Sunday, 21 June 2009

Alison Uttley and renegade sheep



Almost by accident I found this little gem about Alison Uttley via a link on Chris Priestley's blog. When I was a child I don't think it ever occurred to me that it was possible to actually meet the authors of the books about the Famous Five or the Swallows and Amazons or William Brown. Anyway, as far as I was concerned the authors of those books had merely set down accounts of events that had actually happened.

I didn't even want my friends to read the same books as me. I was a jealous, possessive reader. If someone else shared my experience it would be diluted. I lived with the characters, imagined myself somehow there beside them. How could there possibly be room in the books for another reader? I don't know how common an experience this is, but I do know that children often ask me when I've finished telling a story if it's true. I simply tell them that I heard it from someone so that they can carry on believing, if they want to.

And then when I have to be an author in front of a group of children the whole process of fiction tends to get anatomised like a kippered herring. Where do you get your ideas? Is it hard to make up stories? How long does it take? What hours do you work? A novel is exposed as an artefact. It's like telling them that Father Christmas isn't real and, as we all know, they find that out soon enough by themselves. Children may even be aware that this loss of innocence is about to happen. I came across a fine instance of this in an article by Hugh Crago in Signal 94 reviewing David Rudd's book Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children's Literature (Macmillan 2000). He describes how his daughter, aged 10, 'urged me to read faster on our way though The Magic Faraway Tree(which she had heard before) because if I was too slow, she might grow out of the book before we reached the end.'

So, on the whole I think I'm not in favour of introducing young children to authors (in person!), and if they do happen to meet them I rather hope they behave like Alison Uttley. I was never quite able to get over my dislike of analysing fiction when I found myself studying English Literature at university. I suspect myself of incurable shallowness. I like a good story. If I'm carried away, that's great. If not, I probably won't finish the book.

And so to the sheep. The meadow behind our house seems to hold a mischievous spirit which teaches animals how to escape. In the past we had many exciting expeditions chasing bullocks around the cornfields. Now we have sheep. The farmer has changed, and he even uses proper sheep netting, unlike Murray, our previous neighbour who preferred to rely on a ramshackle mixture of old ironmongery and baler twine. But the fancy sheep netting couldn't contain the renegade sheep, so the farmer resorted to... baler twine. Perhaps it's like the coloured threads beloved by the heroines of Celtic legend. If so it's lost its magic. No sooner are they herded back into the field than they escape again.

I think they may be tunneling.

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