that pesky subject matter. In fact it might almost have been written by a particularly imaginative and unrestrained 9-year-old who had been egged on by a teacher to indulge in 'WOW!' words and had just discovered the joy of creating unnecessary similes. But you couldn't use it with those children. Rape, child murder and incest are not on the menu in Primary schools, even today, thirty years on. The only justification I can think of for the way the book is written is that its 'over-the-topness' sort of feels in tune with its extreme subject matter, but the problem is you end up with a book written in a style well-calculated to appeal to a 10-year-old but with subject matter better suited, as Edward Blishen kind of suggests, to an almost-adult. And maybe that's why it didn't work for Philip Pullman's slightly older pupils.

The curious thing about this is that neither Edward Blishen or Leon Garfield are bad writers. They just seem to have got carried away and been, as Alan Garner notes, unrestrained by their editor. But maybe some of the criticism hit home because I believe that the sequel, The Golden Shadow, is a better book, written with greater restraint and more interestingly structured. Or, to put it another way, I enjoyed it a lot more.

from The God Beneath the Sea

One of the challenges the authors faced was finding a way of linking the myths together in a continuous narrative. In the first book various myths were recounted by Thetis and Eurynome to Hephaestus after his first expulsion from Olympus. This works pretty well, but we never really feel anything for Thetis and Eurynome, a goddess and a nymph. What we need is a human perspective, and I certainly found this first book more engaging once Prometheus had created humans. In The Golden Shadow the link between the stories is provided by an ageing, itinerant storyteller with fading eyesight (Homer is never mentioned), whose dearest wish is that he might actually see one of the gods who people his stories. We feel his own uncertainty about whether his stories are true. He is constantly arriving on the scene of great events just a little too late and I for one, an ageing storyteller myself, felt a lot of sympathy for him.

A suitor of Atalanta
from The Golden Shadow

I probably won't read either of these books again, but I will, for sure, take them off the shelf to look at the extraordinary drawings by Charles Keeping. Alan Garner suggested that anyone who bought The God Beneath the Sea should throw away the text and frame the illustrations, some of them, he said, 'more terrible and beautiful than Goya.' (He does seem to have got a little carried away in writing this review. The illustrations are perhaps not quite so good as he thinks, and the writing not quite so bad). Charles Keeping himself was in two minds, both about the Greek myths and about the finished illustrations for the first book. 

'When I first met Leon Garfield he asked me would I like to join with him and Edward Blishen to do the Greek myths. And I thought 'My God, what a horrible idea.' Mainly because I did not like the Greek myths in any shape or form, but because I liked Leon I said 'Oh yes, Leon, I will.'

A friend provided Keeping with a copy of Robert Graves' The Greek Myths, which Garfield and Blishen were to use as the main basis for their work. His initial reaction was not favourable. ' . . . one of the worst things you can do when you're reading Graves' Greek myths is to read them from the beginning because every one seems to be almost identical. They seem to be the same old thing over and over again.'

He found the myths 'really quite disgusting at first' He commented on the fact that they were 'completely devoid of any love. This is all lust, rape, revenge and violence . . .' But gradually he started to find that 'many of the stories linked tremendously with the Bible and other stories that one knows from other cultures and other religions. It seemed to me that there were some basic human passions there which we could use.'

Now this is where, if you only read the Wikipedia page, you might well misunderstand what Keeping was trying to say. He was dissatisfied with many of the images he finally produced, but only, I think, in the way that any real artist is dissatisfied with their work, and he makes this clear. 'I produced a set of drawings much to my disgust not all awfully good. I think there are one or two—or three or four—which might be good. I don't know yet. I need a passage of time to tell . . . Whether I succeeded or not I don't know but I can tell you I'm looking forward to the next one we do together because I'm hoping to redeem some of the mistakes of the first one. If illustration wasn't about progressing from one stage to the next then it wouldn't be worth doing.'

Heracles realises he has 
killed his own children
from The Golden Shadow

There is no doubt in my mind that Keeping succeeded triumphantly. The illustrations in The Golden Shadow are unforgettable.

Shadows and blood.

Originally published on ABBA December 2021

All illustrations are by Charles Keeping.

Flambards Now and Then

The Edge of the Cloud won the Carnegie in 1969 and was the first of the Flambards books that I read, though it's the second in the series. I'm glad I did it that way because The Edge of the Cloud is easily my favourite, although I quite see that if I had first read them as a twelve-year-old girl I might have felt differently.

The Edge of the Cloud is chiefly concerned with the early days of flying, and brilliantly brings to life the struggles of early aviators to design, build and fly those flimsy aircraft. There is very little talk of love between Will Russell and Christina. She is more likely to be passing Will a screwdriver or sitting in the back of an aircraft a few feet above the waves in the English Channel with engine oil plastering her face than she is to be exchanging sweet nothings with her fiancé, and that suited me just fine, although at times Christina might have preferred a slightly more attentive lover. I also enjoyed the portrait of Christina as a young, independent woman setting out to make her own way in life in spite of the disapproval of many, including her Aunt Grace. The book has a very different feel from those set at Flambards itself, Flambards being a decaying country house in Essex.  Most of the action takes place around the airfield on the edge of London. It's about dreams of a new future in which new technologies will change the world, but at the same time we are constantly aware of how dangerous it is to fly these aeroplanes, and also of the ever-increasing threat of war, so that the future of Will and Christina is always uncertain.

I've had a bit of a Flambards month, not only reading K M Peyton's original trilogy and Linda Newbery's excellent 2018 continuation of the story, but also dipping into the thirteen episodes of Yorkshire TV's 1979 adaptation of the first three books. Along the way I had a slightly strange experience. I was reading The Key to Flambards, Linda Newbery's book, in which modern day descendants of the families who feature in K M Peyton's stories are trying to find out more about their family history. I found myself thinking—Hold on, don't they know about the books? This has all been written about. There was a TV series! It actually took me a few seconds to remember that in Linda Newbery's universe the Flambards books have never been written.

