When I am visiting a school to talk about writing I nearly always get the question “But where do you get your ideas?” I reply that although getting an idea feels almost magical at the time, I can often trace the roots of it back to something I have read in the past. Often a long time ago.
My latest book is no different. How (Not) To Make Bad Children Good is about a Guardian Agent (a bit like Guardian Angel – get it?) who comes down to Earth in order to sort out one particular naughty child, Martha, and attempt to make her good. Of course nothing goes as smoothly as he plans.
I had been wanting to write something on a Guardian Angel theme for a very long time. And when I thought about why, I suspected it had something to do with a particular book I had loved as a child, and which had featured Guardian Angels. Having published my own book, I was curious enough to dig around in the boxes of childhood books that had been stored in my parents’ attic. And finally I found it – a rather battered green hardback.
It was called Dreams and Fables and was written by C.S Woodward – a Canon and later (I discover from Wikipedia) a Bishop. It was old fashioned even when I was first reading it (published in 1929 and I promise you I am MANY decades younger). It was a collection of stories which had been broadcast as part of children’s Sunday services. All of them have (to an adult eye) an extremely obvious moral message at the core. But few of them (as I found, when I reread them) had lost the particular charm that had entranced me when a child.
There are several Guardian Angel stories in the collection. The pattern of them is this: a child goes to sleep, anticipating an exciting event the next day (starting school, going on holiday). Then their Angel appears, and despite the child’s protests, whisks them off to the shops to buy a few last minute items. But these are no ordinary purchases. They are things like Unselfishness Mixture, Cheerfulness Ointment and Obedience Tablets.
“Take one of those,” said the Angel to Arthur, “and put it in your pocket. You will find them very useful when you are told to do something you don’t much want to do. When Nurse tells you to go and wash your hands for dinner or Mother says that it’s time to go to bed, you will find that you will run along ever so much more quickly if you slip one of those little tablets into your mouth; or when Father tells you not to make quite so much noise in the house you will find an Obedience Tablet a very great help.”
Even as a child, I think I found something a little suspect about this: the prescribed remedies, and the ever-grateful child. Being good is not quite so straightforward as all that. And what if the child didn’t feel like being obedient, and cunningly left his tablets at home? On the other hand, I loved the idea of another being whom nobody else could see, and who swooped into one’s bedroom and took one off on a journey into the night. And I loved the strange items with their peculiar properties.
So, not surprisingly, my own story has kept some of these elements. My Guardian Agent, Fred, swoops in by night and perches on the bed post. But only after he has first crash-landed on the rug. And he has a bag full of gizmos, all designed to help with his job of turning Martha into a better person. Only quite often the Interstellar Radar, or Anti-Jealousy Medicine fail to work.
And when Fred finally does succeed in making Martha think more about other people, it all misfires horribly – as when Martha generously donates her family’s prize possessions to charity.
“It was only stuff you didn’t need. You already have earrings. Why do you need more the same?”
“They are not the same!” screeched Mum.
“Still, Martha meant well,” said Dad. “It was a kind thought.”
“I knew you’d understand,” said Martha. “That was why I gave them your new computer game.”
“What!” roared Dad. "You gave them Alien Bodysnatchers 2?"
The story is poking fun not just at naughty Martha, but at the adults who tell her one thing one moment, and then come down like a ton of bricks when she puts their words into action.
And I suppose this is where I part from Dreams and Fables. I can’t write, as C.S.Woodward does, of an infallible adult authority, and I don’t want to preach at children. But that doesn’t mean I’m mocking that world either.
One of the stories in particular moved me. It concerns a child called Nancy, who is taken by her Angel to the Cenotaph. There she hears the Unknown Warrior, urging mankind to make an end to war, and is told “it depends upon you and upon all the other boys and girls like you”.
Looking at the publication date, 1929, I realise that CS Woodward had seen one World War and was likely dreading another. Who can blame him if, for children, he wanted to maintain a safer, more certain moral universe?