When I was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, most of the children’s books I loved were set in the countryside, in villages or (at most) in small towns like the one where I lived. Yes, there were books set in cities too, but they tended to be the depressing, gritty realist ones, and I wanted adventure - and especially magical adventure. Magic, it seemed, was dispelled by petrol fumes.
There’s a long tradition dictating that the countryside is the natural home of both children and magic, no matter how few children actually live there. Maybe it goes back to Rousseau? Not only that, but in many of the classic books from my childhood there’s a gloomy sense that both magic and countryside are under threat from the creeping spread of urbanization, concreting over our imaginations and surrounding them with chain-linked fences and razor wire.
Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) is a good example. In that book, young Tom Long, staying with his childless uncle and aunt in a pokey flat with no garden, finds that he is able each midnight to travel back in time to a period some 70 years earlier, when the flat was part of a grand house, and what is now a back yard containing nothing more than a car on bricks was part of an idyllic garden backing onto fields and a river. There he is able to pass his days (or rather nights) playing happily with the garden's Victorian inhabitant, a girl called Hatty.
It’s a wonderful book, but like many others of that time it’s built on the assumption that the rural past is interesting, luxuriant, and beautiful, while the urban present is dull, sterile and ugly, and likely to become more so. And that, for a child destined to spend most of her life in the future and probably in a city too, was a depressing conclusion.
Things have changed a bit. Since the 1970s a genre of urban fantasy has appeared, written by people as diverse as Michael de Larrabeiti (whose Borribles series were a pre-Punk answer to the Wombles), Diana Wynne Jones, and more recently China Miéville and ABBA’s own Elen Caldecott. It turns out that, like foxes, magic can live quite happily in cities after all. All the same, I want to do something to put the record straight for my younger self. So here, with some small adjustments, is a passage from my rewriting of Tom’s Midnight Garden.
Hatty’s Midnight Yard
Hatty was wide awake. The hands on the grandfather clock had never crawled their way so painfully to midnight. She gripped the starched sheets, hardly breathing lest she miss the signal she longed to hear.
She had always been a sound sleeper, but for the past month – since Mr Wells had been a houseguest with Aunt Melbourne, in fact – her nights had been transformed. While Mr Wells tossed in dream-troubled sleep in the room above, Hatty waited for the moment when the grandfather clock downstairs would chime its impossible thirteenth hour. Then, being careful not to wake Aunt Melbourne, she crept from her room to the hall, past the clock, as far as the door that led to the familiar garden where she had spent all the play hours of her short life. How well she knew every bush and bed of flowers! How heartily she was sick of them!
Yet here was the marvel. For the last few weeks that door had led, not to the garden but somewhere altogether stranger and more wonderful. Beyond the door lay, she knew, a mysterious paved yard, where a man with a ginger beard worked tirelessly on a motorized vehicle. The first time she had found him there she had been too shy to say a word: she had simply watched in fascinated awe as he changed the oil and worked the jack. On later visits, however, they had spoken, and discovered a shared interest in things mechanical. He had introduced her to all the mysteries of car maintenance. Her days were filled with plans for tuning and adjusting, with visions of spanners and screws, while through her slumbers drifted the acrid scent of creosote from the yard fence and the ripe odour of vulcanized rubber.
And tonight – – he had promised to show her how to strip and clean a carburettor. Perhaps they would even go for a drive, as far as Ely! Hatty’s fingers trembled at the latch. The door swung open, and she saw...
... not the vista of steel and concrete for which she yearned, but only a wasteland of grass, flowers and pointless topiary.
Hatty wept – boundlessly, recklessly, not caring whom she woke. If Aunt Melbourne should find her at that time of night she would be furious; but no punishment Aunt Melbourne could devise compared with the loss of the yard, the carburettor, and the promise of the open road.
It was not Aunt Melbourne’s hand that she felt comfortingly on her shoulder. She turned, to find the moustachioed face of Mr Wells, who had been woken from his light sleep by her cries. “Can I help?” he asked in concern.
She told him everything, then, and found him a ready listener.
“I have a idea that I know what has happened,” he said at length. “I spend much of my time dreaming of the future, and it seems to me that in your desire to build machines your mind may have joined with mine in some mysterious sympathy. Perhaps you have read my story, ‘The Chronic Argonauts’?...”
* * *
“It’s very perplexing,” remarked Aunt Melbourne the next day, after Mr Wells had left for London. “I didn’t think that two words had passed between Hatty and Mr Wells, the entire time he was here.”
“I don’t know why you invited the little oik,” replied her eldest son Hubert, stirring reluctantly from his copy of . “Writes a couple of short stories and seems to believe he’s Jules Verne!”
“Quite. Yet it’s the strangest thing. When Mr Wells left, Hatty ran up to him, threw her arms about his waist and hugged him good-bye. For all the world as if he were a famous novelist!”
Now, isn’t that better?