It's not just me who has this kind of problem. I was listening to More or Less (the BBC radio programme about statistics and data) and I heard about a controversy that had developed around a piece of research which showed that Mr Spock of the Starship Enterprise, famed for his logical Vulcan thinking, was more likely than not to make incorrect predictions about the way events would turn out. Outraged listeners complained that the research only took into account decisions Spock made while the cameras were running!

So, back to Flambards. I do not think I am, or ever was, the perfect reader for these books. I really enjoyed the descriptions of riding, of the countryside and most especially, in The Edge of the Cloud,  of the building and flying of aeroplanes in the early days of aviation, but the gothic excesses of life at Flambards, the beatings and thrashings, the mad old man and the abuse of servants were not for me. But then I don't much care for Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights either. I'm blocking my ears now to keep out the screams of horror and astonishment I can already imagine from readers, but really, why do they still make teenaged boys read Wuthering Heights for GCSE? A teacher I know of, realising that most boys and many girls would use one of the movie adaptations as an alternative to the task of reading had a rubber stamp made to save time when marking essays. It said: ONLY IN THE FILM! 

K M Peyton's original four books are all set between 1908 and the early 1920s. The heroine, Christina, is 11 years old at the start and has been an orphan for five years, shunted between relations until her Uncle Russell sends for her to live at Flambards. All the money at Flambards has been spent on horses and they live in luxury while the house slowly falls apart. Uncle Russell has been crippled in a hunting accident, but that somehow doesn't stop him thrashing his sons on a regular basis. The younger son, Will, breaks his leg in a hunting accident right at the start, and is glad, because he hates horses and dreams of building aeroplanes and flying. The elder son, Mark, is as far as I can see (but I'm only a man) a truly revolting character who mistreats both horses and people with equal callousness, and who has no redeeming features beyond his dark good looks. If you think Rupert Campbell-Black in Jilly Cooper's Rutshire chronicles you will not be far wrong. This is the boy Christina is destined (in his father's dreams) to marry. The money she'll inherit when she is 21 will save Flambards, that's the plan.

The K M Peyton books are romantic historical novels dealing with the decline of the English country house, the breakdown of the social order, the Great War and its aftermath, women's suffrage and the early days of flying, but Linda Newbery's book is very much a contemporary novel and its genius lies in the way that it links the impact of the modern war in Afghanistan on one of the present-day characters with the experiences of veterans of WW1, at the same time telling the story of its central character, Grace Russell, coming to terms with her parents' divorce, the loss of her home and, worst of all, with the loss of her leg when she's hit by an out-of-control car. 

Jacket illustration by Kathy Harnett

Part of this process, for Grace, is discovering her family history which is closely tied up with the old house, Flambards, where she and her mother come to stay. I can tell you from personal experience that is not easy to interest teenagers in family history, but it works in this case because Grace identifies so strongly with her ancestor, Christina, and because the discoveries which are made uncover other connections with the present day. I do think though that we find it easier to believe in Grace's interest because we, the readers, know so much about Christina and the others from reading those original books, the ones that Grace can't read because they don't exist.

I don't want to say much more about The Key to Flambards for fear of giving too much away. What I will say it that I found myself very moved at various points in the book, without ever quite understanding why it was happening—there was no specific trigger, just a build-up of small events.

I suppose I should also say something about that much-loved Sunday evening TV series. It clearly had a bigger budget than other adaptations of children's books from the same era that I've watched recently. It employed top writers like Alan Plater, and the oddly memorable score was by David Fanshawe, but I couldn't cope with the acting. It seems, like a lot of TV acting from the period, very stilted to modern eyes. Luckily the series made K M Peyton into a household name, and hopefully sold lots of books and one way or another paid for plenty of horses and their upkeep. And a lot of people loved it. Whether I would have loved it too, back then, I can't say as I had a one-year-old daughter and no television. I think not, though. Five seconds of Frank Mills's hideous country bumpkin accent as Fowler was more than enough for me. He was a great English character actor, constantly on TV for decades, but he couldn't do a rural accent to save his life.

The Flambards books are still in print, as are the even more wonderful Pennington books. Patrick Pennington is a bad boy teenaged hero who deserves to be far better known.

And finally,  because Linda Newbery's book brought it back to mind, here are two of my late wife, Ellie's great-uncles. Bob was killed at Ypres in 1916 and Walter at Arras in 1917, two of six brothers from a small Suffolk village who fought in WW1. 

Bob Elliott 1896-1916

Walter Elliott 1885-1917

When we visited northern France a few years ago the most haunting experience came when we spotted a small graveyard by the roadside, miles from anywhere, small grey stones lined with trees. It was very quiet and swallows were flying constantly in and out of the gravestones. Slowly we realised that these were the graves, not of British or French, but of German soldiers.

Originally published on ABBA November 2021

The Moon in the Cloud by Rosemary Harris

Why is this 1968 Carnegie Medal winner so little known? Or is it just me that doesn't know it? And why is it out of print? 

Author photos from 
Chosen for Children

The Moon in the Cloud is one of those winners that I had never encountered before I set out to read them all, and I'd never read anything by Rosemary Harris either.  How did I miss out? All the authors who surround Rosemary Harris on the list of winners are authors I know well—Alan Garner, K M Peyton, Ivan Southall, Leon Garfield, Edward Blishen . . . So I do wonder why I didn't know this writer because, of all the winning books I've read that are now out of print, this is the one I would most like to see back on the shelves of bookshops.

Faber cover 1968

Harris has only a short paragraph in The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. Over a period of 40 years, starting in the mid-1950s, she published 26 books for children and young adults, as well as some adult thrillers. Between 1970 and 1973 she also reviewed children's books for The Times. She died in 2019 at the age of 96 and I could find no trace of an obituary. Her best known book appears to have been out of print since 1989. This is odd because The Moon in the Cloud is not dated at all and I can see no reason why young people today wouldn't enjoy it as much as I did.  

The book is not dated because it is written with such assurance and elegance and humour. It's set in an imaginary, long-ago time in Canaan and Egypt just as God is about to send a flood to wipe out most of humanity.  In her 'Author's Note' Rosemary Harris says: 'The Flood being movable, so to speak, I've set these happenings at the time of the Egyptian Old Kingdom with a young (fictional) king on the throne.' 

The Moon in the Cloud a kind of fantasy, semi-historical novel—with talking animals. It's timeless, and thus completely accessible to a modern reader.

The two central characters are Reuben and Thamar. Reuben is a wonderfully talented animal trainer, artist and musician and Thamar is his resourceful and independent-minded wife, a strong woman who can look after herself in the most difficult situations. Together they keep a small menagerie, which is described as 'the very humble early ancestor of all circuses'. Their neighbours are Noah and his family. When Noah gets word from God that he's going to send a flood, he despatches his unpleasant son, Ham, to fetch a couple of cats and two lions from Kemi, or Egypt. The Lord has told Noah to build an Ark and take in two of every kind of animal, and Noah reasons that a trip to the dark land of Kemi to fetch cats will be a test of Ham's character.

Ham is a bad lot. He's in with the idolatrous members of the tribe who wear scarlet and gold, and affect jingling rings on their ankles. (Reuben has angered them by refusing to carve idols for them to worship). Ham openly covets Reuben's wife, and he tells Reuben that if Reuben fetches the cats and lions then he'll fix it so that Reuben and Thamar get a place on the Ark. Reuben doesn't trust Ham, but he believes that Noah will likely stand by Ham's promise. Ham, of course, does not believe that Reuben will ever return, and then he'll be able to take Reuben's wife. He already has a wife, by the way, who he treats appallingly. 

The Lord God has not been planning to save Ham:

"And—and Ham?" pleaded Noah, greatly daring.

There was a pause.

"Ham . . .?" The still small voice was delicately reflective. "I'm not so sure about Ham."

Noah pleads and God relents, warning Noah to keep an eye on his son and get on with building the Ark. The Cherubim and Seraphim, who are looking on, are sceptical about this decision:

"I must say," said one of the Cherubim who was working on a plan for the new development, "if Ham's going too it hardly seems worth all the bother and fuss."

This gives you a hint of Harris's writing style, which is brilliantly readable and often very funny. Her characters, both human and animal, are vividly drawn; the bad characters are very nasty indeed and the good characters' quirky flaws make them all the more convincing. And did I mention that Reuben can talk to the animals? Well, it's more that he can understand them and they understand him. In any case, we readers see their thoughts. Reuben's cat, Cefalu, is one of the book's most important and fully-realised characters, who is mistaken in the most dramatic way by the Egyptians for a god.

There is a lot of very funny stuff about gods here. The God whose 'still small voice' speaks to Noah is remarkably human. Here's Noah's wife's opinion of him: '"Two of everything and wood for building, food for eating, firing, doves, drink, where has Ham got to now, oh men are so inconsiderate, not a thing to wear, fancy a flood—" Privately she had always looked on the Lord God as profoundly masculine in nature.' (And Noah's wife doesn't mean to be complimentary.)

Then there are the Egyptian gods. The profoundly evil High Priest who enslaves Reuben has his double-dealing exposed by his enemy, the Vizier, and he has a lot of trouble with gods. Rosemary Harris philosophises a little about the nature of his evil. "Perhaps it's possible to describe evil as the habit of putting your own advantage first, last and all the time before anyone else's feeling or life or death. It was this ruthlessness that Reuben had also sensed about him, and which hadn't altered, except that he was now squashed evil rather than evil rampant.'

After his duplicity has been unmasked before the king the High Priest racks his brains half the night "to think which of his gods he could have offended, to bring him to this pass. There were so many of them, that was the trouble, he thought despairingly. If you kept up with some, you were bound to be easygoing with others. Many were benign, but some weren't—particularly if they had a rapacious priesthood behind them (like—well, like his own)."

The High Priest even has a mnemonic to help him remember the gods' names and attributes:

'Nut—a cow, a sacred cow, Re—a god of golden sun, Ptah—the word explains itself, Ka—will make you long to run . . .' 

It's clear that Rosemary Harris had a LOT of fun writing this book, but she managed at the same time to keep the whole thing very tight. It's beautifully plotted and has a most satisfactory ending. I was interested in what Harris said about its origins:

"I . . . had influenza, and a framework of the story surfaced from my mind: perhaps fever had something to do with it—certainly my writing was so feverish that I had dreadful trouble deciphering it when I was completing the book. Why Reuben, Thamar, and their animals, and the King of Kemi too, in connection with Noah is hard to explain. Most people who do any form of creative writing will admit that what makes a collection of characters, scenes, dialogue, spring fully armed to imaginative life, and refuse to leave it till written down—often causing inconvenience—is a mystery."

Puffin cover, 1968

It's curious that this excellent book hasn't remained in print, and I suspect it's because neither its publishers nor its readers knew quite who it was meant for. Faber call it a 'teenage book' and on GoodReads it's categorised as YA. As all the book's characters are adults, and a central part of the story concerns Ham's threatening behaviour towards Thamar, that seems reasonable. And yet . . . there are those animal characters, and it seems to be that aspect of the book that Faber were trying to emphasise when they produced a paperback edition in 1989 with a cartoonish cover that suggests a younger readership. Perhaps they were thinking Doctor Dolittle, which this book isn't. The original cover of The Moon in the Cloud, and the cover of the Puffin edition, are both more in keeping with what's inside, but neither give any hint of the humour and excitement of the book, or indeed of its more serious side. 

Faber cover by Ant Parker 1989

It's a book that resists categorisation. I love books like that, and I know that publishers often don't. I suggested at the end of last month's post that, in choosing The Moon in the Cloud, the Carnegie panel had backed away from books dealing with the controversial themes Philippa Pearce noted in The Owl Service—'illegitimacy and adultery, jealousy and revenge.' But despite its talking animals and its often light-hearted tone and humour, The Moon in the Cloud deals with fundamental human concerns: the relationship between people and their gods, and the nature of good and evil. And even though it is set in a far-distant (and fictional) past, all of its characters, both animal and human, leap from the page and feel utterly real.

I'm now looking forward to reading the other two books in the trilogy, The Shadow on the Sun and The Bright and Morning Star.

Originally published on ABBA October 2021


Owls or Flowers? Re-reading The Owl Service

 It was 1967—The Summer of Love—but for me it was The Summer of Selling Doughnuts and Pies from door to door on the Norfolk coast, and in the evenings working in a burger van in various car-parks in Norwich. I can still smell the onions.  During the day, when we weren't working, me and my cousin would hang out in a small amusement arcade in Wroxham listening to All You Need is Love and Baby You're a Rich Man on the jukebox while we played the pinball machines. Our other main pastime was sitting beside Wroxham bridge where we watched over-confident men in yachting caps attempting to show off their boat-handling skills to their admiring families. They steered their newly-rented holiday boats through the narrow arch of the bridge—or into it. Crashes were frequent and often spectacular. Occasionally the entire superstructure was ripped off as a boat collided with the bridge at speed. It was never-ending free entertainment but it's sadly no longer available. You have to hire a pilot to take you through these days.

The Owl Service is a book about love, so I suppose it's appropriate that it was published that same year, although it's mostly about love gone wrong. And it's about flowers, too. Just the thing for a year when we were encouraged to wear flowers in our hair. But look what happens—you make a girl out of flowers for your son to marry and she goes and falls in love with another man, so the other man kills your son (except he doesn't die but turns into an eagle), and you turn the girl into an owl as punishment, then you turn your son back into a man and he kills the girl's lover. The flowers turn into owls, and they're not nice owls, either. They're hunters and killers.

In 1968 I was back in Wroxham, staying with my cousin again as I did most summer holidays. This summer we were making jewellery out of brass and copper, huge bangles that we sold to the new-fangled boutiques in Norwich—that was my cousin putting his metalwork lessons to good use. And I have the most vivid recollection of sitting in his front room watching the black-and-white TV showing Russian tanks rolling into Prague. The Summer of Love had been followed by The Prague Spring as the new Czech leader Alexander Dubcek introduced liberal reforms, but on August 20th 1968 Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia, and they did it live on TV, or it felt live even if it wasn't. It was all flowers to start with but it ended up as owls.

I probably didn't read The Owl Service in 1967, but I certainly knew of it, another significant happening in that year of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the world's first live satellite broadcast of All You Need is Love. I watched that with my parents and my sisters to the accompaniment of my father's sneering at the 'banality' of the lyrics and the music. More owls and flowers. This was known as 'the generation gap.' I was fourteen, and the brief window of time when I read children's books had already partially closed. I had moved on to thrillers, science fiction and Thomas Hardy.

My dad didn't think much of 
Magical Mystery Tour either!

I can't remember exactly when I first read The Owl Service, but I can remember how I felt about it. It was a gripping, terrifying read. I felt for Gwyn, the Welsh boy with a chip on his shoulder, struggling to better himself and leave his origins behind him, and I disliked Roger, son of a wealthy father deserted by his wife who has just remarried  and whose recently widowed wife has a daughter, Alison. It's to Alison that the holiday home in a remote Welsh valley technically belongs, and the newly-married couple and their children are there together as a family for the first time as a kind of bonding exercise. I understood all this when I first read the book. I got that Gwyn was the son of the housekeeper (and, as it turns out, of Huw the gardener) and I understood that Gwyn and Alison were attracted to each other and that, when she found out, Alison's mother forbade her to have anything more to do with him. I understood that the characters were all trapped in the oppressive summer heat, and that a crisis was brewing, but as for the stuff about owls and flowers, well, I simply accepted what was written and didn't try to figure out what was going on.

I still think that this is the best way to approach the book, to let the imagery and the mythic element operate on a subconscious level and not to try to work out precise correspondences between the modern-day characters and their equivalents in the story from the Mabinogion. In this claustrophobic Welsh valley groups of people are compelled with every generation to repeat the mistakes of the past. Neil Philip, in A Fine Anger, says this:

That the contemporary story should be played out against the backdrop of the sour ruins of the previous generation's tragedy, and under that generation's jealously watchful eye, adds an emotional resonance which transforms the story from a simple tale of adolescent passion to a penetrating comment on the human predicament.

The Owl Service asks the question that we all ask from time to time: How can people treat each other so badly? And why do they do it? The wounds that the young people inflict on each other here are bitter and painful. Words will never hurt me, we used to chant as children when words had actually hurt us. It never worked. And even though one character seems at the end to break the cycle of violence and hate—to let Alison be flowers and not owls—we are still left with the uneasy possibility, or more likely the probability, that events will repeat themselves in another generation with a less good outcome.

This illustration by Joan Kiddell-Monroe from 
Welsh Folk Tales and Legends shows Lleu Llaw Gyffes as an eagle,
 his father, and the sow that eats the bones he drops from his perch. 
They have something to do with The Owl Service. If you want to know
 what exactly I refer you to Neil Philip's book, or to 
The Owl Service itself.

The prevailing mood of The Owl Service is dark. There are moments when there seems to be a possibility of freedom, as when Gwyn and Alison climb out of the valley together and discuss what's happening to them. But then, as their conversation suddenly becomes freer and more natural, they both reveal confidences which later form the basis of betrayal and wounding. I find it hard to see it as an optimistic book, despite the release of tension at the end, and I suspect it's this darkness, and elements of the book's subject matter that led to critics making some curious remarks about it. 

For the third edition of Chosen For Children, the Library Association's account of the Carnegie, Alec Ellis took over from Marcus Crouch as editor, and The Owl Service was the first book he wrote about. I think it's reasonable to assume that Ellis represents the views of the Association. He describes the plot in a factual and superficial manner and succeeds in being both patronising and dull: 'The characterisation in the book is good, both of major and minor characters, as might of course be expected from an author of Alan Garner's calibre. He deals sensitively with the delicate relationship between the affluent, middle class English children and the Welsh boy . . . '

I never for one moment thought of the characters in this book as 'children' and I never think of the characters I write about as children. There's something jarring in the way Ellis says this. It made me think of those tweed-jacketed journalists you see in newsreels from the 1960s, interviewing the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan or the Beatles and asking ludicrous questions—Why must you have such untidy hair? That kind of thing. Some reviewers talk about 'the generation gap' in the context of The Owl Service, but I don't see it. The generations here repeat the mistakes of their elders, and where we see Gwyn pushing against his mum's limited vision for his life we see someone trying to 'better himself' in a very traditional way. There's no rebellion from Roger and Alison. This is not long-haired free-loving, drug-taking non-conformism against the bowler-hatted uptight establishment. You would never guess that the Beatles and Bob Dylan even existed. Not until Tom puts on his headphones to listen to music in Red Shift in 1973 do Garner's characters seem to have a real connection to the contemporary world. It's in reviews like Alec Ellis's that the real generation gap is revealed. Here's how he ends his summary: 'Some critics would consider The Owl Service to be not as outstanding a book as the earlier Elidor, but nevertheless  it was still the best to be published in 1967 and is perhaps better than the selections of some other years.' 

Did he like it? I think not.

Also puzzling was a review by Philippa Pearce (in Children's Book News, July/August 1967), who was clearly in two minds about the book:

... the narrative power of the book may be the undoing of the susceptible reader, hurrying him in headlong excitement towards a total of mental confusion. It isn't up to the author to explain everything of course, but he should make plain. In Elidor there are plenty of inexplicables, but this happens; in The Owl Service, on the whole, it does not.

...there is a masterly appreciation of class idioms and snobberies, and an awareness of their deadly potentiality as weapons. Not the happiest of subjects for young readers, some may say. Others will be almost certain to add that even unhappier is the choice of illegitimacy and adultery, jealousy and revenge as recurring themes in the story.

My repeated objection, however, is not that young readers (and adults too, for that matter) may understand too much, but that they are likely to understand too little.

This comment about 'making plain' seems strange to me, (though I'm not convinced that Elidor is made any plainer by its author than The Owl Service), and I believe, though I can't find the reference, that Philippa Pearce later revised this opinion. Writing in 2003 about Red Shift, Victor Watson (in his introduction to Coming of Age in Children's Literature) sees this refusal to 'make plain' as a strength, and I agree with him. He sees Garner as 'engaged in seeking new ways of representing the effects on maturing young people of the fragmented complexities and conflicts of the post-modern world.'  He says that, in The Owl Service, 'Garner had made no concessions for young readers. He seemed to be working towards a narrative manner which - in William Blake's phrase - 'rouses the faculties to act', providing no authorial explanations and frustrating the traditional expectation that the narrator's voice should provide constant reassurance.' 

What is most modern about The Owl Service is not simply its subject matter, but just this refusal to 'make plain'. You can read it as a novel of suspense and the supernatural—or, as Alan Garner once described it, as 'a kind of ghost story'—but you are always aware of the mysterious complexity below the surface. It's useful though that Philippa Pearce pinpoints those themes that might also suggest a change in direction in 'children's books', and an opening up of new possibilities. Except that it wasn't really a change of direction, or at least not in the world of the Carnegie. The following year, 1968, the Carnegie judges selected The Moon in the Cloud by Rosemary Harris, and you can feel how much more comfortable they were with this when you read Alec Ellis's concluding remarks on that book. 'The Moon in the Cloud is a book which repays more than one reading, for with each fresh insight may be gained and hidden delights discovered.'

More of those delights (and they are genuine delights) next month as the Carnegie moves as far as possible from any contemporary relevance with a book set in ancient Egypt.

A Fine Anger by Neil Philip is an invaluable and erudite companion to Alan Garner's work up to and including The Stone Book Quartet. It's out of print but, as with most books these days, easily found second-hand.

The Carnegie Medal was not awarded in 1966 as no book was considered 'suitable'.

Originally published on ABBA September 2021

A Surprisingly Good Read

In 1965 the Carnegie was won by a book which I don't think is much read today, The Grange at High Force by Philip Turner. All I knew about the book before I read it was that many people thought Alan Garner's Elidor should have won the Carnegie that year. Aidan Chambers in particular was damning in his criticism of Turner's book and made the contrast between it and Elidor the focus of his criticism of the Carnegie committee. Here's what he said:

"The Grange at High Force is typical of the kind of book, in story, writing and production, which, over the last ten years, has come to be considered, it seems, by 'discriminating readers' among adults, the epitome of good-quality children's literature. It is intellectual, sophisticated, over-written, unremarkable for anything in the slightest questionable in thought, word or deed. It reflects an adult's rather sentimental view of childhood. It is passionless, cautious in its opinion, conservative in its theme and treatment. It is one of the 'well-produced books of good quality' that gives a glow of satisfaction when, in their sparkling plastic covers, they line the library shelves, and the publishers' offices. There in the main they stay. In a way one is grateful they do. Yet what a waste of time and effort; and what an encouragement to reluctance."

Reader, I loved it!

Cover illustration by Papas

Now, I should add that on his website Aidan Chambers says that he doesn't now agree with all the opinions expressed in his book, which was published more than 50 years ago. Whether he still agrees with this opinion I don't know. Having read his criticisms I was prepared for a bit of a slog, but Chambers neglects to mention Turner's gift for creating interesting and sympathetic characters, his evocative use of landscape and his talent for writing lively and entertaining action sequences. The cast of characters is mainly male, but in Mrs Cadell-Twitten, the elderly and slightly demented (in a clinical sense) inhabitant of Bird Cottage, Turner has created something wonderful. The old lady actually seems rather modern in her passion for wild-life conservation (and not at all like the bird-loving spinsters who Richmal Crompton likes to mock in the William books). The boys rescue her at the climax of the story when she is cut off in her freezing cottage without food or heat in the middle of a blizzard. I found these scenes particularly touching and sensitive.

There are other great characters, too - a retired Admiral and his servant, Guns, who are tremendously competent at all things mechanical and supremely unconcerned about convention and the law. I really enjoyed the scene where the Admiral attempts to order the ingredients for making a large quantity of gunpowder from the local chemist and I loved the emphasis in the book on making things. David's father is a carpenter whose business is threatened by mass-produced furniture, and as a long-time cyclist and bike-tinkerer myself I just loved Peter's bike, the Yellow Peril. '...the dashboard . . .would not have disgraced an airliner. There was, of course, a speedometer, and a mileometer. There was also an altimeter out of a crashed German aircraft . . .There was a small ship's compass . . . a clock converted from a cheap watch, two rear-view mirrors and an electric klaxon horn operated by a battery and a push button on the handle-bars.'

Peter was ahead of his time. Most of that stuff now is in the Garmin that sits on my handlebars. 

Cover illustration by Charles Keeping

The Carnegie panel's scoring for 1965 can be found in Keith Barker's history of the Carnegie, In the Realms of Gold. Books were scored out of 10 for Plot, Characterisation, Style, and Format, and it doesn't surprise me to learn that the judges gave The Grange at High Force 8 for characterisation and Elidor only 5. In fact The Grange at High Force was ahead of Elidor in all categories except format. There were rumours that Elidor lost because of judges disliking the Charles Keeping illustrations, but this is clearly not true. It would be understandable however if they had marked The Grange at High Force down because of its illustrations by Papas, which often veer into caricature.

Illustration by Papas from
The Grange at High Force

Illustration by Charles Keeping
from Elidor

In any case, there's plenty of room for both kinds of book, and both are good in their own way, though I think it was a bit much for Chambers to criticise The Grange at High Force for being 'intellectual and sophisticated'. That, surely, is Elidor. And if you doubt me have a read of Neil Philip's essay on the book in A Fine Anger. My feeling is the same as that of the Carnegie judges: the characters in Elidor never really come to life, and the minor characters, especially Mum and Dad, are slight and unconvincing, but this shouldn't surprise anyone because, in Garner's novels, characters often seem to be trapped by events which are beyond their control. Ursula Le Guin dissected this aspect of Garner's work beautifully in her review of his most recent novel, Boneland.

"Alderley Edge is the scene of a timeless ritual that must be re-enacted over and over by ignorant and ephemeral mortals. Personal tragedy and redemption are subsumed in the cosmic vision.

No wonder that the people of his story are less characters than masks, types, archetypes. But as imaginative literature reclaims the territories forbidden it by realism, and moves back from Elfland towards the outskirts of Manchester, it treads on risky ground. Readers looking for more than mere adventure expect characters whose behaviour and reactions are humanly comprehensible." (The Guardian 29/8/2012)

It may seem a stretch to relate these remarks to Elidor, but Garner nearly always uses myth to structure his fiction, and this can make us readers feel that the characters are a bit two-dimensional.  And despite this weakness Elidor is a different order of book to The Grange at High Force. It's a tight, controlled, intense, deeply serious piece of work which opened up new possibilities in children's fiction. It is appropriate that it's concerned with boundaries: between this world and others; between the real and the imaginary; between childhood and adulthood, because its publication marked a watershed. The action of The Grange at High Force could be taking place at any point from the 1920s to the 1960s, despite one brief mention of a television, the first in any Carnegie winner. In its tone especially it feels like a book from the 1950s, whereas Elidor feels like a modern book, not so much in its setting or characters, but in its terse, poetic style and its use of dialogue. And of course with hindsight we can see that it's a signpost to Garner's later work. I'm glad Elidor didn't win the Carnegie in 1965, not because it didn't deserve to, but because if it had then The Owl Service wouldn't have won two years later, and The Owl Service is, for me, the greatest of Garner's myth-based fictions.

Originally published on ABBA August 2021


A Visit to Green Knowe

It was a rainy Friday morning and we were about to drive from London to Nottingham for some birthday celebrations. The M1 is a boring road, especially in the rain, and we were trying to think of somewhere to visit on the way to break up the journey when I remembered the Manor at Hemingford Grey, Lucy Boston's house. It's not really on the way, but when I looked on the website I saw that the garden is open every day, and even if we couldn't go round the house (you have to book to do that) it would be an interesting diversion. It proved to be far more than that!

We arrived late morning in the rain, parked on the driveway and set out to explore the garden and yes, it is worth going out of the way just to see the garden. I always like visiting gardens in the rain, mainly because you usually have them pretty much to yourself, but also because I just like gardens in the rain. This one was planted almost entirely by Lucy Boston after she bought the house in the late 1930s and it seems to me that the house, the garden and the books are all part of the same act of creation. It's too simple to say that the house and garden inspired the books - it's more that the same person made them all, though of course the house had been there for hundreds of years when Lucy Boston discovered it and restored it.

There is a lovely, slightly unkempt feel to the garden and I know it takes a lot of work to keep it looking slightly unkempt rather than neglected. The topiary which features in the books is still there (it was inspired by the garden of Levens Hall that Lucy Boston knew from her youth), as is the great beech tree. There are the bamboo thickets from A Stranger at Green Knowe, and there are lots of roses. Whether Lucy Boston had as many as Frances Hodgson Burnett— who must have planted hundreds in her lifetime—that I doubt, but she did specialise in old roses, and claimed to have no rose in her garden later than 1900.

As we were walking round the garden we noticed that there were people inside the house. There were two visitors, and eventually we met them in the garden. They were incredibly enthusiastic. They'd never heard of Lucy Boston before they came, and had never read the books. They knew nothing about the history of the house and everything had been a complete surprise to them. Their tour of the house had been wonderful. It had taken two hours. We should knock on the door, they told us, and see if there was any chance we could go in.

So we did knock on the door, and Diana Boston, Lucy's daughter-in-law, who now lives in the house and runs the entire enterprise, was happy to show us around after a short and rainy lunch. I won't spoil your enjoyment by telling you everything you discover on the tour. Uniquely, in my experience, Diana Boston began by asking why we were there and how much we knew about Lucy. There is nothing worse than a house tour where the guide spends the whole time telling you things you already know and gives you no time to look at the things that really interest you. That is not the sort of tour you get at Hemingford Grey.

Some people come (from all over the world) just to look at Lucy Boston's patchwork quilts. Children (and their parents) come to see the house where the stories happened, and some come simply to see 'one of the oldest continually inhabited houses in England'. No-one is likely to go away disappointed. One of the highlights for me came when I mentioned Lucy Boston's experience (which I described in last month's post) of being presented with the Carnegie Medal. 'Have you ever seen a Carnegie Medal?' Diana Boston asked me. 'Would you like to see one?' And from a cupboard behind her she produced Lucy Boston's Carnegie Medal.

Lucy Boston said of this medal 'Mine was almost exactly like the one I got for swimming the mile when I was eleven.' All I can say is they must have had pretty grand swimming medals in those days.

I've been continuing to read Carnegie Medal winners and I'm going to fast forward through the next three from the early 1960s to take me to the point in 1966 where I feel that things began to change. 1966 was the year when Philip Turner's book, The Grange at High Force, was preferred by the judges to Alan Garner's Elidor, and with that book OUPs dominance came to an end. By 1966 they'd had 10 winners in 15 years. The Twelve and the Genii by Pauline Clarke (Faber) won in 1962. A small boy moves to a village near Haworth and finds twelve wooden soldiers in the attic. The soldiers come to life and it turns out they were once owned by Branwell Bronte and inspired much of the Bronte juvenilia - the three Bronte sisters and Branwell were the original genii. It's well written, the dialogue is convincing, the characters are good, but it feels terribly old-fashioned and middle-class. It's definitely worth a read, especially if you are a Bronte fan, but it lacks the darkness and danger of The Borrowers and maybe that's why it's largely forgotten.

The next winner was Time of Trial by Hester Burton. This is classic OUP. It's a beautifully produced book with excellent illustrations by Victor Ambrus, and a young heroine who has to stay strong when her father is imprisoned for writing and publishing a supposedly seditious pamphlet in 1801. I wish I could love it, but it's the love story that undermines the whole thing for me - she's in love with a young doctor who lodges with the family. That and the faintly ludicrous smuggling plot that's tacked on to make the story more interesting when Margaret has to move to the Suffolk coast. I just opened the book at random and my eyes fell on the last line of Chapter 2: 'Margaret shuddered with despair.' 

Not a book for me.

And then there was Nordy Bank by Sheena Porter. This was a hard book to get hold of - hardback copies are expensive - so I read it in the newly re-opened British Library. It is not fun reading for 3 hours in a mask and I hope that didn't prejudice me against the book, and I didn't need to do it because I found a cheap paperback on Ebay the next day. It has the distinction of being the first winner I've read by a living author. 

The action takes place in the Shropshire hills, where a bunch of children go camping. One of them, Bron, appears to become possessed by the spirit of an iron-age woman, causing her to become withdrawn and sullen. A police dog escapes from a train and roams the hills. Then somehow Bron seems to be OK again, no longer thinks the dog is a wolf, and then begins her struggle to keep the dog. None of it made much sense to me - it's about three books in one and I can't remember anything about any of the characters. I quite liked the setting, but then I thought, hold on, this is Malcolm Saville territory, so I read Lone Pine Five, which was a lot more fun and evoked the landscape far better. I would have loved it as a child. And then I came across this in Aiden Chambers's The Reluctant Reader (1969). Make of it what you will. Malcolm Saville writes:

I'll tell you a true story. Nearly 20 years ago when I was beginning to be a modest success with Lone Pine, I was approached by another editor to do another series. As I was already being copied by another popular writer, I agreed and this second series, The Jillies, is still selling well in paperback. When we got the second of these out which was a good original story I was barely mentioned although it was broadcast as a BBC Children's Hour serial. I commented on this to my editor . . . and I shall never forget his answer. 'You're too innocent and if you aren't careful you'll get hurt. You are now a success and the wolves will be after you. It will never again be the same for you. Your work will be plagiarised and even if you notice it won't be worth taking action. Your titles will be copied. Other first-time authors will use your idea of a genuine background and even the same places will be used. You will become prolific and popular and the only people who will love you are your readers and your publishers.'

Malcolm Saville, of course, never had a whiff of the Carnegie Medal. And I've started to wonder, how many of the 30 or so winners that I've read (pre-1966) have I whole-heartedly enjoyed, as in couldn't put it down? And also, how many would I have enjoyed in that way as a child? The answer is, not very many. And I'm beginning to think that the kind of book Malcolm Saville wrote deserves to be taken more notice of because, in the words of a reviewer, his books are 'workmanlike, readable and engrossing.'

Anyway, if you get the chance, pay a visit to The Manor at Hemingford Grey. You will not be disappointed.

Originally published on ABBA July 2021

A Gorilla in the Garden

Many years before Anthony Browne began his wonderful love affair with gorillas and other apes, Lucy M Boston produced a passionate, moving and surprising novel about an escaped gorilla finding refuge in the garden of Green Knowe, her lightly-fictionalised ancient home on the edge of the fens. The real house is The Manor at Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire, and you can visit the house and garden.

If you haven't read A Stranger at Green Knowe yet (it won the Carnegie Medal in 1961), here is your spoiler alert. I can't really say what I want to say without revealing the ending.

The first section of the book is written from the point of view of the young gorilla, describing its everyday life as a member of a family of gorillas in the wild. I can't say how accurate it is, but I found it completely convincing. It is also genuinely frightening as a ring of hunters closes in on the gorillas, killing most of them and capturing one, whom they name 'Hanno'. Anthony Browne doesn't mention A Stranger at Green Knowe in his account of how he came to create his picture book Gorilla, but he did name the little girl who is the protagonist of his story Hannahwhich is quite a neat coincidence.

Illustration by Peter Boston

From the African bush we cut to London Zoo, where the young Chinese refugee, Ping, who has appeared already in The River at Green Knowe, is transfixed by the sight of Hanno in his cage. Like Hanno's, all Ping's family have been killed and he's been confined in places very like prisons, a parallel which is brilliantly brought out by the image of concrete. Ping sees Hanno constrained by his cage:

'The cage was just big enough for him to take a bound from corner to corner, or he could stretch to his full height on the platform and touch the ceiling. It was as if Ping were shut up for life in a bathroom. The walls were tiled and the floor concrete. He had a horror of concrete. It was one of his nightmares. He had lived on it in refugee camps that were often warehouses or railway sheds. That was where he had come to know and loathe it. It was either deathly cold or mercilessly hot and had a hateful feeling under one's fingers, like rust. Every time his hands or the soles of his feet came in contact with it, they remembered the warm boulders, the live turf, the leafy forest tracks . . .'

Ping is invited to stay for the holidays at Green Knowe, and then Hanno escapes from the zoo and stows away on a truck returning to the fens from Covent Garden market. On a small island attached to the Green Knowe garden by a narrow bridge, Hanno finds a refuge among Mrs Oldknow's bamboo thickets, and it's there that Ping finds him, and has the wonderful, if scary, experience of taking on the rôle, first of the gorilla's keeper, and then of his child for a few days, as the hunt closes in. (Anthony Browne has a great and scary story about his own first encounter with a live gorilla. See below for the reference.)

As the book reaches its climax Hanno sees Ping threatened by a maddened cow and intervenes to save the boy. Then he sees in front of him the man who killed his father and his family — Major Blair, the animal collector and gorilla 'expert' who's been called in to help the hunt. Hanno charges, and is killed. Lucy Boston says that she makes her gorilla 'choose the risk of death over captivity', and that this is the most anthropomorphic thing she makes him do. She goes on to say that 'this is something that countless animals have done. Often when caged they simply cease to live, though with all the material necessities of life around them.' Disputing the idea that it is 'the knowledge of the certainty of death,' that separates men from the animals, she says '. . . animals fear it, and every moment of their lives they take action to avoid it. They know it when they see it and howl for their dead. What child of five believes in death more than that, or who but the rarest of us, after sixty years of consciously trying, can accept the impossible concept; Death means me'?'

This mention of 'a child of five' references Boston's earlier statement, and, again, I don't know how true this is, that 'in mental development a young gorilla brought up in a human family outstrips a child in intelligence up to the age of five.' She makes clear her intention in the book: to show children that 'a world in which all living things are sentient is of course even more painful to consider than one in which mysteriously only we suffer. But it has also the grandeur and comfort of a comprehensible wholeness to which a total response is possible.'

This all makes the book sound very serious, which it is. But it's also a tremendous read. I was apprehensive when I came to it because I'd just read The Children of Green Knowe for the first time, and I'd been a little disappointed. After a terrific start, with its description of a small boy arriving at Green Knowe through a flooded landscape, the supernatural elements of the story didn't really grip me and the climax was not as strong as it might have been. But of course, The Children of Green Knowe was Lucy Boston's first children's book, written when she was only 62. She was 69 when she won the Carnegie Medal with A Stranger at Green Knowe and had learned a thing or two.

You might think that a 69-year-old winner would have attracted some awe and respect from the Library Association who had, after all, bestowed the award on her. Not so! Lucy Boston describes the shoddy treatment she received in her book Memory in a House, in a chapter called 'A Snub to Success'. After taking lessons in public speaking and memorising her twenty-minute speech she took a long train journey to Llandudno where she was put up by the Library Association in a very shabby hotel (no curtains in her room!), only to discover on the day of the conference that no speech was required. 'She was made to feel 'unwelcome and unimportant.' I learned about this from Ruth Allen's excellent book about children's book awards, Winning Books, in which she says: 'Mrs Boston's experience, and her vivid account of it, has gone down in the annals of children's librarians ever since.'

I've now been reading these Carnegie Medal winners for more than a year, and I've managed 24 so far. Some of them I've struggled to finish, but then along comes a book like A Stranger at Green Knowe that is completely absorbing and that I will definitely read again. I'll also read the rest of Lucy Boston's books, and visit her house and look at her remarkable patchwork quilts. Books like this make the whole project worthwhile. I started because I knew there were writers on the list I had never read, and some I'd never heard of. There are more than 50 still to go, though I've yet to decide whether to re-read some of them that I know well, and I'm hoping that the exciting surprises will continue to outweigh the disappointments.

Anthony Browne (with Joe Browne) talks about Gorilla and many other things in Playing the Shape Game, Doubleday, 2011

Originally published on ABBA June 2021